From millennials and young professionals to honeymooners and multigenerational families, the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir is
witnessing record levels of tourism this time.
As many as 80 lakh tourists visited Jammu and Kashmir in the past few months, breaking a 20-year-record, said lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha, adding that the Union Territory is witnessing its “golden period” of tourism.
“A record number of people are visiting Kashmir. This is a golden period on the tourism front and we should cash in on this,” Sinha said. “Flight operations, too, have broken all previous records. Today, all hotels are booked in advance and people from other states of India are finding it difficult to book flights to Srinagar,” he added.
On average, 3,500 shikaras ply in the Dal Lake, LG Sinha said, adding that the administration is committed to ensuring the lake is cleaned on a fast-track basis besides preserving and restoring the lost glory of the world-renowned lake.
“For the first time, the government along with the locals is cleaning the Dal Lake,” he said on the sidelines of the flagging off ceremony of an event called ‘Athwas’, a unique partnership between citizens and authorities for the rejuvenation of the lake. Under the project, de-weeding and dredging will be conducted in collaboration with the citizens. Compared to the past many decades, the Dal Lake is the cleanest now, LG Sinha said, adding that the credit for the same goes to the administration and the people. “Direct Benefit Transfer has helped to ensure the cleaning of the lake on war-footing besides changing he lives of those engaged in the cleaning process,” he added.
The Centre has allocated Rs 273 crore for the preservation of Dal and Nigeen lakes in the 2022-23 budget, of which Rs 136 crore will be used for conserving the Dal Lake, the LG said.
After the easing of pandemic restrictions and some improvement in the security situation, bolstering local businesses. Tourist arrivals are set to touch a 10-year high this year after more than 340,000 tourists have come since January, local tour operators and government officials said, despite restrictions on foreign tourists and some recent incidents of violence.
“We are seeing the highest-ever tourist arrivals in Kashmir this year with 0.18 million tourists arriving in March only,” Sarmad Hafeez, Tourism Secretary for Jammu and Kashmir told Reuters news agency, adding April arrivals could surpass March.
Along with horticulture and agriculture, tourism is an important industry for Indian-administered Kashmir, contributing about seven percent to its economy, according to government data.
Touting itself as “Paradise on Earth”, the disputed region is home to Dal Lake, which was a favourite centuries ago for Mughal emperors escaping the summer heat of India’s plains.
The lake’s famous houseboats are major attractions along with the nearby Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, Asia’s largest, and the region’s mountains and glaciers.
Hafeez said an advertising campaign across major Indian cities and the opening of new destinations were attracting more tourists.
Boatman Wali Mohammad Bhat, 54, said he had no work during the pandemic, “But, now I am earning 1,000 to 1,500 rupees ($13-$20) a day and we expect a good tourist season ahead.”
Many hoteliers and houseboat owners said tourists have booked rooms in advance for the next couple of weeks, and the earnings helped them to pay part of their debts.
After a gap of years, hoteliers, taxi drivers and tour operators are doing a brisk business, Ghulam Hassan Bhat, 75, a tour operator in Srinagar said.
“Hotels room tariffs have gone up by over 30 percent from the pre-COVID period, and there is a huge rush for bookings,” he said.
The rush is so strong that tour operators said they are having a hard time finding bookings for their clients as hotels are between 80 percent to 90 percent full and airfares have increased.
“Hotel rooms are not available in good locations,” said Pronab Sarkar, a New Delhi-based tour operator and the past president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators.
Many high-end tourists from wealthier Indian regions such as Gujarat, Delhi and Mumbai were opting for the Kashmir valley instead of destinations in Europe because of pandemic-related uncertainty, operators said.
“We have limited high-end accommodations and commercial transport services here which is a major challenge for us,” said Mohammad Yasin Tuman, Managing Partner Mascot Travels.
But the tourists are not bothered. Navdeep Singh and his wife Gurpreet Kaur came to Kashmir from Australia, saying they were mesmerised by its beauty.
“I have travelled all over Europe but this place is more beautiful. People are warm and friendly,” he said.