Tourism in Jammu and Kashmir is in turmoil again. The accidental death of a tourist in the valley has undone the efforts of the industry and local stakeholders who have been assiduously trying to reinvigorate tourism. While footfalls remain lukewarm, local stakeholders suggest a slew of measures, including focus on spreading positive tourist experiences in the media and ramping up air-connectivity to bring tourism to normalcy.
The unthinkable happened in Jammu and Kashmir. A 22-year-old tourist, on a visit to the valley with his family from Chennai, lost his life while returning to his hotel. He was caught in a crossfire of stone-pelting by locals in the valley – who were protesting the death of five alleged terrorists by the hands of the security forces in South Kashmir. The tourist was hit on the head and succumbed to his injuries in a local hospital.
An unequivocal condemnation followed, led by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti herself who was seen consoling the bereaved family. She made no attempt to hide her frustration over the turn of events, and was quoted saying, “my head hangs in shame,” after meeting the family of the deceased. “It is very sad and heart-breaking,” she said. “We will be silently watching the murder of humanity, which has been unheard of in the state,” the CM told PTI. Politicians, cutting across the ideological spectrum, including the separatist Hurriyat Conference, have gone on record and expressed pain, regretting the unfortunate turn of events. A visibly upset, opposition National Conference Working President, Omar Abdullah wrote on Twitter: “We’ve killed a tourist by throwing stones at the vehicle he was travelling in. Let’s try and wrap our heads around the fact that we stoned a tourist, a guest, to death while we glorify these stone-pelters and their methods.”
Many in the industry are calling this incident “the last nail in the coffin” for the state’s tourism. J&K has always taken pride in the fact that, despite repeated worsening of the ground situation in the valley and frequent tussles between locals and security forces, tourists have remained unharmed and have enjoyed the famed ‘Kashmiri hospitality’. In a bid to reinvigorate tourism in the valley, only a couple of months ago, TAAI had organised its annual convention in Srinagar, bringing spotlight back on J&K’s offerings. There was renewed optimism among local stakeholders for a good business season. Sadly, business remains lukewarm at best.
Vineet Chhabra, General Manager, The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa laments that the downward spiral in tourist inflows has persisted since “the Burhan Wani incident in 2016. “The state’s tourism has not recovered since then. The state was in turmoil for almost six months.,” he says. He shares that The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa had enjoyed “fantastic winters” – December to April – but footfalls in the peak summers, across the board in the state, has certainly taken a hit.
The unfortunate incident aside, he lists out factors such as air-fares and bad road connectivity for lesser footfalls. “Tickets are exorbitantly priced in peak summers. Even LCCs like IndiGo are charging INR 11000 for a one-way Delhi-Srinagar flight,” he rues. He also adds that the ongoing construction of four-lane highways has also prohibited smooth movement.
Looking ahead, he advocates “communicating positive experiences of tourists” in the media. “Whether it is online or television, positive experiences of hospitality and safety felt by tourists must be shared with the world,” he says. He also bats for ramping up airport infrastructure to assist night-landing of airplanes. “No flights can take-off or land post 6pm. The government must look into this,” he says.
Mukhtar Ahmad, President, Gulmarg Hotel Association shares that local industry stakeholders are “constantly engaging with the media” to ensure that such “negative publicity” does not reoccur. He notes that domestic tourists are “not so scared of one-off incidents anymore”, and says, “while tourism has taken a hit, it is not that bad. It was an unfortunate incident, but all those involved have been apprehended and the government has taken stringent action against them.”
Suggesting that domestic tourists will remain the “key focus of stakeholders in the state,” he says, “several countries have issued security advisories against visiting Kashmir and therefore only 10 percent of total footfalls comprise of international tourists, rest are all domestic travellers.”
He too advocates more flights connecting Delhi and other cities to Srinagar. He notes that Delhi-Srinagar flights cost as much as INR 15000, which deters families from flying down to the valley. “We hope that GoI or the state government looks into it. There must be a fare cap and more flights as the existing ones are going full,” he says, indicating that locals too are flying in large numbers.