Paradise lost

Posted on: December 5, 2011

The violence in Kashmir has led to a different kind of crisis — tourism has been hit hard, many hotels have shut and local businesses are floundering. Srinagar, says Sonia Sarkar, is a ghost town

LONG WAIT: (From top) A deserted Dal Lake; houseboat owner Azim Tuman, and Mohammed Ameen who has suffered a loss of Rs 40 lakh
It’s 4am and Ghulam Hassan — nattily dressed in a double-breasted white jacket and grey trousers — is ready to start his day. The waiter at Mascot-I — a super-deluxe houseboat on Nigeen Lake in Srinagar — vacuums the plush sofas in the drawing room. He gently wipes the delicate wood carvings on the beds with a soft cloth. Then he arranges a silver tea set on a table so that when guests come in, he’d be ready with kehwa, the traditional Kashmiri tea.

Except that there are no guests coming in. “In fact, not a single guest has turned up in the past two and half months. You are the only outsider I have seen,” says Hassan, 23.

Five kilometres away, in the heart of Srinagar city in Residency Road, Bashir Ahmad Mogre, a waiter at Ahdoo’s Hotel, is equally despondent. “We are ruined,” he says. “Tourists don’t come here anymore.”

Indeed, Srinagar is like a ghost town. Boulevard Road — otherwise known as Srinagar’s tourist hub — is deserted. Shikaras are parked along the Dal Lake and the boatmen look lost. “We have been sitting idle,” says Mohammad Sharifa, a boatman who claims he’s not earned a paisa since mid-June, when violence flared up in the Valley. But he has to keep paying the owner of the shikara a monthly rent of Rs 3,000 to retain his boat for future use.

Right now, future use seems like a pipedream. For almost three months, Kashmir has been on fire. And people whose daily bread comes from tourism-related activities watch in despair as deaths and protests shroud the peak tourist season. The turmoil that started with the killing of a 17-year-old boy by the police on June 11 shows no signs of abating. Around 65 civilians, mostly young men, have allegedly been killed this summer by security forces.

Shakeel Qalander, president, Federation of Chambers of Industries, Kashmir, says the region has suffered a loss of Rs 100 crore a day. “Around 1.2 million people work in four lakh enterprises in the Valley. Everyone feels the pinch,” he says.

To a large extent, business in Kashmir is connected to tourism. The Rs 1,500-crore tourism industry feeds more than 6 lakh people in the Valley — and a single tourist acts as a source of livelihood for at least 100 people, says the former president of the houseboat owners’ association, Azim Tuman.

The violent incidents — along with protests and curfew — have affected everybody from houseboat and hotel owners to boatmen and handicraft workers. And ironically, the people of Kashmir point out, they had no inkling earlier this year that a crisis was round the corner.

The tourist season started in March and saw an inflow of half a million tourists till mid-June, says the president of the travel agents’ association of Kashmir, Rauf Tramboo. “We expected a similar inflow for the rest of the year. But all bookings have been cancelled,” he says.

Many of the cancellations have come from West Bengal. The Puja season was meant to have been a busy one in Kashmir. Tramboo points out that 1,500 people made on-the-spot bookings at a tourism fair in Calcutta last month. “But looking at this never-ending crisis, they’ve cancelled their bookings,” he says.

The crisis snowballed just when people thought the worst was behind them. “Tourism started picking up from 2005 after almost two decades,” says Tuman. “The year started off exceptionally well with almost 100 per cent occupancy. But fate had something else in store for us,” he says. Houseboat owners have suffered a cumulative loss of Rs 36.45 crore in the past 85 days of closure, he says.

This has been the worst year — in terms of public protests and closures — in recent times. The situation was not this dire even in 2008, when there was a 45-day shutdown during the Amarnath land row affair, when widespread protests followed a government transfer of forest land for shelters for Hindu pilgrims. Qalander says the total loss in 2008 was Rs 4,500 crore. This year, it has crossed Rs 8,000 crore.

“We survived then. But things are unexpectedly bad this time,” says hotelier Siraj Ahmad. Every day, the hotel industry suffers a loss of Rs 8-10 crore.

Many of the 1,000 hotels in Srinagar have shut down temporarily. “We may have to lay off our employees. And that would be unfortunate because it would add to the 6 lakh unemployed youth already there in the Valley,” says Ahmad.

Tourism minister Nawang Rigzin Jora, however, is confident that tourism will pick up. “We will resume promotional campaigns in different parts of India. We are hopeful that we will be able to attract tourists as usual,” he says.

Bashir Ahmad Akhoon doesn’t quite believe that. Akhoon, who sells flowers worth Rs 3,000 to hotels and tourists during the season every day, now barely earns Rs 100. The horticulture industry is believed to have lost Rs 100 crore in the last two months. “There is no one here to buy my flowers,” says Akhoon, pointing to the bright bouquets of gladioli, carnations and lilacs bursting from their clay pots on his shikara at the floating market on the Dal. “Will the Indian government compensate for the losses I have incurred,” he asks angrily.

Like Akhoon, the man on the street is angry. And while most people vent their anger at the Centre, some have no faith in the strikes called by the chairman of the Hurriyat Conference (G), Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

Mehboob Ali, whose papier mache business survives on tourists, is among them, “If there is no curfew, there is a strike. Why would outsiders visit this place? Our leaders should understand that our families need to have at least one square meal a day.”

Trade, some stress, is not just affected by the missing tourist. Even local businesses are floundering because of the ongoing crisis. Mohammad Ameen, who runs a furniture shop, says he has lost orders worth Rs 40 lakh placed for the wedding season and subsequently cancelled after most weddings were postponed.

“I have no expectations from the government since it has done nothing for us in the past 63 years. But our leaders should give us some relief from the strikes so that we do not die of starvation before Eid,” Ameen says.

Geelani brushes off the complaints as rhetoric. “Our villagers are sending rice and vegetables to people in the city. We are taking care of the needs of the people,” Geelani says. “But our strikes,” he adds, “will continue till the Kashmir issue is resolved.”

The hard-line leader has the support of some local traders. “I will continue to protest till we get azaadi. If that means my shop will have to be closed for some more months, so be it,” says carpet seller Shakil Dar.

But Qalander warns of a bigger crisis. “Residents have taken bank loans worth Rs 21,000 crore. Plus, this state has had a trade deficit of Rs 28,000 crore a year. In the past 20 years, the state’s economy has suffered a loss of Rs 1,88,000 crore. Our economy is on the verge of collapse,” he says.

Few, however, pay heed to the warning. Iqbal Trumbo, who heads the Kashmir Economic Forum, a new umbrella body for trade and business, says the strikes will continue. “The loss of lives has overshadowed the loss of money.” Many agree with him. But some look wistfully at the place known as heaven on earth and shake their heads.


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