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Tourists ride ‘shikaras’, or boats, in the waters of Dal Lake in Srinagar, on April 5. Picture: REUTERS/DANISH ISMAIL
Tourists ride ‘shikaras’, or boats, in the waters of Dal Lake in Srinagar, on April 5. Picture: REUTERS/DANISH ISMAIL

Srinagar — India’s Kashmir region is attracting record tourist numbers 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.

Tourism plunged in Kashmir after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration stripped the region of its special status and autonomy in 2019, and later as the Covid-19 pandemic cut domestic and foreign tourist inflows.

“We are seeing the highest yet tourist arrivals in Kashmir this year with 0.18-million tourists arriving in March only,” Sarmad Hafeez, tourism secretary for Jammu and Kashmir, said, adding that April arrivals could surpass March.

With horticulture and agriculture, tourism is an important industry for Kashmir, contributing about 7% to its economy, according to government data.

Touting itself as “Paradise on Earth”, Kashmir 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, with the nearby Indira Gandhi 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 is attracting more tourists.

Boatman Wali Mohammad Bhat said he had no work during the pandemic, “But now I am earning 1,000 to 1,500 rupees 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 few weeks, and the earnings have helped them to pay part of their debts.

After a gap of years, hoteliers, taxi drivers and tour operators are doing a brisk business, said Ghulam Hassan Bhat, a tour operator in Srinagar. “Hotels room tariffs have gone up by over 30% 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 80%-90% full and air fares 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 Tour Operators Association.

Many high-end tourists from wealthier Indian regions such as Gujarat, Delhi and Mumbai are opting for Kashmir 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 of Mascot Travels.

But the tourists are not bothered.

Navdeep Singh and his wife, Gurpreet Kaur, came to Kashmir from Australia, saying they are mesmerised by its beauty. “I have travelled all over Europe but this place is more beautiful. People are warm and friendly and we didn’t see any kind of trouble here,” he said.

Reuters

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