Uneasy Ring To Valley Tourist Count7 February 2011
The Telegraph (Kolkata)
Srinagar: Jammu and Kashmir government’s assertion that a record number of tourists visited the state last year has left those associated with the Valley’s tourism industry questioning the claim. The year was one of the most turbulent in Kashmir. At least 112 died in a five-month unrest. The state government has claimed that the number of tourists the Valley received in 2010 was the highest for any year in the past two decades. Kashmir tourism minister Nawang Ringzin Jora said around 7.36 lakh tourists visited the Valley last year in addition to the nearly five lakh Amarnath pilgrims. “That is a record for the past 20 years. Before this, eight lakh tourists (who were not pilgrims) had visited Kashmir in 1989,” he said. Jora said the tourist inflow was impressive until June when protests began. “Even after that, tourists kept on coming,” he said. The official figures, however, have no takers in the tourism industry that had bore the brunt of the agitation. Mohammad Azim Tuman, former chairperson of the Houseboat Owners’ Association, said the government figures are “not acceptable”. “The unrest broke our back. After June 11, around 95 per cent of the bookings were cancelled. Even countries such as Malaysia, which has never issued a travel advisory to their citizens against visiting the country, did so last year,” he said. “We are still reeling under its impact,” he said. Siraj Ahmad, president of the Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Association, said “it was the saddest year” for Kashmir. “The hotel industry employs 60,000 people and we shed half of that force because of unrest,” he said. However, Ahmad said the going was good until June 11, when the unrest began with the death of teenager Tufail Matoo in alleged police firing. “The occupancy of our hotels was 90 per cent before June 11 but got reduced to nothing in the coming months,” he said. Kashmir Chamber of Commerce estimates some one lakh people lost their jobs last year across all sectors. Manzoor Wangnoo, president of the Houseboat Owners’ Association, said he had never seen such a downturn. “Even at the peak of militancy, you had some visitors coming to Kashmir but for four-five months, it completely stopped,” he said. The tourism season in the Valley begins in April and ends in September. “Last year, we started getting tourists in March and it was going well until June 10. The government did a commendable job bringing in the tourists. Unfortunately, the massive disturbances followed and everything had to be shut,” he said. The unrest lasted for five months until early November when it lost steam. The tourists again started to trickle in. “Their number was less but they were mostly Bengalis,” Ahmad said. Most of those associated with tourism industry refused to be “dragged into the controversy” about the figures, but privately they said the government data had been “manipulated”. “We don’t want to be seen fighting the government, which may cast a shadow on tourist arrivals this year,” a houseboat owner said. It is the government alone that maintains figures on tourist arrivals in the Valley.