Terrorism, Floods Draw Out The Charm From Kashmir

14 October 2015
The Economic Times
Divya Sathyanarayanan

Mumbai: Kashmir, an idyllic vacation destination in India, is fast losing its prominence: growing militancy, two devastating floods in the past year and recent travel advisories have taken a toll, with tour operators recording over 35% decline in bookings this year compared with 2013, when tourism had just started to pick up. 'Bookings for the domestic market was impacted due to natural calamity in April this year. Many of the hotels were closed as well,' said Karan Anand, head, relationships at Cox & Kings, adding that it was also the peak period when Indians usually headed off to Kashmir. Many tourists are staying away from Kashmir because of what the region went through in the past year, with the devastating floods during the beginning of the past two seasons - September and March - bringing Kashmir's tourism industry to its knees. 'The hotel and general infrastructure had collapsed, and was rebuild in time for the peak season of March this year, but barely,' said Sanjay Bhasin, chief executive officer of travel portal Goibibo. By the time the valley recovered this year, torrential rains inundated the place. And in the past one month, countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia have issued travel alerts, advising their citizens not to travel to Jammu & Kashmir - except the cities of Jammu, Srinagar and Ladakh - citing risks of civil disorder and terrorism. 'Foreign tourist numbers have gone down due to growing militancy,' said a spokesperson of Sonmarg Development Authority on the sidelines of a recent travel conference in Maharashtra. He pegged the dip in foreign tourist arrivals in Sonmarg by half. Even in the current season, which started in October, things don't look too promising for Kashmir, with many tourists choosing to go to neighbouring hilly states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand that share a similar topography. 'We have seen over 35% drop in our bookings this season compared with 2013. Kashmir, which always saw a healthy mix of foreign and domestic tourism, has seen a drastic drop in foreign tourists this year,' said Sharat Dhall, president of Yatra.com, an online portal. Tourism authorities and hotels in Kashmir are doing their best to improve the perception of the valley though. Jammu & Kashmir tourism authority has been aggressively promoting the state at travel fairs, offering discounts. The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa in Gulmarg recently hosted tour operators from the UAE to attract tourists. 'We see the Middle East as a great potential. Even Indians coming back home for holidays from the UAE are our target market,' said Sujith Herbert, general manager, The Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa, adding that through these initiatives the hotel expects about 6% growth in occupancy this year over 2014. Hotels have been rolling out attractive packages and tariffs to bring back the tourists. According to Dhall of Yatra, hotel tariffs are down by almost 40% compared with 2013.