The Indian-administered region of Kashmir is attracting record numbers of tourists after the easing of pandemic restrictions and some improvement in the security situation, bolstering local businesses.
Tourist arrivals are expected to hit 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 Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government stripped the region of its special status and autonomy in 2019.
Later, the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the inflows of domestic and foreign tourists.
“We are witnessing the highest tourist arrivals ever recorded in Kashmir this year with 0.18 million tourists arriving in March alone,” Sarmad Hafeez, Tourism Secretary for Jammu and Kashmir told the news agency. Reuters, adding that April arrivals could exceed March.
Along with horticulture and agriculture, tourism is an important industry for Indian-administered Kashmir, contributing around 7% to its economy, according to government data.
Claiming to be ‘heaven on earth’, the disputed region is home to Dal Lake, which centuries ago was a favorite haunt of Mughal emperors fleeing the summer heat of the Indian plains.
The lake’s famous houseboats are major attractions, along with the nearby Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, the largest in Asia, and the area’s mountains and glaciers.
Hafeez said an advertising campaign in major Indian cities and the opening of new destinations were attracting more tourists.
Boatman Wali Mohammad Bhat, 54, said he had no work during the pandemic: “But now I earn 1,000-1,500 rupees ($13-$20) a day and we expect to a good tourist season.”
Many hoteliers and houseboat owners said tourists had booked rooms in advance for the next two weeks and the revenue had helped them pay off some of their debts.
After a gap of years, hoteliers, taxi drivers and tour operators are doing good business, said Ghulam Hassan Bhat, 75, a tour operator in Srinagar.
“Hotel room rates are up more than 30% compared to the pre-COVID period, and there’s a huge rush in bookings,” he said.
The rush is so strong that tour operators have said they are struggling to find reservations for their customers as hotels are 80% and 90% full and airfares have risen.
“Hotel rooms are not available in good locations,” said Pronab Sarkar, a New Delhi-based tour operator and former president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators.
Many high-end tourists from wealthier Indian regions such as Gujarat, Delhi and Mumbai were opting for the Kashmir Valley instead of destinations in Europe due to pandemic-related uncertainty, operators said.
“We have high-end accommodation here and limited commercial transport services, which is a major challenge for us,” said Mohammad Yasin Tuman, managing partner of Mascot Travels.
But tourists are not bothered. Navdeep Singh and his wife Gurpreet Kaur traveled from Australia to Kashmir, saying they were fascinated by its beauty.
“I have traveled all over Europe but this place is more beautiful. People are warm and friendly,” he said.