India: Tourists flock to Kashmir’s snow-clad mountains despite Covid scare

More than 127,000 tourists visited Kashmir in November alone



Supplied photo
Supplied photo
by

Anjana Sankar

Published: Tue 21 Dec 2021, 4:31 PM

Last updated: Tue 21 Dec 2021, 9:54 PM

Covid-19 is threatening a comeback with a new mutant virus but that is no deterrent for tourists flocking to Kashmir, India’s most renowned tourist hotspot.

The serpentine lines are seen at Gulmarg’s Gondola, Asia’s largest and highest cable car ride, and one of the most popular winter destinations in Kashmir. Crowds of tourists visiting the snow-clad mountains and full-occupancy of hotels in the valley are proof that Kashmir is bouncing back as the most sought-after tourist destination in India.

According to officials, this November saw the highest number of monthly domestic tourist arrivals in the last seven years.

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Speaking to Khaleej Times, Dr GN Itoo, the director of tourism Kashmir, said more than 127,000 tourists visited Kashmir in November alone. “The number is expected to surge in December and January as Kashmir is becoming the ‘go-to destination’ for many travellers,” said Dr Itoo.

After a lull in the last two years, Jammu and Kashmir saw the numbers peaking. As per the tourism department, 513,000 tourists, including 1,317 foreigners, visited the destination between January 1 and November 30, 2021. Dr Itoo said August, September and October also brought in significantly high number of tourists, which is a clear indication that Kashmir’s tourism sector is bouncing back, after it took a hit in 2020 and early 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A total of 405,000 tourists arrived until November 8, while the numbers during the same period last year stood at 23,248.

He attributed this mainly to three factors. “With the pandemic shutting borders and making international travel difficult, many holidaymakers turned to domestic tourism. After the abrogation of Article 370, there is an increased notion of safety and normalcy in Kashmir. Also, the way Jammu and Kashmir handled Covid-19 also boosted the confidence of tourists,” said Dr Itoo. He said the government effort to vaccinate employees in the tourist sector treating them as frontline workers also paid off, as it helped boost the confidence of tourists.

The abrupt abrogation of Article 370 by the Narendra Modi government in August 2019 stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its special status and the consequent bifurcation of it into two Union Territories had set off major political as well as social changes in the region. Kashmir became a no-go zone for tourists till the government relaxed restrictions almost a year later. Then the pandemic hit.

After the Covid-triggered a lockdown, the revival of tourism is welcome news for all stakeholders in the industry.

Vinit Chabra, general manager of The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, Gulmarg’s only five-star resort, said the hotel is sold out for Christmas and New Year. “We are witnessing one of the best winters in terms of tourist numbers. Not only for Christmas and New Year, Khyber is virtually fully booked till March 2022. We are looking forward to welcoming our guests and offer them a memorable experience,” Chabra told Khaleej Times.

Srinagar comes alive

Srinagar, the capital of the newly-formed Union Territory, is also welcoming more domestic tourists with the Kashmir’s famous houseboats and shikaras coming alive in the season.

Amir, a shikara owner at the Dal Lake, said the autumn and winter have brought in good tides and he is hopeful that business will pick up. “Covid has played spoilsport with our business and last year was the toughest time for all of us. But luckily, tourists have started coming to Kashmir now. I am getting at least three to four rides a day,” said Amir.

For houseboats in Kashmir, which is one of the prime attractions for tourists — the occupancy is yet to hit the expected numbers, says Yaseen Tuman, managing partner of Mascot Houseboats & Mascot Travels. “This winter business is doing well. However, the occupancy and inflow of tourists is lesser than the previous winter season,” Tuman told Khaleej Times.

“Experiential properties like Mascot Houseboats are in demand, but it’s a bit challenging for the rest. Being the premier snow destination, Gulmarg is topping the demand list of tourists now.”

Tuman said Kashmir’s tourism is scattered between budget and high-end travel, and offers a variety of options for all pockets.

“For people like me who is the 6th generation in the tourism industry, it gives a good feel and sense of inclusive growth for the sector,” he said.

The government is leveraging the situation and is organising campaigns and roadshows to attract more tourists to Kashmir.

Dr Itoo said the tourism department organised several traditional festivals such as the houseboat festival, the Sufi Festival and the Kashmir Literature Festival in 2021. “The presence of many regional and national celebrities created a buzz. We are planning to build on the tourists’ confidence and also diversify the tourist destinations to beyond Pahalgam, Sonamarg and Gulmarg by introducing new places on the tourist map,” said Dr Itoo.


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