Tourist operators in the Indian-administered Kashmir Valley are celebrating a return of visitors after several lean years prompted by COVID-19 and — before that — unrest over India’s revocation of the region’s special constitutional status and autonomy.
The Srinagar Airport Authority reported almost 15,000 tourists in the Jammu and Kashmir capital aboard 106 flights on a single day this week. That compares to an average of about 30 flights a day two years ago.
Hotels in the valley are packed and fully booked until June, according to Tariq Rashid Ghani, secretary general of the Jammu and Kashmir Hoteliers Club. “We are hopeful to break all the previous records this year,” he said in an interview.
Authorities say visitors are overwhelmingly from India, attracted by an aggressive promotional campaign within the country and an easing of COVID-19 pandemic limits, which made Indians eager to travel. Foreign visitors accounted for only about 1,000 of the record 340,000 visitors to the scenic valley in the first three months of this year.
“With the steady decline in COVID-19 cases in India, people are encouraged and dare to travel. Like Kashmir, many other hilly states are witnessing similar type of tourist rush,” said Rauf Tramboo, president of the Adventure Tour Operators Association of Kashmir.
Anamika Shil, a tourist from Kolkata, who works for a domestic airline, told VOA she only regretted having not come to Kashmir sooner, having been frightened away by media reports of disturbances and violence. “Not only the stay but I am enjoying the food as well,” she said.
Nevertheless, security is still a concern. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a website that monitors terrorism and low intensity warfare in South Asia, there have been 48 violent incidents in Indian-administered Kashmir already this year, killing 11 civilians and 11 security forces along with 54 insurgents.
Tourism to the valley, famed for its dramatic Himalayan landscapes and pristine lakes, fell off dramatically after the New Delhi government withdrew the region’s special status on August 5, 2019. The action was accompanied by a harsh crackdown in which social media platforms and many other forms of communication were cut off.
By the time the security situation was stabilizing, the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing around the world, sharply reducing interest in tourism, both foreign and domestic. International arrivals in the valley fell to 3,897 in 2020 and just 1,615 last year.
But now, a reluctance to journey abroad among Indian vacationers is working to the region’s advantage, according to G.N. Itoo, the director of Tourism Kashmir.
“People who would otherwise go to Europe and other countries preferred to come to Kashmir [while] restrictions were in force on international travel. Secondly we created good experiences like houseboat festival, sufi festival, winter carnival and many more which created a buzz,” he told VOA.
Dramatic scenery has always been the biggest draw for visitors to Kashmir, who account directly for nearly 8% of its gross domestic product and indirectly for more through patronage of its crafts and cottage industries.
But this year’s tourist season got off to an early start with a banner year for winter sports in Gulmarg, a ski resort high in the Himalayan mountains. Tramboo said almost 1,700 skiers, snowboarders and others from 17 Indian states took part this year.
Other attractions that have contributed to the tourist resurgence include Shri Amarnath, a Hindu temple set in a cave high in the in the snow-capped mountains. Authorities expect that close to 1 million pilgrims will trek to the shrine this year, setting an all-time record.
Another draw is Asia’s largest tulip garden, sprawling across some 30 hectares in the foothills of the Zabarwan range in Srinagar. Farooq Ahmad Rather, director of Floriculture Kashmir, said more than 360,000 visitors, including local residents, came to witness this year’s spring bloom.
Most famous of all the valley’s attractions is Srinagar’s Lake Dal, where visitors can see the mountains reflected in the waters as they circle the lake in small boats known as shikara or arrange a stay in a luxurious houseboat moored to the shore.