Waiting for tourists. Photos: Kashmir Observer/Abid Bhat
The global tourism industry has been under havoc since the onset of the pandemic. But the Kashmir chapter marred by successive lockdowns remains a silent clause in the entire discourse.
IN his latest policy briefing and video address, Antonio Guterres, the United Nation (UN) Chief, said that the world tourism sector lost USD 30 billion in exports in the first five months of the year and more than 120 million jobs are at risk.
“It (tourism) employs one in every 10 people on Earth and provides livelihoods to hundreds of millions more,” he said.
According to Guterres, it is a “major shock” for richer developed countries “but for developing countries, it is an emergency, particularly for many small island developing states and African countries.”
But before the UN Chief would detail the global tourism meltdown, Kashmir had registered massive losses on tourism front.
According to the preliminary loss assessment report by Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries, service sector including Tourism took the biggest cumulative hit since last summer when Kashmir faced communication crisis.
By the end of 2019, tourist receipts were down 71 percent, according to government figures.
As a result, there were an estimated 144,500 jobs lost in the tourism and handicrafts sector alone.
Losses suffered by Kashmir tourism industry over the last five months of coronavirus lockdown amount to Rs. 1,292 crore, according to a report released by Kashmir Trade Alliance (KTA).
Today, the tourism trade has tumbled, said Saif Ahmad, who is associated with the paragliding company, Karakoram Explorers.
Most of the pilots hired by him were from Himachal Pradesh and they were paid four-month salary in advance. He had to send them back after the lockdown. He also had to refund the amount to his customers who canceled their bookings. “It was a nightmare,” admitted Saif.
He started his paragliding venture in 2015. From discovering a site for takeoff to calling experts for testing the flights, it took him three years to get the license from the tourism department.
And now, with frequent internet curbs in the valley, Karakoram Explorers that used to be in the top rank on Google got shifted.
“I was not able to renew my website license for four months last year amid clampdown, resulting in lowering of my rank,” Saif lamented.
Umar Malik, promotional manager at Green Kashmir Travels, said that before 2019 they used to receive an average of 30-35 calls daily but currently, they just get one or two calls in a month.
“The calls are not for booking,” he said, “but to inquire about the state of tourism in the valley.”
According to Malik, tourism has been declining in the valley since 2016.
From 2008 to 2016, “the profits were always going up and there was always a tight booking during peak seasons”.
In winter season, they receive only corporate clients and couples. But since last year, even that clientele has fallen, said the promotional manager.
Sailing in the same boat, Saysta Ramzan, the owner of MTB, an organization that organizes cycling expedition between Srinagar and Ladakh, had bookings for six groups in August last year which got canceled due to the abrogation of Article 370 and subsequent lockdown in the valley.
“We have purchased six cycles for five lakhs in 2019 for the expeditions but they are not used till now,” said Ramzan, who had started her business in 2017, hoping for a good turnout.
Hopeless and distressed by the conditions in the valley, she said that whatever we hoped, never gets fulfilled, “so we’ve given up thinking about anything good in the future”.
Another distressed tourism player of the valley is Sahil Ramzan, who was freelancing as a ski instructor in Gulmarg till 2013, the year he opened his own company, Kashmir Ski Tours.
The company had a good number of clients until it was hit by the successive lockdowns.
Sahil Ramzan who used to receive 50 clients per year received only five clients this year. Even the bookings he received during February 2020 were canceled owing to the coronavirus outbreak.
Due to internet curbs in the valley, the owner spent almost six months in Chandigarh to manage the bookings. “When I came back to Kashmir, there were many foreign bookings,” he said. “But I was not able to check it due to slow internet.”
Unable to follow up with the leads, the businessman lost many important clients.
Interestingly, listing five points to tourism aid recovery, the UN Chief said the world has to focus on mitigating the socio-economic impacts of the crisis, building resilience across the entire tourism value chain, maximizing the use of technology in the tourism sector, promoting sustainability and green growth and fostering partnerships to enable tourism to further support the Sustainable Development.
But in Kashmir, Arif, who is in the rafting business, said that the tourism sector is likely to stay distressed.
“When lockdown was enforced early this year, my rafts and vehicles were at a different location,” he said. “I was afraid that the rats might attack them and I would have to face another loss but luckily everything was fine.”
The travel agent has taken loans to purchase the rafts and vehicles to carry them. But with no business, he is uncertain how he would pay off the loan. Everyone in his company is dependent on him. From drivers to guides, he has to look after everyone.
“I don’t know about the future, but I’m praying to Allah, hoping he will be showering his blessings on us soon,” said Arif.
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