Srinagar, Dec 24:
A record 23 lakh tourists visited Kashmir Valley till October this year. The last time, the valley saw tourists in large numbers was in 2012 when about 13 lakh visited.
Of the 23 lakh tourists who visited Kashmir this year, 3.5 lakh were Amarnath Yatris (pilgrims). The highest grossing months were April when 2.8 lakh tourists visited, May with 3.75 lakh visitors and June with 3.4 lakh tourists. One of the major destinations this spring was the Tulip Garden on the banks of Dal Lake. The garden recorded an all-time high arrival of 3.5 lakh visitors since it was opened in 2007.
“Bookings for winter have been encouraging. We expect a bumper tourist season and could cross 25 lakh visitors by December-end. 2022 has been the best-ever year for us in terms of tourism. It has given a fillip to Kashmir’s economy in a big way,” says secretary, tourism, Sarmad Hafeez.
“There has been an increase in the number of foreign tourists visiting Kashmir, which is an encouraging sign for the industry after many, many years,” he says. Around 13,000 foreigners had visited Kashmir till October this year.
After the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019 and two years of travel restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Jammu and Kashmir administration focused on reviving tourism that is now showing results. Only 8.5 lakh tourists visited Kashmir in 2018 and 11 lakh in 2017.
For winter, Hafeez said activities such skiing and Khelo India Winter Games have been planned. “We are keeping tourist destinations open this winter. Earlier, many of them would close down with the season’s first snowfall in Sonmarg, Yousmarg and Dooudhpathri,” he says, adding that a ski lift had been installed at Sonmarg to boost winter tourism.
Traditional tourist spots of Gulmarg and Pahalgam were bustling with tourists this summer and are gearing up for winter tourism. Hotels in Gulmarg, an international skiing destination, have got more than usual bookings. Indian Association of Travel and Tourism Experts ( IATTE, J&K chapter) president Sheikh Mohammed Sultan says, “After December 15, Gulmarg hotels remain packed till March, while hotels in Pahalgam receive 40 to 50% advanced bookings. Early snowfall also boosts bookings.”
This year, we are expecting a good number of foreigners, who look forward to skiing and other winter sports in the Valley. A national ski championship and some other tournaments are also slated to be held in Gulmarg this winter,” he said, adding that some film groups and web series will also be shot in the picturesque Valley.
Departure from past
Besides traditional destinations, tourists headed for high-altitude Gurez and Machil sectors along the Line of Control after the government and security agencies lifted restrictions barring tourists and local visitors from heading to villages close to the LoC. Out of bound for trekkers till last year, domestic tourists chose to visit destinations near the Line of Control where around 12 encounters broke out this year against an average six encounters a month earlier. Now, tourists can go up to the last village on the LoC. The tourists didn’t mind the 150km road trip to Gurez, Teetwal, Machil, Keran and forward areas of Gulmarg, which takes around 5 to 8 hours from Srinagar.
The government has also provided a few homestay facilities for tourists in these villages. “People have started exploring new places some of which are beyond our mountains, such as Teetwal, Tangdhar, Keran, Machil, Gurez and Uri. Earlier, these areas remained neglected but now they are on the tourism map,” says conservator, north, forests, Irfan Rasool, adding “We have opened forest rest houses there and developed trekking routes.”
The trend of tourists visiting far-off villages has residents “seeking this as a regular feature”. “For the first time, tourists came to our village. They stayed in houses and experienced Kashmir’s virgin beauty and hospitality,” says Mohammad Ishaq of Machil. “We hope villages on the LoC will be developed as tourism villages and a setup will be in place to uplift the economy of these places,” he says.
“It was wonderful visiting Teetwal, the last point on the LoC in Tanghdar in Kupwara. Besides the scenic beauty, mountains, and clean streams we could see the other parts of Kashmir from a close range. We could see parts of Pakistan occupied Kashmir from the banks of Kishanganga,” said Kuldeep Koul, who stayed in the Teetwal village for couple of days.
More than 80 new destinations or trekking routes were opened in J&K last year that pass through kail, pine, deodar forests and the gushing streams and waterfalls.
Need sustainable plan
Umar Nazir Tibetbaqal, director of a private firm, Labaika Travels and Tourism Services, says, “Due to the Covid fatigue, people couldn’t travel abroad and borders were closed, so they explored Kashmir. Bookings are good on New Year’s Eve but the need of the hour is a sustainable tourism and revenue plan so that occupancy remains high throughout the year. The money generated earlier this year was used to pay outstanding debts and loans. We hope this rush will continue and people keep coming back to Kashmir on a regular basis.”
Tibetbaqal groused that far from increasing the number flights, they had been reduced from 45 to 33. “The administration should start international flights from Srinagar,” he said.