Kashmir’s Latest Casualty: Tourism
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has repeatedly insisted that Kashmir is back to “normalcy” five months after the region’s special status was withdrawn and senior political leaders were locked up.
But data released under the country’s Right to Information (RTI) Act by the Kashmir Tourism Department suggests that tourists — Indian and foreigners alike — aren’t buying the government’s narrative. It reveals the dramatic scale of the blow to the tourism sector in the valley since August 2019, when the government read down Article 370 — which gave the region some autonomy — and imposed a lockdown on the erstwhile state. It also suggests that one of Modi’s ministers lied to India’s Parliament about the issue.
On Aug. 2, 2019, via an official order, the government cited “terror threats” to suspend the annual pilgrimage to the Amarnath Temple and ask all tourists to leave the Kashmir valley. The government kept the order in place until Oct. 9, when it was lifted.
As per the information released under RTI, the number of tourist arrivals in August was 10,130. By way of comparison, the corresponding figure for arrivals in 2018 was 85,534; in 2017, it was 164,395. Tourist arrivals fell further in September to a mere 4,562. The number rose marginally in October, to 9,327. Tourism barely revived through November and December, with the arrival figures for these months at 12,086 and 6,954, respectively.
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These official figures bear out what Sheikh Ashiq, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), said earlier this month when he estimated a 90 percent decline in tourism and livelihoods linked to it. The KCCI has put the losses to Jammu and Kashmir’s economy since August at more than $2 billion.
Meanwhile, the government has steadfastly refused to acknowledge any economic hurt. Minister of Tourism Prahlad Singh Patel in November told Parliament that there was no data on the impact on tourism, concealing information provided to his ministry by officials in the Jammu and Kashmir administration about a 71 percent decline in tourism revenue.
In the valley, the losses translate into vanishing earnings, job losses and salary cuts. Khurshid Ahmad, an employee of a travel agency in Srinagar, says he has been working for half pay since August. Ahmad estimates that the agency has suffered losses of $280,000 in the past months. He adds, “I am just glad I have not been laid off … like so many others in this industry.”
Ramneek Kaur, who runs a hotel in Pahalgam, says that 2019 “has been the worst year in recent times.” In September and October, she says, things turned desperate and she had to lay off service staff because of poor business. “With so much political turmoil, and restrictions on the internet, not many tourists will risk coming here,” she says.
The government has announced the opening of internet services at 2G spe in the region, but has restricted access to a “whitelist” of 300 websites. People in the valley report internet to be intermittent. The government continues to restrict most social media and messaging platforms.
Kaur worries about what this year will bring, saying, “I know of people who are selling their properties, and are defaulting on loans. We are all stuck, and even if we want to make any investment or business plans for 2020, there is so much uncertainty.”
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