‘State Must Respond Swiftly To Address Concerns, Challenges Faced By Tourism Sector’
President, Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), Director Alkhudam Group
The tourism sector of Kashmir is seeing good days. Back in March, we had national headlines that Srinagar International Airport operated 92 flights in a single day, with a high of 15,014 passengers landing and departing from the airport. The number of tourists in March broke a ten-year record.
This definitely is good news for the tourism sector of Kashmir – the mainstay of the economy.
Surge In High End Tourists
There is a major shift in the profile of tourists coming to Kashmir. Kashmir was earlier the favoured destination only for middle and low category tourists. We did not see high-end tourists here, though it had been our constant demand to the state that efforts must be made to develop Kashmir also as a high-end tourism destination.
The shift happened due to Covid. Affluent Indians had been travelling to exotic locales globally in very large numbers. The pandemic imposed restrictions on international traffic. Europe, Australia, North America and South America – all were closed for tourism. But with adherence to strict Covid norms, Kashmir and other destinations within the country opened up for tourism.
The result has been that tourism traffic to Kashmir has registered a major surge, especially in the high-end section. We have never seen such affluent tourist crowd here as we saw last year.
Of course, this has greatly benefitted the local economy. Earlier, the maximum rooms in the hospitality sector were low budget. Srinagar has only two five star hotels – Taj and Lalit. The mid-segment has about 15-20 hotels. The rest were all low budget rooms.
Gulmarg too has only two or three high profile hotels. The rest were all low and mid budget properties. All these are being upgraded now. Wherever possible, hoteliers are adding new facilities.
FIT The Profile Now, Not Tour Groups
There is another shift in the profile of the tourists that are coming to Kashmir. Earlier, a large section of the tourists who came here from all over the country were part of tour groups. After the pandemic, people do not want to travel in tour groups. Rather, they want to travel with their family or close friends. The result is that tourism here has shifted to the FIT category – Free Independent Travellers.
Yes, we are happy indeed. But there are challenges. The government must help us to positively address these challenges.
We need to upgrade infrastructure so that Kashmir’s hospitality industry is able to gear up to meet the increased demand and benefit from it. Hotels and restaurants in each segment are upgrading their infrastructure to the extent possible so that they are able to compete better in the market. But newer concerns are cropping up.
Economic Boost, Addresses Unemployment
With such high influx of tourists to the Valley, it is natural that the local economy shall benefit. Due to the lockdown, daily earners like auto drivers, taxi drivers, shikara waala, pony waala – all of them had to face a tough time. This led to an increase in unemployment. With the tourism sector picking up, all of them are able to earn their bread and butter.
Our youth have got engaged. This is a very positive development for the economy.
MICE Tourism In Kashmir May Grow Big
We are registering a good growth in the tourism sector in Kashmir. I expect MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences & Exhibitions) Tourism to get big in the coming years. The Administration can help us significantly in this regard by enabling us to provide the required facilities for MICE.
I have heard that some corporate events are being organized in small numbers. This will be a new trend. As Covid concerns go down, we can expect national companies and MNCs to choose Kashmir for business events. This shall bring new dynamism into the sector. The tourism eco-system needs consistency to flourish. That can happen with robust growth in FIT and business tourism.
With well developed facilities, Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam can emerge as prime destinations for MICE Tourism. The road connectivity to Sonmarg is good. The infrastructure is also good, and a number of tourists are headed there now. Appropriate facilities can be developed there too, and at other attractive tourist destinations in Kashmir.
Lack Of High End Vehicles
Tourists seek comforts and facilities in line with their lifestyle. The high end tourists, who pay handsomely for their stay and reside in the best of hotels, demand equally good vehicles in which to move around. We even have demand for Mercedes and other luxury cars.
The problem is that we don’t have high end commercial vehicles here. We have been requesting the UT Administration to give us the permits to buy these vehicles. This demand needs to be addressed on priority.
If Kashmir also emerges as a destination for business tourism, there will be increased demand for high-end vehicles. The government must plan for it in advance so that our business tourists and other affluent tourists don’t get disappointed.
Round The Year Tourism Destination
The good news is that Kashmir is emerging as a 365-day, all season tourism destination. The growth started happening towards the second half of 2021. Now, we can see that the high numbers of tourists have sustained. In addition to the popular destinations, Sonmarg is emerging as a favourite choice. Doodhpathri has great potential. Yousmarg can be developed for its amazing beauty. There are various other destinations in Kashmir which are strikingly beautiful.
With the increase in tourist numbers, I can feel new energy in the Valley. People are getting encouraged. They should get the support system to flourish. This shall minimize unemployment.
Many of our handicrafts stores were at the verge of closing down. Some had shut shop. Now the demand is going up, and they are engaging more and more employees.
EXPECTATIONS FROM UT ADMINISTRATION
Lease issues for properties, license and registration issues – all these must be addressed and resolved on priority so that the stakeholders can upgrade the infrastructure. The stakeholders in the tourism sector must be given soft loans which shall enable them to provide better facilities for tourists.
The government must provide support to repair the present infrastructure.
The Centre can provide a greater push to Kashmir tourism so that we see high tourism inflow here round the year, through all four seasons. A strong economy and higher prosperity shall play a significant role in addressing the various concerns in Kashmir.
The important thing is that the state must respond swiftly to challenges and concerns faced by the tourism sector.