When The Valley Opens Its Arms…

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MIAN TUFAIL

Tourism in Kashmir, as we all know, has gone way beyond the famous destinations of Gulmarg, Pahalgam and the Dal. Post 2019 and following 2023’s G-20 summit, the tourism industry is not just revived but is also expanding and this, in turn, is empowering people and youngsters even in some of the more remote parts of J&K.

AMIDST the breathtaking vistas, tourism in Kashmir valley is experiencing a remarkable resurgence from several years. The region, known for its natural beauty, cultural heritage, and religious tourism, has witnessed a surge in visitor numbers, with tourists flocking to explore its scenic landscapes and rich history.

  • A new leaf

Since the constitutional changes in 2019, Kashmir has seen a significant increase in tourist footfall, marking a revival in its tourism industry. The removal of barriers has opened doors for both domestic and international travellers to experience the unparalleled charm of this region.

According to recent data from the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department, the number of tourists visiting Kashmir has more than doubled in the past two years. In 2023 alone, the region welcomed 2.02 crore tourists and over 50 thousand foreign visits.  This surge is indicative of renewed interest and confidence in Kashmir as a premier tourist destination.

In 2023, Jammu and Kashmir emerged as a premier global destination for tourism, boasting a diverse range of offerings, particularly focussing on Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibition (MICE) Tourism. The hosting of prestigious events such as the G20 Tourism Working Group meeting and the press conference for Miss Universe underscored the region’s growing international prominence. Additionally, the debut of Mercedes Benz’s electric vehicles in Gulmarg, coupled with the interest shown by international cricketers and golfing enthusiasts, highlight J&K’s allure for both adventure seekers and luxury travelers alike.

  • Tapping the untapped

What set this resurgence apart are not just the traditional attractions like Dal Lake and Gulmarg, but also the emerging potential of lesser-known areas that hold untapped tourism riches. Government initiatives have focussed on developing and promoting these hidden gems, aiming to diversify the tourism landscape.

One such area is the Lolab Valley, tucked away in the northwestern part of Kashmir. Known for its pristine beauty and tranquility, Lolab remains largely unexplored by mainstream tourists. Efforts are underway to improve infrastructure and amenities here to attract nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers.

Another promising spot is Bangus Valley, located near the Line of Control. This remote valley is a paradise for trekking and camping enthusiasts. The government has prioritised Bangus for sustainable development, anticipating it to become a flagship destination in the near future. The district administration conducted a number of tourism festivals in Bangus valley, inaugurated by LG Manoj Sinha to give impetus and succour to the local populace here. The Bangus Valley Festival is being observed every year now with a major boost to the tourism and economy of the region.

  • The numbers speak

The success of these initiatives is reflected in the numbers. In the past year, several new accommodations and recreational facilities have been established across these unexplored areas, catering to the growing influx of tourists seeking unique experiences.

“The transformation in Kashmir’s tourism sector has been phenomenal,” remarks Arif Ahmed, hotelier in Srinagar. He further adds, “We are witnessing a surge in bookings throughout the year, and they are not limited just to the peak seasons. The diversification into newer destinations has been a game-changer”.

Local residents are also enthusiastic about the economic impact of increased tourism. Ghulam Rasool, a shop owner in Gulmarg, expresses optimism about the changing dynamics. “Tourism brings livelihoods to many families like mine. The increased activity means more business opportunities and a brighter future for our children. The winter carnivals were hugely successful and tourists from all over the world thronged to Gulmarg to witness the snowfall and its vistas last year. This year, due to scant snowfall, the tourism in winters was a little low in Gulmarg but the Spring season has again infused hope”.

Adding to the excitement, the highly popular Tulip Garden in Srinagar has been recently opened to visitors. Spread over acres of land, and coloured in streaks with vibrant tulip blooms, this garden is set to be a major draw for tourists from across India and from outside India too.

To bring in more visitors, the government set up the Tulip Garden in 2007. Spread bountifully across 30 hectares, between Dal Lake, which is famous for its houseboats, and the Zabarwan hills, this garden boasts flowers in more than a dozen colours, and 68 varieties of tulips — from Parade to Texas Gold — that bloom in April each year.

“The Tulip Garden is a significant addition to our tourism offerings,” says Aamir Bhat, a student of Tourism. He adds, “The garden not only brings forth the natural beauty of Kashmir but also symbolises hope and rejuvenation for our tourism sector”.

With the opening of the Tulip Garden and the ongoing efforts to develop lesser-explored destinations, Kashmir’s tourism sector is poised for unprecedented growth. The combination of iconic attractions and hidden gems promises to captivate travellers, ensuring that Kashmir remains a top destination on the global tourism map.

  • The path of opportunity

Meanwhile, in rural regions, where job opportunities are limited, the arrival of visitors has revitalised local economies. A diverse range of activities, including handicrafts, organic produce, guided treks and cultural performances, has fostered a flourishing rural tourism sector. Tourists in this enchanting region, not only immerse themselves in nature’s untamed beauty staying at authentic homestays but also savour the rich tapestry of local cuisine, culture, and traditions while basking in warm, genuine hospitality.

Pakistan is grappling with significant political and economic challenges, while Kashmir is rapidly becoming a top destination for both local and international tourists, presenting valuable economic opportunities for Kashmiri youth. The tourism sector now accounts for approximately 7-8 percent of the Union Territory’s GDP, generating over INR 80 billion in annual revenue. This influx of income is crucial for boosting the local economy and has significantly increased employment opportunities, particularly among the youth in the Valley.

In response to the growing demand for tourism and in alignment with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the government has launched a home-stay initiative, providing targetted support to each participating household. Here, visitors get an ever-alluring chance to stay here as locals do but also get to enjoy the genuine warmth and the welcoming spirit that defines every aspect of their experience. To increase the strength of home-stays in remote and border areas of J&K, the government, under its ambitious program Mission Youth provides Rs 50,000 special financial assistance to the youth willing to set up a home-stay unit in J&K. This initiative will bring tourism to unexplored places away from Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Dal Lake.

Looking ahead, the focus remains on sustainable development and community involvement, ensuring that the economic benefits of tourism reach every corner of this picturesque valley.

As Kashmir continues to unveil its treasures to the world, the spirit of resilience and hospitality defines its journey towards becoming a leading tourism destination.

 

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