Chinar leaves are falling in Srinagar after long summer days, anticipation and peace. Yet the Valley’s natural and historical sites, its houseboats and shikaras, its tourism sector altogether have been missing the people they’re meant for: tourists. “Let me explain it this way, even if we offer hotel rooms for free, people won’t come,” says Wahid Malik, President of the Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Owners Federation (KHAROF).
Hotel rooms in the Valley have been offered at up to one-fourth of their usual price but the occupancy struggles to reach even 10 per cent. The scarce numbers have real time effects for those whose livelihoods depend on footfalls. “In Pahalgam, about 70 per cent of hotels have remained shut throughout the year,” says Malik. Despite being President of the Valley’s hotel union, he has had to lay off 80 of the 120 people who worked at his hotel.
Azeem Tuman, former President of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners’ Association stresses on the need for some relief. For Tuman, the present situation threatens the survival of Kashmir’s cultural legacy in the form of ornate houseboats. “The maintenance of a houseboat costs Rs 2-2.5 lakh a year but without tourists we struggle to pay even electricity bills,” he says.
“We are not how the media portrays us” is an expression common in the Valley. Kashmir’s tourism sector doesn’t just struggle in front of a disruptive militancy, there are primetime debates to counter. The tourism department’s Deputy Director for Publicity, Peerzada Zahoor says TV channels often campaign against Kashmir. Tuman remembers a time when Aaj Tak ran news with the catchphrase “Violent Valley”. KHAROF’s president Malik too points at the ”intense noise” in electronic media. “We cannot stop them but hope that it can be curbed,” he says.
While news channels may portray an absolute image of the Valley, new ways have emerged to welcome visitors. The tourism department’s short film titled ‘Kashmir: Warmest Place on Earth’ went viral after being released in September. “The video has generated 16 million views across different platforms, we now have more films in the pipeline,” says Zahoor, while hinting at further releases for autumn and winter.
In the comments section of the tourism department’s posts are stories of nostalgia, recommendations to friends and intentions to visit. “We have been receiving enquiries online which will further translate to arrivals,” says Zahoor. Publicity for Kashmir’s tourism involves road shows, print advertisements and now, social media campaigns; the department spends Rs 12 crores annually for the Kashmir and Ladakh regions.
Marketing tourism in the Valley has become different from most states in the country, campaigns don’t simply talk of Kashmir’s beauty or monuments; they have an additional task to change how the region is viewed altogether.