It's always pleasant to take a shikara (local wooden boat) ride in the famous Dal Lake. It's even more delightful if there is no other tourist and yours is the lone shikara on the weedy waters watched over by the Zabarwan hills.
A desperate water-borne vendor approaches to sell you an over-priced collection of necklaces and hookahs. "It's 12.30 pm but I am yet to get my first customer," laments Nadeem, the vendor, "On any normal day, Inshaallah, I would have sold at least three-four hookahs and a necklace by this time."
The Kashmir valley has 24,000 hotel rooms. On Residency Road of Srinagar, just four rooms in Ahdoo's Hotel are occupied. "This is the peak tourist season. In May and early July, we had full occupancy, and even had to refuse new bookings. Suddenly, everything changed," says its manager. A veteran taxi driver says the Grand Hotel, on the opposite side, hasn't had a single guest over the past few days.
Javed Burza, vice president, Kashmir Hotel Owner's Association, tells Business Standard: "Business was picking up in May. After many years of violence, peace was slowly returning and it had a huge positive impact on tourism. Even for July, 90 per cent of the available hotel rooms had been booked."
And, now? "Bookings were cancelled. Occupancy is hardly 20 to 30 per cent. This would have been even less if the Amarnath Yatra had not been there. I hope this phase passes off quickly. We are ready to receive the tourists. But the media campaign has frightened them. TV channels are adding fuel to fire," says Burza.
Close to the Dal Lake, Anarkali and The Prince of Kashmir wait for people to come. So do Gulfam and Jacqueline. These are the famous house boats, the floating hotels of Dal Lake that are a favourite among tourists. There are around 1,000 house boats in Srinagar, mostly at the Dal Lake. Presently, most are empty, when the rates in summer can go as high as Rs 4,500 a day. Ghulam Nabi Batt, a veteran house boat owner, says: "There are lots of cancellations. Many old customers have called me up during the last few days to say they would not be coming. Some said they wanted to come but no taxis were available."
At the tourist taxi stand no.2 in Lal Chowk on Saturday, the parking space was packed with Tavera, Qualis and other SUVs. Not a single vehicle from the stand had gone out. Latif Ahmed, an executive committee member of the stand, claims, "Ninety per cent business is gone. Three weeks ago, there was such a rush that we were short of taxis. Every day, 200 cars used to go out to tourist spots through the valley and for sight-seeing at Srinagar. For the last eight days, not a single taxi has gone out. Only a few trips to the airport to drop passengers from the hotels."
The airport shuttle charges for taxis have gone up sharply. The taxi stand knows tourists have no option but to take taxis to reach the airport to get out of the valley of violence. But fearless tourists can bargain hard with the shikara owners. One of the latter, Jan Mohammad, says, "In a normal situation, I would make at least 10 trips every day. Now, I hardly get one trip, that, too, in the evening."
Just as with peace, tourism and business seem to get little space in what was called a paradise on earth.