Tourist inflow to Jammu and Kashmir, which is reeling under decade-long militancy, has this year suffered a further jolt from an unexpected quarter: the Gujarat earthquake of January 26.
According to senior officials of the tourism department and travel agents here, many tourists from the Maharashtra-Gujarat belt have dropped out following the deadly earthquake. The earthquake is believed to have killed over 25,000, and shattered the lives of people across several cities in Gujarat.
Gujarat and Maharashtra together contribute almost 40 per cent of domestic tourists who visit the Valley every year, say state tourism department officials. Domestic tourists are in a brutal majority among tourists who come to the Valley despite militancy.
"So far this year, tourist visits have been low key," says state director general (tourism) Mohammed Ashraf.
He admits that there has been a drastic fall in tourists from western India due to the earthquake. Tourists from the western region of India usually come to Kashmir in March and April.
"But this year, very few have come," says a travel agent in Srinagar.
He said, the tension due to increased suicidal attacks has also contributed to a drop in number of tourists.
The tour operator points out that the earthquake shattered the lives of lakhs of people from Ahmedabad and Kutch, from where most tourists came.
"The earthquake shattered our hopes," says Mohammed Yasin, another tour operator.
Several advance bookings for hotels and tour buses have been cancelled, he said.
In March and April, when the western region has a severe summer, many families used to flock to the Valley. In fact, in the last few years, an average of 50,000 to a lakh tourists used to come from Maharashtra and Gujarat.
Domestic tourists, who contribute substantially to the upkeep of the tourism industry, follow a pattern throughout the year. While western Indian tourists flock during March-April, those from North India come during May-June, when the summer is unbearable in the plains and schools are closed.
In September-October, people from the eastern region visit the Valley. That is during the Puja holidays in West Bengal and surrounding states.
Last year, when tourist flow drastically fell by half in the wake of the Kargil war and massacres at Chattisinghpura, 1,11,000 tourists visited the state.
In 1999, 2,17,000 tourists visited the Valley, while in 1998, it was 1,10,000.
Of the total tourists, foreigners account for less than 10 per cent.
In 1999, of 2,17,000 foreign tourists accounted for 17,000 of them.
But these numbers are no match for the pre-militancy days till the late 80s. In fact, in 1988, over seven lakh tourists visited the Valley, of which 67,000 were foreigners.
But by 1989, Kalanishkovs began to dictate terms in the Valley. And tourism has never been the same again.
Today, houseboats are mostly empty, and shikharas wait for those stray tourists.
Most hotels in the Valley have been taken over by paramilitary forces, who are virtually permanent tourists to the Valley. They occupy most cinema halls too.
By sunset, all towns in the Valley close down, resident shut themselves behind doors and militants and security agencies emerge to strike at each other. The deadly silence of the night is broken only by the fury of bullets, grenades and IEDs.
THE COMPLETE COVERAGEThe Ceasefire in Jammu & Kashmir | The Earthquake in Gujarat
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