Being the state that shares international borders with the neighbouring countries Pakistan and China, the northernmost state Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) experiences issues of territorial conflicts. Additionally, the tourism in the state suffered due to insurgency in the early 1990’s. The state in the lap of Himalayas that was once a popular destination, specifically among the honeymooners, is now again preparing itself to invite tourists. Shafiul Alam Ishaque, general manager at RK Sarovar Portico, one of the third largest hotel chains in India, talks about the footfall, clientele, challenges, government actions, unexplored places and the fact that Kashmir is safe to travel.
How has the tourism been in the last few years?
I am here for the last three years. What I heard before coming to this part does not match with the reality in my experience here. When I came here, I was made to understand that the tourism here only lasted from April-June and little bit in the months of September and October during Durga Puja or Navratri in Ahmedabad. The tourism here is strongly based on tourists from West Bengal and Gujarat. But my experience in the last three years was not the same. On an average, for the last three years, I have been doing the occupancy of more than 73 pc. After Sarovar, the third largest hotel chain in the country, came here three years back, this place became a corporate den. I planned very categorically that I am not going to sit idle here for those 7-9 months. So I started calling out to the corporate clients with an assurance of safety. I am an outsider, from Kolkata, so for me it’s easier to explain others that Kashmir is safe to travel rather than an explanation from any Kashmiri. Actually it is a safe place, you can travel well, and you can talk to people around. It’s not like the big cities, however, it is slow. This really worked and the corporate started coming here. Now I am doing business around the year. In 2015, which was affected by the flood in 2014, we did nearly 67 pc occupancy, compared to the year before when we did 78 pc.
How do you see tourism in the near future?
I expect the volume to rise as when I compare Kashmir with the neighbouring state of Himachal, we don’t even get 12 pc of the tourists that they get although it has an immense tourism potential. As this is a valley, in contrast to the popular myth of it being a hill, it is easier to travel for a longer period. People travel 100 kilometres to places like Pehelgam and come back with no fatigue because of the weather and no pollution. In the coming years, if media doesn’t play a spoil game, then we look to forward to receiving huge clients. We are expecting this part to get connected by the railways to other parts of India by 2019. Once that happens the tourism will increase.
How supportive has the government been in promoting tourism and hospitality?
The government is not only supportive but very aggressive on this part. They have taken tourism to the second level and are promoting it as a safe place as that’s the biggest challenge. Anybody coming to Kashmir thinks twice – ‘how safe am I going to be’. Of late a lot of films have been shot here and the film stars come here for shooting. This sends out the message that if stars can come here, it’s safe. Additionally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, since the past two years of his governance, has travelled to Kashmir more than five times in order to give a message that this place is safe. I doubt if he has travelled to any other state more than that. Government is trying in every way to promote it as a destination of choice – good facilities, good hotels, we are coming up with more international hotels in the coming time, safety and security, and we are trying to locate the virgin places in Kashmir. In my experience, I have never heard a single complaint from any traveller. That is the plus point that I can tell you.
What are these unexplored places?
Normally when people come here, they restrict themselves to Srinagar, Pehelgam, Sonmarg and Gulmarg. However, there are more beautiful places in Kashmir such as Ganderbal (on the way to Sonmarg) and Wular Lake in Bandipore district. There is a place called Aharbal to which the drive is very beautiful; the only noise you get is of water and it appears you have crossed three mountains to get there. The drive from Sonmarg to Kargil is also very scenic. And it is very much accessible for the civilians, in fact you can go just now. From Srinagar it’s a 5-6 hour drive. There is peace, greenery and no pollution – for corporate it is the idle place to come.
In terms of overseas, specifically the European clientèle, what are the prospects?
Due to the political scenario, people from the first world are asked not to travel to this part. That’s the political scenario, but if you talk about the tourists, India is a large country with 1.25 billion people and even if one percent of that comes to Kashmir, I would be more than happy. The tourism from overseas is very low.