Sohail, a Makai Wala near Dal, offers me one and gleamingly mentions that recently Sonu Sood walked up to him and they chatted for nearly half hour before they exchanged numbers. I don’t believe it as usual (due to my Kashmiri shakki attitude) but he shows me a picture that he clicked with him. Sohail is happy, Sohail is selling close to 150 makais on a dull day and gets to meet people from across the length and breadth of the country. Sohail doesn’t want this to end because Sohail has five mouths to feed. There are thousands like Sohail, dependent directly on the tourism in the Valley. And there are thousands who are relieved this year.
Kashmir has seen a mass inflow of tourists this year with peak seasons being the winter of 2020-21 and the summer of ‘21. And it finally looks like the good news is here to stay.
Asif Burza, director of AHAD Group of Hotels, is happy that domestic tourists are flocking from across the country to Pahalgam, one of the most popular destinations in Kashmir. “Tourist season, so far, has been good with heavy influx of domestic tourists. Lots of people want to travel during winters and experience snow, culture, cuisine and handicraft, which make it the most sought-after destination. Lots of promotional activities were done last year by the department of tourism along with stakeholders, resulting in awareness about the destination and what it has to offer. We need to build on the momentum, continue with promotional activities showcasing J&K as all-season and year-round destination,” he says.
While we see celebrities like Akshay Kumar, Vicky Kaushal, Jubin Nautiyal, Guru Randhawa, Sara Ali Khan, Chitrangada Singh, Shehnaaz Gill, Sana Khan, Salim Merchant, Aditya Narayan flocking to Sonmarg and Pahalgam every now and then, we’re also seeing houseboats glistening and chirping with laughter of tourists from far and beyond. Although it is hotter than usual, the joy heard on shikaras is sweet.
Naqash, owner of the very popular Sukoon Houseboat, is excited and also notes the monthly trends for visitors. He says, “For us, in August, Punjab topped the chart as lots of people enjoyed driving down during holidays. During July, it was Mumbai and Bengaluru. We experienced almost 50 per cent growth in our business during July and August. Families crave for wind, open space and fresh air, which Kashmir offers in plenty. Kashmir offers great variety and is never out of season, few places in India can claim such a range of natural beauty as Kashmir.”
This year has been too good to believe for trekkers as well. The Kashmir Great Lakes Trek, Tarsar Marsar Pahalgam Trek, Vishansar Trek, Gangabal Trek and many more unexplored routes have witnessed thousands of nature-lovers working their way up and down for a glimpse of untouched heaven. Rupin Dhar, who assists treks in Kashmir, however is a bit concerned. He says, “If you want my honest opinion, a lot of outside trekking companies are coming to Kashmir for the Great Lakes and Tarsar Marsar treks; they are killing the market for local companies and killing the competition. At the same time, they are also destroying the sensitive ecology of the forests by digging up trenches and drains and by sheer mismanagement of solid waste.”
Restaurants and resorts from across the Valley have seen some respite after a long season of lull. But not all are excited. Some are calling it the calm before the storm, maybe because of the usual feeling that anything good doesn’t last long. But one can feel optimistic by looking at the number of bookings and testimonials from families and huge groups of youngsters who have seen the Valley, its beauty and its mesmerising potential for the first time, and are going back and motivating others to take a break before the third wave hits. The restrictions on international travel also have a lot to contribute to the plans of families who never thought they would travel to this side of their own country, to enjoy the same way as they used to outside the country.
Hayat Bhat, director of restaurant Ahdoo’s, tells News18 how after July 2019, the hotel industry saw the worst of times similar to 1990, but the respite brought by 2021 is good enough. While he says bookings are good and tables are full, losses borne in the last two years will take a long time to settle. This temporary happiness, he says, instils fear too, of the future and what it holds. Bhat also pointed out not all types of travellers are visiting Kashmir and only a certain class with privilege is able to board the flight and visit. He says the unpredictability of the land makes new hoteliers and restaurateurs apprehensive about their businesses. However, Bhat like other businessmen in the Valley wants this happiness to stay. And, he is loving the new generation of student groups travelling together for fun as it adds to the charm of the destinations.
Kashmir is a path to self-discovery. Kashmir is a dreamer’s paradise. Kashmir is hopefully back to its glory days. Like Sir Walter Lawrence once said, “The valley is an emerald set in pearls; a land of lakes, clear streams, green turf, magnificent trees and mighty mountains where the air is cool, and the water sweet, where men are strong, and women vie with the soil in fruitfulness.”