Sunday, 21 May 2017

INDIA: Goods And Services Tax Summit In Srinagar Creates Hope For Tourism

The just-concluded two-day meeting on Goods and Services Tax (GST) in Srinagar, where a large delegation of ministers and officials had travelled from across the country to finalise the rates for the new tax regime, may have signaled to the world that all is well in the Valley.

But, several locals, who Business Standard spoke to, said tourism had been wiped out in the past few months due to the continuing unrest.

They admitted though that the message of normalcy that GST summit has sent across may bring in more tourists and make it a season of active business once more. At least that’s what they are hoping for.

Yahan na mausam ka bharosa hai, na haalat ka (neither can we trust the weather here, nor the situation), said a taxi driver in the city.

Along with the thick cover of deodar, chinar, poplar, willow and walnut trees, armed state police force can be spotted at every corner.

The volatile situation has meant hotels wearing a deserted look. "We just have 10 rooms booked at the moment, and this is the peak season,’’ an executive at a prominent hotel said.

Compare it with last year’s figures at this time—as many as 95 rooms were booked.

Apart from the fear of terrorist attacks, frequent incidents of stone pelting are driving tourists away, according to the locals.

In fact, stone pelting is part of everyday life here. Ask 19-year-old student Bilal what his favourite pass time is, and his reply is instant—‘’my friends and I enjoy pelting stones.

We do not watch cinema or play cricket.’’ He, however, added that tourists are not the target ever and so they must continue to visit Kashmir.

Another local who drives a taxi for livelihood said his business was down by 60% this season. Lack of tourism affects us badly, prompting more youth to do illegal activities, he added.

An information and publicity officer of the state pointed out that shikara owners were the worst hot.

We usually get a lot of tourists from Gujarat and West Bengal from April onwards, but the footfall has been very thin this year. It has affected livelihoods of shikara operators, small restaurants and hotels, he said.

Gulmarg, about 65 km from Srinagar, faces the same plight. A cable car staff said that the business this year was just a third of the previous year.

The city grinds to a halt at around 9 in the night as anybody can be picked up after that hour, a local confided. Do your work and save your life is the principle we follow, he added.

Indeed, checks and vigils define Kashmir now. For instance, on way to the historic Chashme Shahi, the royal spring at one of the Mughal Gardens, for the GST briefing by Union finance minister Arun Jaitley, the vehicle ferrying journalists was stopped at least thrice for questioning, despite a VVIP security pass.

There’s no question of any social media in the Valley. Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp are frequently blocked.

Please spread the message that Srinagar is safe and beautiful, said one of the hotel staff employed with the Air India owned Centaur Hotel, also the venue for the GST Council meeting. He said poor tourism had hit their earnings.

According to a souvenir seller, people here become used to a new normal every day.

We have always been used to guns and stones, but pellets were new for us last year. We are used to that also now,he said.

It is believed that hospitality to those attending the GST summit, including journalists covering the event, was a step towards promoting tourism in the state.

There is no unrest. Petty instances happen in every city. You must send out a message that Kashmir is safe for tourism,said a J&K tourism department official.