Paradise Lost, & Found: J&K sees rush of foreign tourists following Srinagar G20 summit

Foreign tourist arrivals in Kashmir have seen a significant uptick since the first-ever G20 Tourism Working Group meeting held in Srinagar this May.

With the improved security and stability in the region, international travellers are once again flocking to this picturesque destination of breathtaking natural beauty.

Figures provided by the Department of Tourism, Kashmir, show that around 25,000 foreign tourists have landed in Kashmir so far this year, compared to 19,985 during the whole of 2022.

A senior tourism department official told Moneycontrol that for the first time since 2019, Kashmir has witnessed such a rush of foreign tourists. For example, he said that 15,000 foreign tourists had visited Kashmir till June this year, compared to only 4,028 during the first half of 2022.

“The G20 summit has given an impetus to the tourism sector of the region, which contributes around 7 percent to the gross state domestic product (GSDP).”

Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha had also said last month that J&K had seen a spike in the number of foreign tourists since the G20 summit in the valley.

An official said that this year, almost 90 percent of the foreign tourists who visited Kashmir, also called `Paradise on Earth’, came from three countries — Thailand, Malaysia, and Russia, and the rest came largely from Singapore, USA, UK, France, Germany, and Israel.

“The influx of both domestic and foreign tourists to Kashmir is directly proportional to peace and stability in the region, which has earlier seen political turmoil, bloodshed, prolonged lockdowns, and communications blockade,’’ the official added.

Between January and August 2019, 33,779 foreign tourists had visited Kashmir before the BJP-led union government imposed a six-month-long curfew following the scrapping of articles 370 and 35A of the constitution, which granted special status to the erstwhile state.

In 2020, notwithstanding Covid fears, 3,897 foreign tourists visited Kashmir. However, the number dropped to 1,614 in 2021 with the second wave of the pandemic.

Terming the G20 meeting a watershed moment for the tourism sector of J&K, Tourism Secretary Syed Abid Rashid said that ever since the successful event, the tourism department is getting a lot of inquiries and bookings from countries from where the region has not seen much traffic in the recent past, such as Sweden, US, etc.

A senior member of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association, Manzoor Kundroo told Moneycontrol that negative travel advisories had badly hit Kashmir’s tourism sector, which it is gradually coming out of now.

“Many G20 countries, including the UK, USA, and Australia, had cautioned their citizens against visiting Kashmir. Such negative travel advisories dented the image of the scenic region and foreigners avoided visiting Kashmir. The negative travel advisories forced visitors to cancel their trips as they would not be provided with travel insurance in Kashmir,’’ he added.

For instance, in October 2022, almost three years since article 370 was abrogated and the state was bifurcated into two union territories — J&K and Ladakh — the US State Department advised its citizens to not to travel to Kashmir and reduced the travel advisory level to 2 on a scale of 1 to 4, with the latter being the highest.

The State Department advisory read: “Do not travel to the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir (except the eastern Ladakh region and its capital, Leh) due to terrorism and civil unrest, and within 10 km of the India-Pakistan border due to the potential for armed conflict.”

In September last year, Canada urged its citizens to “avoid all travel” to J&K, Ladakh, Assam, and Manipur citing insurgency and terrorism.

However, last month Sinha claimed that the US is likely to roll back the negative advisory in light of the improving situation in the region.

Mushtaq Chaya, Chairman, Jammu and Kashmir Hoteliers Club, told Moneycontrol that in May, G20 members were asked to highlight the tourism potential of Kashmir in their respective countries and remove the negative travel advisories. “ As a stakeholder, I am glad that the negative image about Kashmir has faded and the valley is seeing a good tourist season,” he said.

The rise in the number of foreign tourists has ignited hope among tourism industry stakeholders that negative travel advisories may be withdrawn and tourists may be back in force.

“Most of the foreign tourists I have seen this year are from Israel. I hope foreign tourists can come to Kashmir like they did between 1960-1980. I remember how the houseboats in Srinagar were chock-a-block with foreigners,” added Kundroo.

“The high influx of tourists has brought smiles back on the faces of people associated with the tourism industry. The G20 was a game changer because the representatives of world’s largest economies visited places such as Mughal gardens and Dal Lake. We hope G20 members will help put J&K back on the global tourism map,” said Kashmir Travel Agents Association (KTAA) President Farooq Kuthoo.

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