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‘Come See The Other Side Of Kashmir’

Asif Iqbal Burza, President Of A Hotel Industry Association Of Kashmir, Talks About How The Economy Is Heavily Dependent On Tourism But The Footfall Suffers When The State Is In The Headlines For All The Wrong Reasons

With bad news about Kashmir always making headlines, many potential tourists from the other parts of the country wonder whether the Valley is safe to visit or not. In this context, Asif Iqbal Burza, president of the Pahalgam Hotel and Restaurant Owners Association (PHROA) and Managing Director of Ahad Hotels and Resorts, speaks to Patriot about the tourism scene in Kashmir.

Burza also owns the Fortune Resort Heevan, Srinagar and Welcome Hotel Pine and Peak Pahalgam. Being a part of the hotel industry in a conflict-ridden area, he seems the best person to ask about the challenges and more. Excerpts:

What is the current scene of tourism sector in Kashmir?

During the elections, the tourism sector was hit and the numbers were not looking so good for the next few months. However, things are definitely positive now. We are getting tourists, even though in small numbers, but from different parts of the country.

Every tourist is our valued guest and for us their safety and security is the top priority. And the minute they land in the Valley, they do figure out that a lot of what they have heard was an exaggerated version. My advice to people who plan to visit the Valley is that they should talk to others tourists who have visited. Our guests are our biggest flag-bearers and ambassadors.

Has there been a decrease of tourist footfall in the recent times? If so, what do you think are the factors responsible for it?

Well, the Pulwama attack was one, followed by the elections. Sadly, we feel that not a single positive story from Kashmir has been highlighted. Every tourist who comes to the Valley comments, ‘Everything is so normal’. We wish the media would focus on the good stories as well. They should focus on how tourists and locals develop beautiful bonds. I wish one prime time debate will be dedicated to this.

How does it feel to be a part of the hotel industry in a conflict-ridden area?

It’s a challenge. I think one of the most important things that tourists must understand is that tourism is what a large majority of Kashmiris depend on for their livelihood. Why would we not look after our tourists?

Many local businesses in Kashmir are dependent on hospitality business, so when tourism gets hit, everyone in the Valley gets affected. I have seen so many hotels and businesses shut down because they couldn’t pull along due to lack of tourists visiting the valley. However, besides all this we are very grateful to everyone who visits the Valley, irrespective of the situation.

Where do the hotels see maximum tourists coming from?

Honestly, we want guests from across the world to visit the Valley because we feel it is an international destination. In terms of the number of countries, we have seen tourists coming from  Mumbai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Delhi, Surat, Rajasthan, Jaipur, Bangalore, the Middle East, Indonesia, Malaysia, the SAARC countries — Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Our target countries are not only from within Asia but also from Europe and the Americas because before the conflict started, we saw tourists coming from all around the world.

Is negative publicity or spread of misinformation or fear responsible for the way tourism has been affected in the valley?

Yes, it is. We have seen all sorts of negative news circulating in the media about the Valley being unsafe. There is another side of Kashmir which is safe, hospitable, caring to all their tourist and travellers. No one seems to show that side of the picture to its people. When travellers and tourists visit Kashmir, we inform them about the places they can visit and the places they should avoid — keeping their safety in mind.

Is the government doing enough to help Kashmir tourism survive?

The government is doing their bit, however I feel since tourism has been declared as an industry in Kashmir, we need to get the benefits in terms of GST reimbursement, power tariffs and incentives. For revival of the tourism industry, we need the government to extend these benefits to tourism or else this sector will collapse.

What in your view can be done to boost the tourism industry in Kashmir?

Positive news about the valley in the media can be a big boost. More and more travel agencies in the country should be able to convince the travellers to visit the valley.

Recently during the budget, the decision to build 17 iconic sites by the government to encourage arrival of tourists in the country is an innovative idea. The plan to make such sites and beautify the country to attract more travellers will help building India to be one of the best destinations for tourists and travellers. I hope that Kashmir gets to be one of these iconic sites. This will help boost tourism in the state, it will ensure employment for locals and good business for hoteliers.

Kashmir is a beautiful tourist destination, one can visit this place anytime of the year and still be amazed by its breathtaking landscapes.