In the furthest corner of Nigeen Lake stands a group of houseboats belonging to the Mascot group. Owner Yaseen Tuman is entertaining me with tales of the old days. The “old days” as they are referred to universally in Kashmir, are the
idyllic years before militancy. Pre-1989 in other words. I am being plied with cucumber sandwiches so thin you can
actually see the light through them. The occasional kingfisher flashes past the ornately carved cedar wood balcony
of the houseboat that overlooks the entire lake and for half an hour, I am lulled into thinking that I am in a calm,
somnolent universe. Suddenly, the mirror-like surface of the lake breaks into strong waves and Tuman goes berserk,
shouting out and waving his hands at the offending motor launch across the lake. “It’s a huge problem here,” he tries to explain coherently though his rage is palpable. “Waves cause the houseboats to move, but movement causes their foundations to degenerate. Our problem is that because of the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority directive, no more houseboats can be constructed. Even maintaining the old ones is fraught with complications.”
To an outsider, it does seem a challenge balancing the twin objectives of maintaining the approximately 1,200
houseboats on the Dal and Nigeen with struggling to keep the quality of the lakes clean. On the one hand, there
are few places on the planet where houseboats exist and it would be a shame to phase these masterpieces of
Kashmiri heritage into oblivion and to relocate the lake dwellers because they are an integral part of the Srinagar
lakes. On the other hand, the silting of the lakes and the quality of the water are a serious environmental concern.
The houseboats are an apt metaphor for Kashmir in more ways than one. If Yaseen Tuman’s dire predictions are true,
houseboats and the concurrent way of life are headed for extinction soon. And if social activist and blogger
Saadut Hussain has his way, the lakes have to be cleaned with the speed of lightning. “In three decades their total area has shrunk from 25 square kilometres to 10 sq kms. Two years ago, the level of arsenic in the water was over 1000 times more than the permissible level. Siltation means that even the aquifers beneath the water have become blocked. Environmentally, it is a disaster waiting to happen. Large-scale construction on the margins of the lake, illegal construction within the lake, chemical fertilizers on the so-called vegetable gardens and household waste of not only the houseboats but of the houses near the lake are poisoning the water and aquatic life. The trouble is that since the decline of militancy, there has been little in the way of drawing up a wish-list, leave alone enunciating how it should be fulfilled. In the decades preceding militancy, tourist arrivals followed a predictable formula. There were seven domestic tourists for every foreign tourist. The latter would invariably
stay in a houseboat; trekking was a favourite activity, followed closely by shopping. Shopping was more or less
synonymous with handicrafts like carpets, embroidery and paper mache. Domestic tourists walked their own treadmill.
Hotels were preferred over houseboats and the market was split into two distinct price points.
In the new reality, the whole world has changed. Many foreign missions have not revoked the advisory against
travelling to Kashmir. This means that the number of overseas visitors to the Valley has sharply reduced. Domestic tourists seem to be the way forward, but a number of riders are attached. Foremost is the fact that the upper middle class Indian tourists have more going for them in other Asian destinations than in Kashmir, where the largest chunk of accommodation and transport seems targeted towards the budget traveller. Saleem Beg, former Director General of JK Tourism and the present Convenor of the State’s Chapter of INTACH refers scathingly to “all those TATA Sumos and the virtual absence of restaurants and resorts”. In the present scenario, true Kashmiri handicrafts are being substituted with machine-made look-alikes from outside the State. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the row of brand new showrooms on the Sumbal-Tangmarg road.
All, however, is not gloom in Kashmir. The Royal Springs Golf Course is staggeringly beautiful. Vivanta by Taj has
a glorious view of the Dal on one side the the Zabarwan mountains on the other; the Lalit, a former maharaja’s
palace, has a sense of occasion and grandeur that is hard to beat. Further afield, in Gulmarg the Vintage Hotel
has actually articulated its own vocabulary of architecture: something that had been missing in Kashmir. In stark
contrast to the other hotels in Gulmarg, Vintage sports locally quarried limestone, lattice work in a new avatar and copper. The owners, a venerable firm of carpet dealers in Srinagar, wanted to venture into an allied field. In the present landscape, Vintage Hotel is a shining beacon for what vernacular architecture can be coaxed into, while keeping in mind the needs of the modern, well-travelled guest. In Pahalgam where the rash of hotels has grown to uncontrollable proportions, a lone voice in the wilderness is that of hotelier Ashfaq Syed of Fifth Season Hotel. “It is time we started thinking out of the box,” he says.
“Besides the summer holidays and the Amarnath Yatra, the rest of the year has patches of slow tourist movement. We could, with a bit of effort, boost tourism to Pahalgam by having Kashmiri families come up for specific periods, like mothers and children for a post-exam de-stress holiday. All it requires is some out of the box thinking.” Syed has named his hotel – a budget hotel in the very centre of the town – Fifth Season for precisely this reason. “Why be content to think within the conventional framework?” he asks rhetorically.
The last word must be Saadut Hussain’s. He warns of the dangers of overcrowding just three locations in the Kashmir Valley: Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonamarg to the exclusion of other, equally worthy places. “Tourists should be encouraged to fan out into obscure locales. Drung and Naginmarg near Gulmarg, Gogji Patthri near Yusmarg, or any one of the splendid sites that we in Kashmir have been blessed with.”
Lesser Known Places of Kashmir
Saleem Beg, Convenor of the J&K Chapter of INTACH, and a former Director General of Tourism, J&K Government, says that while Verinag, Daksum and Lolab are relatively lesser known destinations within the Kashmir Valley, there should be a concerted effort to bring out the historicity of some sites and historical characters. Akhund Mullah Shah, the Sufi teacher of Mughal Prince Dara Shikoh was the inspiration behind Pari Mahal, a Sufi college which bears more resemblance to a garden than a built structure. Diametrically opposite, across the city is the mosque of this patron saint of Sufism. “You don’t even need a structure around which to create a story. Emperor Akbar planted 1,200 chinar trees in Nissim Bagh. It is a marvellously romantic concept, but no tourist ever goes there. Further outside the city is Burzahama, the Stonehenge of Kashmir.” Beg wants the mystical core of Kashmir to be the fulcrum around which tourism is built.
Interview with Talat Parvez, Director Tourism, J & K
What is going to be your focus during your tenure?
One area that needs the most attention is the creation of infrastructure, particularly resorts. Tourists have
increased expectations today and Kashmir has to meet those. We are looking at resorts which can be the base for
tourists for the entire duration of their stay in the Valley, so that they don’t have to go from one place to another if they don’t wish to.
Have you identified any locations for these resorts?
Yes. We would like them to be in areas that have not yet been identified with the tourist rush. Places like Aharbal,
Bangas, Uri, Gurez and Verinag are what we are looking at. They are all off the beaten track and will in themselves
create a circuit that has never come into prominence before.
Is the Government looking at investing in these projects?
Not really. The surprising fact is the number of Kashmiri businessmen who have come up and expressed interest in investing in resorts. One well-known party is already setting up an ambitious resort in a quiet corner of Gulmarg. The sheer interest in investing in the tourism sector has been a revelation.
Voices from the Valley
“Kashmir is the finest, most appropriate place in North India to be a MICE destination. Golf courses, pleasant weather,
a mere one hour’s flight from Delhi and a whole panoply of tailor-made post-conference activities that range from shikara
rides to golfing, fishing, team-building exercises in semi-wilderness conditions and skiing in the winter all add up to a very attractive location for conferences and seminars. There even is a conference hall that is already built on the
shores of the Dal.”
Amit Amla of Hotel Broadway.
“Everybody earns off Pahalgam. Everybody from the hotelier to the ponywallah to the taxi driver to the eatery owner.
Everybody except those to whom the place actually belongs: the Bakkarwals. They are as poor and as uneducated as they
ever were. That’s why Pahalgam Hotel which belongs to my family and I have set up an NGO where we design contemporary
articles for the urban market, but we use traditional Bakkarwal handicrafts. That the bags and jewellery have become a
rage is good news but what is a source of pride to me is that the women have started saving money, being aware of their
health and actually feeling good about themselves now that they see themselves as productive members of society.”
Ramneek Kaur, Head of the Bakkarwal NGO.
“Because the high season in Kashmir is short and well-defined, it is virtually hijacked by the cartel of online
travel agencies. That is the precise time of the year when they swoop down on the market and buy up whole planeloads
of tickets and then hold the public to ransom. That is why a ticket that sells for Rs 4,000 at another time of the year goes for Rs 16,000 during May and June. The public at large has the option to shell out exorbitant sums for tickets alone – and then there are hotels to think about – or stay at home. Of course, there’s the option of looking at another destination altogether. This won’t benefit the cause of tourism in Kashmir at all.” Pinto Narbu, Indian Airlines representative in J & K and Rajbagh guest house owner.