- Allowing tourism with the surge in cases fatal, say health experts;
- A blanket ban on holidaymakers not possible: Div Com Kashmir
Leading epidemiologists and members of the trade fraternity, besides hundreds of common people, feel it is time for Kashmir tourism to take a brief pause before holidaymakers- leisure and adventure tourists- can flock to the Valley once again.
However, the administration in the UT is keen that the tourism sector is left untouched and allowed to be functional while following the COVID guidelines is ensured.
The experts in the health sector, as well as hospitality and trade players in the Valley with whom we spoke, said “there is an urgent need that policy-making about destination Kashmir as a tourism attraction is re-worked for the time being.”
The chorus to put tourism activities on the backburner in view of the Omicron-lead COVID Third Wave has been growing louder, especially after the Department of Tourism, Kashmir on Sunday urged Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, Pandurang K Pole to ensure “hassle-free” movement for tourists during the weekend lockdown in various districts.
As soon as this letter became public, social media was abuzz with critical posts and comments questioning why tourist activities were allowed during the peak of the COVID surge.
A Valley-based doctor, who has been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, wishing not to be named, told that considering holidaymakers tour Kashmir in large groups, following COVID guidelines becomes very difficult for these tourists.
The doctor brought to fore the fact that while air travelers at the Srinagar International Airport are mandatorily asked to provide an RT-PCR negative certificate of 72 hours prior to the departure, the guidelines and their implementation are not “always foolproof,” he added.
“Now that there is a decision to go ahead with tourism activity, let the norms at the Srinagar Airport be changed and travelers arriving here asked to produce an RT-PCR negative test certificate of just 48 hours prior to travel departure,” the doctor said. “We anyways expect this prevailing Third Wave of COVID to start receding by mid-February. So, it is just a matter of one month, that tourism activities be halted” the doctor said.
Health experts have also highlighted that COVID testing for travelers entering the Valley through the Srinagar- Jammu National Highway is a practice followed only during the daytime. “Hundreds of travelers enter Kashmir through the road after the sunset, untested,” said a medico.
The letter from the Tourism Department, Kashmir on Sunday asking for the “hassle-free” movement of tourists during the lockdown has also puzzled the business community in Kashmir.
Farhan Kitab, president, Kashmir Retailers Association, a trade body affiliated to All India Retailers Association said “it is beyond imagination” how tourist activity can be allowed at a time when there is a suspension of the vital education segment and the trade-related activities on weekends across J&K.
“Cases are rising everywhere, in each state but shockingly all roads are leading to Kashmir. Do we want to make Valley, the COVID capital? Hospitality and COVID are a clash” said Kitab. “Rules being bent for tourists and this sector being made an exception is not justified,” says Kitab.
The hoteliers and some tour trade players say “hue and cry” about the continuation of tourism activities is quite unwarranted as the “mass cancellations of travel and tour are being witnessed since January 1, ever since the cases of Omicron started increasing across the country.”
Mushtaq Chaya, president of JK Hoteliers Club said there is almost 50 percent cancellation of hotel bookings being recorded at present. “We had a lot of hopes on winter tourism especially for January and February in Gulmarg.
Unfortunately, COVID has proved to be a major damp squib. I feel we would be just left with 20 to 30 percent tourism in weeks to come ” said Chaya. “There should be no debate on why and how the administration is trying to encourage tourism. We hardly will have footfalls to make this a point of debate” said Chaya.
Secretary Tourism, Sarmad Hafeez says he is “cautiously optimistic” and quite hopeful that the Department and tourism stakeholders in Kashmir, will continue to work in tandem to ensure that all COVID guidelines are “followed by tourists in letter and spirit”.
“Tourism is very much on and operational in Kashmir but protocols have to be followed. We have strictly asked tour trade players and hoteliers to follow SOPs. The cable car in Gulmarg is witnessing SOPs being followed and social distancing at resorts is being enforced. We are as much concerned about tourism as we are about this sector following all guidelines” said Hafeez.
When contacted, Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir Pandurang K Pole said there “cannot be a blanket ban on tourism activities”, when day-to-day life is functioning “normally” across Jammu and Kashmir on all days except the weekends now.
Pole said 40 to 50 percent of Kashmir’s economy is dependent on tourism, and derailing this sector at the moment would prove to be highly counterproductive, the Div Com added.
“The recent closure of various foreign tourist destinations across the world has been a blessing in disguise for Kashmir. We have seen a particular segment of tourists visiting Kashmir, who are frequent visitors to the Valley and die-hard Kashmir lovers. Doors to such people cannot be shut,” said Pole.
The Div Com said unlike the First Wave and the Second Wave of COVID19, wherein a complete ban on economic activity was imposed, the Third Wave of the pandemic is milder “and we are allowing day-to-day life to be functional as much as possible of which tourism is a part” Pole added.