by Joe Wallen, The Telegraph, February 7, 2020
An eerie silence envelops Kashmir’s Dal Lake, the stillness interrupted by nothing more than the sound of water breaking against its rocky banks.
For centuries the lake has been a major attraction for both domestic and foreign tourists, but today not a single visitor is enjoying this area of breathtaking beauty.
“Neither Dal Lake nor the Gulmarg resort is witnessing any tourism now; there is no business at all,” says Manzoor Pakhtoon, gazing out from the balcony of the houseboat he rents out to visitors.
The collapse of Kashmir’s vital tourism industry began last August when the Indian government ordered all non-Kashmiris to leave the state, claiming it had received intelligence of a potential terror threat.
Hundreds of thousands of foreign and domestic tourists, Hindu pilgrims and workers from elsewhere in India scrambled to leave.
“Police created such a scare among my guests and forced them to leave. Since then, no tourist has arrived here,” said Mr Pakhtoon.
Both India and Pakistan claim ownership of Kashmir, with the region currently divided along a heavily militarised “line of control” where artillery fire is traded almost daily.
Within days the Indian government brought its part of the state under central rule, ending the autonomy Kashmir had enjoyed for seven decades.
India justified the move by arguing that it could finally quash the armed pro-independence insurgency it believed Pakistan was supporting.
But fearing a violent backlash, the government announced it would cut the state’s internet until law and order could be guaranteed. However, six months on internet access has still not been restored in Kashmir creating the longest communications blackout in the history of any democracy.
The internet ban, as well as the uncertain political situation, has had a catastrophic impact on the economy with the Kashmiri Chamber of Commerce (KCC) estimating that it cost the state £1.85 billion between August and December.
And one industry that has been particularly devastated by the online shutdown is tourism.
Described as paradise on earth, the state has been a popular holiday destination for centuries thanks to its snow-capped mountains, rolling green valleys and hospitable people.
In 2018, 850,000 tourists visited the state, generating £862 million, with 450,000 Kashmiris dependent on the industry for their livelihoods.
However, the six-month communication shutdown has meant Kashmiris have been unable to advertise their tourism businesses, communicate over email with tourists or travel agents, accept bookings online or transfer money.
The lack of internet has also made tourists fearful of becoming isolated from the outside world especially when their own safety might be at risk.
As a result, there was an 87 per cent drop in tourist arrivals between August and November 2019 compared to the same period in 2018. The effect was immediate with a mass cancellation of bookings and no shows-in September 2018 around 83,000 tourists visited the region, compared to just 4,500 in the same month in 2019.
The Kashmiri tourism industry has lost £270 million since August 5, with only 50 of its 2,500 travel agents still operating and approximately 100,000 people made unemployed.
Losses are expected to increase even further over the next six months as the tourist season peaks between March and July.
“We are near to economic collapse, mark my words, this season has been the worst of my entire life,” said Sheikh Ashiq, the president of the KCC. “Tourism is the backbone of the Kashmiri economy and we need the internet so the industry can function.”
Mr Pakhtoon’s family has welcomed tourists to their houseboat for eight generations but he has not made any money since August as he cannot use the internet to take bookings. “I am not even able to log into my emails,” he says.
Since 2006, Sameer Ahmad Khan, 36, has supported his family of eight with his wage as the manager of a large hotel in Srinagar. He was laid off along with 30 other employees in August as the hotel had received no bookings.
“Youth working in hotels in Srinagar have been rendered jobless and businesses have been shut for months without any hope of normalcy,” said Mr Khan.
Mr Ashiq says it has become an all too familiar sight to see former tourism business owners selling family possessions by the roadside.
“If there are more jobless people around and there is no work there is sure to be trouble long-term,” he said. Encouraged by the KCC many young Kashmiris took out loans in the years preceding the blackout to set up their own tourist businesses.
Now, they have to try and pay back their loans, including interest, without having had any source of income for the previous six months.
Mr Khan borrowed £10,775 to set up a travel agency outside of his hotel job and is now being forced to sell the land his family has owned for generations to keep up with repayments.
In January, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the government to review the ongoing internet shutdown, ruling any indefinite suspension is illegal under the constitution. Nevertheless, it stopped short of ordering an immediate cessation.
Human rights activists argue the measure has been used to suppress the civilian Kashmiri population. “Because the internet is so essential to people’s lives, there is nothing in a community which is untouched,” argues David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion.
But criticism from the international community has been muted with India viewed as a vital strategic and economic partner. The European Union announced last week it would defer a vote until March on whether to implement resolutions against India.
The Indian government restored 2G internet access to Kashmir last month but residents say this is a pointless gesture.
“Honestly, the 2G connection is so poor, people in Kashmir are still unable to even send an email,” said Mr Ashiq. “It has not helped at all and I am still being visited by hundreds of Kashmiris owning tourism businesses who cannot operate.
“If the Indian government wants to ensure development here then they have to allow for fully-fledged, high-speed internet to return.”
Mr Kaye told the Telegraph requests from the United Nations to conduct a field visit in Kashmir had gone unanswered by New Delhi. “The impression that they give of their democracy is that it is robust. If it is so robust, why not show it off to the world?” he said.
Back on Dal Lake, Mr Pakhtoon says it will take many years for his family’s finances to recover from the shutdown. He is now unable to pay for higher education for his two children.
“The shutdown has devastated our lives, my family’s survival is completely dependent on earnings from the tourism sector,” he said. “We have earned no money since August, right now it seems there will be no end to our misery.”
- A local journalist in Kashmir provided additional reporting for this story but does not want to be named for security reasons