At about 10 am on September 29, as I strolled the halls of Snow Land Hotel in Srinagar, I got talking to Shajat Ahmed, an attendant for the guests.
Ahmed had been rushing around all day, taking care of the needs of about 60 journalists staying at the hotel. He had only recently taken up the job and seemed nervous and unsure when asked about the hotel and its amenities.
I wanted to know how to operate the air-conditioning system in my room and about places nearby that I could visit before my flight back to New Delhi.
“Please call the reception and ask them, they will help you out. I don’t know how it works. I’m new here,” he said.
Ahmed used to work for his uncle on a houseboat, which sank in February because there wasn’t enough money to pay for its periodic repairs and maintenance.
He said that thousands of tourists used to visit Srinagar every year and stay in the houseboats, providing a livelihood to many families. Since the Covid-19 outbreak, however, the inflow of tourists has been very low.
“We put all our money in our houseboat and every year we would serve 2-3 couples from outside India and earn enough to make it through the year and repair our boat and survive,” said Khalid Baba, Ahmed’s uncle.
He said they would set aside about Rs 50,000 for houseboat repairs every year. Houseboat owners in Srinagar would spend the money to plug gaps between the planks of timber that formed the bottom of the houseboat.
“We didn’t save any money last year because there were very few tourists and no foreign tourists,” Khalid said.
The inflow of foreign tourists especially has taken a hit in the past year as international travel remains restricted across the world due to the pandemic.
While foreign tourists don’t make up a large portion of visitors to Jammu & Kashmir, the smaller businesses depend on them for survival because they spend almost three to four times more than Indian travelers.
Khalid said on average, a foreign couple would spend Rs 4-5 lakh and stay on the houseboat for a week. They would also get the houseboat owners to arrange visits to nearby destinations, which would help keep others in the family employed as well.
“Shajat speaks good English. He was the tour guide. But there has been nothing for him to do for the past two years and we need money, so he got a new job,” Khalid said.
While the situation in Srinagar is improving as Covid-19 appears to fade away, in the hinterland of the Sind river, tourist towns like Sonamarg are struggling to attract tourists.
Bahir Kachroo, an attendant working at Snow Land Resorts in Sonamarg, said this was the first time in two years that all the rooms were occupied.
“We are short-staffed right now. Earlier, the hotel had about 30 people helping and 10 people working in the kitchen. But now everyone has been told to work in the kitchen and only 10 of us are handling guests,” Kachroo said.
About 130 journalists who were on a trip to visit the Zojila tunnel stayed in three resorts in Sonamarg this week.
Kachroo said that on average, the hotel would cater to five or six groups of guests in a week, a maximum of 20 people at a time since the Covid-19 outbreak.
If more tourists are able to visit Sonamarg ahead of the onset of winter, it would help employees like him save some money before snow blankets the land and supplies of goods are restricted. Residents of many towns such as Sonamarg are struggling to make ends meet due to the dearth of tourists.
“I used to work at my relative’s hotel in Kullan, which is about 10 km from here, near a small lake. But now they can’t pay me because there are no tourists, so I have taken a job here,” said Firasah Akhoon, another attendant at the resort.
A stroll in and around Sonamarg is enough to confirm that the town looks like it has been abandoned for a few years. There are 10 large resorts within 3-4 km but only the ones occupied by the journalists seemed to be operating.
The Jammu & Kashmir tourism authorities have chalked out a plan to woo tourists back to the valley and have even rolled out a Rs 3 crore relief package for people employed in the tourism sector. But the impact of the pandemic lingers and for the people in these tourist towns, the summer of 2019 is their last memory of a content existence, without any worries about the approaching winter.