J&K witnessed a record 1.88 crore tourist arrivals in 2022. With 1.68 crore tourists already having visited this scenic Union Territory till September end, another record year seems to be in the offing

Srinagar: Tourists seem to have rediscovered their love for Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), with an unprecedented 1.68 crore tourists visiting the scenic Union Territory till the end of September this year.

During the past two years, J&K has witnessed record numbers of tourist arrivals. Last year, a record 1.88 crore tourists visited J&K. According to J&K’s tourism department’s data, both domestic and foreign tourists have visited the Himalayan region.

J&K Tourism Department’s Special Secretary, Amarjeet Singh, said that due to aggressive promotional campaigns through tourism events, road shows, and digital and social media presence, more than 1.68 crore tourists visited J&K in the last nine months.

“Compared to last year’s 1.88 crore tourists, we have already witnessed 1.68 crore tourists in J&K till the end of September. We are very positive about breaking the record of the previous year,” Singh added.

This year, the flow of Amarnath pilgrims was also good compared to last year, with the government stating that 4.5 lakh yatris visited the cave shrine in 2023 compared to three lakh yatris in 2022.

J&K Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha also claimed that J&K is all set to break the record for the highest number of tourist footfalls this year.

“Around 1.27 crore tourists have visited J&K till August this year, breaking last year’s figures during the corresponding period. We are expecting to see a record number of tourist arrivals by the end of the year. The return of peace has restored the confidence of tourists who are now flocking to Kashmir in large numbers," said the LG while addressing a gathering at central Kashmir’s Charar-e-Sharief shrine in Budgam district.

In 2022, over 22 lakh tourists visited Kashmir, which included 22,40,616 domestic tourists, Amarnath pilgrims, and 18,953 foreign tourists.

The tourism stakeholders in Kashmir attributed the record-breaking tourism season to COVID-19. For example, Manzoor Kundroo, a houseboat owner in Srinagar, told Moneycontrol that with international travel out of the question during the first and second waves of COVID-19, Kashmir became the best possible place for tourists. “Due to COVID restrictions, tourists did not have any choice but to visit Kashmir, where the deadly virus did not cause extreme impact. COVID became a blessing in disguise for Kashmir's tourism industry, providing employment to over a million people, directly and indirectly, as we get to see record-breaking numbers of tourists in Kashmir.”

Currently, the mesmerising autumn season in Kashmir Valley, surrounded by a beautiful landscape of gushing rivers and snow-capped mountains, is attracting a huge number of tourists, and the scenic spots have yet again become a major tourist attraction with tourists, influencers, and filmmakers.

The beautiful atmosphere of the valley is enhanced by the coolness in the air, mild sunshine throughout the day, and cold mornings and evenings. The autumn season is breath taking as the mighty Chinar trees have started shedding their golden leaves all around the gardens and streets of Kashmir.

Amid the moderate temperature, tourists take Shikara rides into the interiors of lakes. For an hour-long Shikara ride, they pay Rs 800-1,000.

The director of Srinagar Airport, Javed Anjum, said that Srinagar Airport, being one of the busiest in the country, continues to handle the highest number of passengers. “Between April 2022 and March 2023, we had a footfall of around 4.4 million passengers. This year we are expecting to break this mark. The winter tourism season will commence soon, and with that, footfalls are expected to increase sharply.”

Last year, on March 28, Srinagar Airport saw its busiest day ever, with 15,014 people travelling on 90 flights in and out of Kashmir.

Abdul Wahid Malik, former president of the Kashmir Hotels and Restaurant Owners Federation (KHAROF), told Moneycontrol that during the past two years, hotels have witnessed high occupancy rates. “Ahead of the festival season, we have witnessed 100 percent hotel bookings till November 27. The winter also looks great because our hotels remain booked almost to capacity. Winter games, Christmas, and New Year programmes are all lined up for winter. Both during autumn and winter, tourists from Maharashtra, Gujarat, and West Bengal visit Kashmir to spend festivals and vacations.”

Malik added that hoteliers in Kashmir have recorded a great season during the past two years. “After a gap of 40 years, I have got to see a very good season. Tourists across the world are flocking to Kashmir, also known as Heaven on Earth, after government and private tourism players launched campaigns in Malaysia, Thailand, and other countries.”

President of the Travel Agents Association of Kashmir (TAAK), Rauf A Tramboo, said that the tourism sector is finally back on track in J&K, and border tourism has also given a massive push to the tourism industry.

Since February 2021, both international and domestic tourists have been visiting the scenic villages on the border, which were earlier out-of-bounds due to the routine exchange of gunfire and shelling between the armies of India and Pakistan.

Besides border tourism and campaigns related to tourism, the changing weather has also attracted tourists to Kashmir. For example, the fresh snowfall recorded earlier this week in the upper reaches of Kashmir led to a spurt in booking inquiries by tourists.

Skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and ice skating are some of the activities that tourists love to indulge in Gulmarg, Kashmir’s winter wonderland.

The scenic views of Kashmir have once again made the valley the favourite shooting destination for the film industry, and permission has been granted for the shooting of more than 150 films and web series.

Kundroo, who is also a senior member of the Travel Agents Society of Kashmir (TASK), said that like last year, the season was great and the tourists continued to enjoy their stay in iconic houseboats that graced the serene waters of Dal Lake and Nigeen Lake. “Till July this year, we have seen a 100 percent occupancy rate in houseboats. And once the holiday season ended, tourist arrivals started to decline. However, with the festival season and winter around the corner, we are expecting a very good season.”

The large influx of tourists, according to Tramboo, is helping the region’s economic transformation. “Those who have invested in the tourism sector in Kashmir are reaping dividends.”

In order to accommodate the huge influx of tourists in Kashmir and also boost rural tourism, the government has asked the people in rural and remote areas to create homestay facilities for tourists.

According to the J&K administration, foreign tourist arrivals in Kashmir have seen a significant uptick since the first-ever G20 Tourism Working Group meeting held in Srinagar in May this year.

It was reported earlier that around 25,000 foreign tourists landed in Kashmir till September this year, compared to 19,985 during the whole of 2022.

J&K’s tourism officials termed the G-20 Tourism Working Group meeting held in Srinagar a game changer for the UT’s tourism industry, accounting for about 7 percent of its economy. “The government has promoted 75 offbeat destinations to promote culture, 75 to promote spirituality, and 75 destinations to promote religious tourism in J&K and to attract foreign tourists,” an official of the tourism department said.

Following the good tourism season, the J&K government is pushing back against travel advisories issued by some countries, pointing to the vote of confidence tourists have delivered. For example, three months after the G20 event in August, J&K LG, after meeting officials of the United States Embassy, said the US was likely to roll back the negative travel advisory on the region in the wake of the improving security situation.

Tourism stakeholders hoped that the travel advisories by many countries would be lifted to further promote Kashmir as an international tourism destination.