Kashmir’s tourism in tatters

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Natural beauty can’t save the region right now

For the embattled people of Kashmir, the future of commerce does not look promising.

The scrapping of the autonomy of the region has triggered widespread unrest and has severely dented the earning capacity of the people.

But Kashmir, which had been experiencing political instability for decades, was never a very stable place for the young to either start a business or look for employment.

The statistics also paint a dismal picture: The unemployment rate in the erstwhile state stood at 15.89% in the first four months of 2019 — making it one of the worst performers on the job generation front.

The figure for the entire country was 6.87% during the period.

Shikaras on the Dal Lake are empty

The main draw of the region is tourism, though currently, the Shikaras — open boats used for leisurely rides — are almost empty.

But only about three years ago, the region’s economy was showing signs of robust growth since the allure of Kashmir pulled thousands of newly married couples from Bangladesh and other countries.

With a rising middle class in Bangladesh, capable of spending money on holidays abroad, the lure of cosmopolitan cities with plush shopping malls had seen a decline of sorts, because now, Dhaka can offer shopping options what were once the sole monopoly of East Asian or European cities.

Almost any luxury item is a click away. So, for the upwardly mobile middle class here the holiday abroad is more titled towards natural beauty topped with a pristine environment.

Kashmir was the obvious choice because of the myth surrounding the tourism spot and the years of Bollywood productions that highlighted the enchantment of the region.

But the problem with the region is that when it sees a steady flow of income with foreign tourists, a political upheaval comes and upsets the applecart.

With the current state of affairs, chances of the houseboats on the Dal Lake seeing regular occupancy are rather bleak. But then, this region is not solely about houseboats either.

Natural beauty hardly a solace for the young

Call it an irony of sorts but while millions of tourists think of Kashmir as a region where one can de-stress and unwind, the youth here are wallowing in despondency and desolation.

The pristine air and the mesmeric natural beauty hardly compensate for the lack of work for the young.

I had the chance to meet a fiery social activist from Kashmir on a flight to Delhi several years ago and her main concern was that due to lack of proper exposure and opportunities, the youth in Kashmir are gradually, but inexorably, being sucked into a vortex of angst, leading to the forming of intolerant views.

Well, “intolerant” is actually a mild word! Though reporting from within Kashmir is restricted, it won’t be wrong to speculate that there is simmering discontentment among the young.

The rationale given by the Indian government is that the abrogation of Article 370 of Kashmir will allow more investment in the region.

Hypothetically speaking, even if there’s a flow of investment from outside, what is the guarantee that a certain number of jobs will be reserved for the locals? Questions have also been raised as to how many top jobs will be given to the Kashmiris.

But even before one talks about investment and employment, there is the crucial matter of stability. This part of India is always on the edge with a large military presence.

In such a state, with guns everywhere, tourists will be the last to choose Kashmir for a holiday.

Take me on a boat ride while the sun sets over the mountains, creating a glint on the barrel of the automatic rifle! Surely, very few would be thrilled by that image.

Creating work for the young

As Shakespeare said, what is done, cannot be undone and therefore, the policy of the government should be to either create employment for the disgruntled youth or introduce a special quota system to allow Kashmiris to get preference in employment in the region.

The main fear is that in a world where radicalism has become a scourge, the turbulence in Kashmir can also create a fertile ground for extremist ideology to take shape.

When people are cornered or feel they have been taken to the limit of patience, the ability to discern between right and wrong falters. This is when vengeance laced with violence slowly but insidiously begin to take form.

Taking away the hope of a secure life from a young person is similar to pushing him/her towards fanaticism.

Of course, there is also another conspiracy theory about the Kashmir imbroglio — prior to the turmoil, this region was the number one preferred place of tourism by foreigners and other parts of India were struggling to keep up with Kashmir’s enduring appeal.

While all the other Indian regions had to come up with embellished (read exaggerated) adverts to promote their regions for visitors, Kashmir did almost nothing because it did not have to sell itself as its attraction was widely known.

Now that the region is in convulsion, other parts of India will get the tourists plus the crisp dollars. Sounds a little far-fetched? Well, I leave it up to you to decide.

Towheed Feroze is News Editor for Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.