“The Amarnath pilgrimage affects our tourist season in a positive way,” said president, Adventure Tour Operators Association of Kashmir. “We don’t know the exact economics of the Yatra as there’s been no study of it. But certainly 25-30 per cent of these pilgrims would double as tourists.”
Following a dismal summer, people in the tourism business in the Valley had pinned their hopes on the Amarnath pilgrimage. The militant attack on Monday that killed seven and wounded 19 has also riddled their hopes.
More than three and a half lakh people went on the pilgrimage every year from 2013 to 2015 and those in the tourism trade estimate that around 30% of pilgrims end up also visiting other destinations in the Valley.
“The Amarnath pilgrimage affects our tourist season in a positive way,” said Rauf Tramboo, president, Adventure Tour Operators Association of Kashmir. “We don’t know the exact economics of the Yatra as there’s been no study of it. But certainly 25-30 per cent of these pilgrims would double as tourists.”
Kashmir’s Director, Tourism, Mehmood Ahmad Shah, concurred. “We don’t know exactly, but at least 30% of the pilgrims visit different tourist destinations after completing the pilgrimage,” he said.
Last year, when protests rocked Kashmir in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing, relatively fewer numbers — 2.2 lakh — went on the Yatra. But more than 1.5 lakh pilgrims visited the Holy Cave in the first 13 days of this year’s Yatra. The numbers were very high in 2011 and 2012 — 6.2 lakh and 6.3 lakh respectively.
According to Tramboo, the larger chunk of pilgrims goes only to the shrine, using their own transport, and relying on social organisations or charities for food. “But the other group, which makes up almost a third of the total, spends time in the Valley. They book hotels and houseboats, hire local taxis, and travel around. This group adds to our economy. Our rough estimates are that pilgrims contribute around 20% to the tourist economy,” Tramboo said. Since the Yatra began on June 29, deserted tourist destinations have seen the “return of some hustle and bustle”, he said.
Until July 8 last year — the day the Hizbul’s Wani was killed, triggering a spiral of protests and shutdowns — more than six lakh tourists had visited the Valley. This year, the corresponding number is less than two lakh, say tourism officials.
“The night this (Amarnath) attack happened, at least 100 of our taxis returned empty from Jammu fearing violence,” said Ghulam Nabi Pandav, chairman of the Kashmir Tourist Taxi Operators Association. “At least 75% of our taxis are standing idle,” he said.
Pilgrims who fly in to Srinagar typically hire local taxis, Pandav said. “I think at least 20% of these pilgrims avail of our services,” he said.
The worst affected, however, would probably be the ponywallas, small-time shopkeepers and labourers at Baltal and Pahalgam, the two base camps for the Yatra. A Baltal ponywalla typically makes around Rs 2,000 for a daylong trek to the shrine and back; on the longer Pahalgam route, they charge around Rs 5,000 for one way.
A shopkeeper in Baltal said the Yatra had not been seriously impacted yet. “But we are worried. We are paying large rents, and we may not be able to even cover that,” the shopkeeper said over the phone on Wednesday.