Zahoor Qari, Chairman, TAAI – Jammu & Kashmir Chapter, shares that travel agents in the valley had been suffering even before the lockdown began, but with the pandemic the situation has only worsened. He says that setting aside of a Kashmir-specific tourism package is the only way out.
Zahoor Qari says that even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Kashmir had been in a state of lockdown. “While we have the experience of being in such a situation, due to COVID-19, business has taken a big hit. Earlier, only Kashmir remained closed but the rest of the country was working. Hence, we were in touch with our contacts. It might be a small percentage of business, but it was going on. However, due to COVID-19, we are not able to sell anything. The tourism sector is shattered, especially in Kashmir,” he shares.
Travel agents in the valley have now started other businesses. “Tour operators have vehicles financed by the banks and they are unable to repay them, and they have been declared as empty accounts by banks. Hence, they are left with no alternative but to close their business, to sell their assets and to continue their lives,” he says.
But, Qari is hopeful that at least Kashmir will get a financial package even if no tourism-specific package was announced by the Central government. “Everybody knows that we have been closed for the last one year, but no such initiative has been taken either by Government of India or by that of our Union Territory. Our Lieutenant Governor did not seem to be impressed with our meetings and epresentations regarding financial help from the government for survival,” he explains.
In its representations, TAAI – J&K Chapter has made a few demands. Elaborating on them, Qari says, “In addition to the chapters, our national office bearers have sent representations to the new resident governor, to the chief secretary and to the concerned advisor regarding our problems with Kashmir tour operators’ authorities. Apart from that, we gave personal representations to the Lieutenant Governor and also to the Home Minister, with other associations of Kashmir, so that we have maximum membership. We represented jointly at different forums and every time we have been given an impression that we will be getting financial help or there will be some alternate arrangement. However, neither the Central government nor the Lieutenant Governor have even touched upon the topic of tour operators. Now they have given a monthly financial help of Rs1000 to the Shikara-waalas. All the associations have not accepted this help, and we have given another representation to the government that it is not fair to pay so less.”
One of the biggest hurdles, according to Qari, is the lack of internet services in the valley owing to which many agents can’t get any communication from IATA as well, and eventually their IATA certification has been terminated. Concluding, he says, “Apart from 4G restoration in the valley and financial assistance, there should be promotion of the tourism by the Central Government because that will help us a lot. A special cell should be created for the Union Territory which shall be looked after by MOT officials that should work on how to promote tourism. At every stage it was said that we will find a flood of tourists in the Kashmir Valley, but that has not been the case, and hence the government should give priority to Kashmir to promote tourism.”