Life as we know it has been brought to a standstill due to the unprecedented new norms put in practice by the coronavirus pandemic that began at the turn of the year, and has since had the whole world dancing to its tune of lockdowns and social distancing pretences. From a migrant labourer who walked a 1,000 km to reach his village at the onset of the lockdown to the political elite of the country who had to take the tough decision for the greater good, every life has been impacted by the pandemic. Kashmir has been no different.
Talking of impact, a serious threat of extinction has been caused to a certain small group of people as far north as India goes. We are talking about the Shikara houseboat builders and associations, who have had a dried up season because of the lockdown.
The famous houseboat industry in Kashmir valley is struggling to stay afloat, courtesy Covid-19 pandemic lockdown . A houseboat stay, once a major attraction of Kashmir tourism, could soon become just a memory.
Empty houseboats, Shikaras present a gloomy picture of Kashmir's tourism sector which is going through one of its worst phases.
This is due to the prevailing situation in Kashmir due to the lockdown that followed coronavirus pandemic. It should be seen in continuation with the previous year (2019) when there were restrictions after the abrogation of Article 370. Kashmir has been facing restrictions for months and normal life remains affected across the Valley with markets shut and public transport was off from the roads. Needless to say, the Valley was without tourists, for several months which brought the tourism industry — believed to be the backbone of Kashmir's economy — to its knees.
After few months of abrogation of article 370 in 2019 a ray of hope took birth in everyone's mind that situation would be better but God had other plans and this dangerous disease occurred that took the whole world in its own hands; the whole world is suffering both financially and emotionally but there are some communities who have suffered a lot and one of them are "Houseboat owners".
Houseboat owners in Kashmir have suffered losses of over 150 crores in the last one year, first due to the lack of tourism in the aftermath of Article 370 abrogation and now the coronavirus pandemic. It's almost a year now, most of them haven’t earned anything but are welcoming tourists with hopeful eyes.
Once upon a time, Kashmir valley was bustling with national and international tourists and most of them preferred to stay in the houseboats.
There are about 870 houseboats, 7814 Shikara across four major water bodies in Kashmir- Dal Lake, Chinar Bagh, Jehlum And Nageen Lake. Around more than 32,000 people are directly dependent on the tourism sector including people owing near about 45,00 registered shikaras with tourism sector.
The new guidelines issued by the government necessitated due to the pandemic prohibits increasing the number of houseboats, for registration, renewal, and operation of houseboats in Dal Lake and Nageen Lake, are being taken as yet another setback for the already struggling community. Clearly no chance can be taken when it comes to controlling the spread of deadly novel coronavirus.
Locals understand the situation. "We are already reeling under the aftermath of over three decades of political unrest and now with this ongoing lockdown, Kashmir's iconic houseboat industry seems to have been delivered a final blow," Abdul Hameed General Secretary Houseboat association said,
"Anyone even remotely familiar with the houseboat business knows that refurbishing a unit that has not been fully operational is a process that takes much longer than four months. Also, these guidelines come at a time when there is no tourist footfall in the valley and finances could not be affected more than they are at the moment," he said.
"There is consensus over the dire need to transform the business to make them environment friendly (even though the houseboats contribute less than 0.8 percent to the total environmental pollution in the Lake as per various environmental studies), the timing was chosen and the deadlines given don't needs to be looked into."
Tariq Ahmad, who is the owner of one of the houseboats, said: "I have been in this business since I was young but now it’s becoming very difficult to manage the daily needs. It has been almost 2 years since our business is shut.
He blames visitation advisories and situations in the valley for the loss, but he hopes the future will be brighter.
However, Tariq hasn't given up. He has kept his houseboat ready to welcome tourists. Due to the high maintenance cost, one of his two houseboats is shut. Usually, he would have high occupancy in July.
Some of the Houseboat owners want relief from the Government as the sector of Houseboat generates a lot of local employment as they don’t have any other means of income.
Hope is still brighter for the future that the tourism sector will rise again as it was before.