A lockdown imposed by Indian officials has forced tourists away, killing off a lifeblood industry for millions in the disputed region.

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir- On the northern bank of Dal Lake in Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar, century-old houseboats with intricate woodwork belonging to Butt’s Clermont are docked unoccupied.

Manzoor Ahmad Butt, the third-generation owner of the houseboats, which mainly host foreign tourists and dignitaries, said it is a difficult time for the tourism industry in Kashmir.

“This is unexpected for us,” he said, referring to the ongoing Indian shutdown of the disputed territory.

“Even during the 1990s when the situation was 10 times worse than today, the visitors never stopped coming,” he added, recalling the armed uprising that rocked the region in the 1990s.

Nestled in the Himalayan mountains, the valley of Kashmir is filled with alpine lakes and scenic landscapes. Houseboats on the edges of Dal Lake have always been a draw for tourists, but the industry has been brought to an abrupt halt.

The influx of visitors is now limited to Kashmiris moving back and forth to reach relatives, and hotels, usually packed in late summer, are now empty.

In an unprecedented step preceding the current crisis in early August, tourists were ordered to immediately evacuate as the Indian government prepared to abrogate a seven-decade-old law which had protected the demography of the Muslim majority region.

European and Western governments, fearing unrest, followed up on the Indian government’s withdrawal order with their own advisories, telling their citizens to avoid the area.

The abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution was followed by a security lockdown, which restricted internal movement, as well as a communication blockade, which shut off telephone lines and the internet.

Estimates put the number of those arrested at close to 4,000, including politicians who were one considered pro-India.

Kashmir’s burgeoning holidaymaking industry was left decimated as bookings were cancelled.

‘Tourists not expected to return’

Kashmir’s tourism industry was making a slow recovery after years of protests, armed conflict, and deadly floods before the current crisis.

The Indian government’s move to evacuate the region has turned the industry on its head.

The last guests at Butt’s Clermont before the evacuation order was announced were a British couple and since they left, business has been completely dry.

Police went around popular tourist sites to ensure that foreigners and outsiders were evacuated.

“We do not expect tourists any time soon in Kashmir,” Butt said. “The [lockdown] was in the middle of tourist season. It is difficult for everyone, be they taxi drivers, shopkeepers or boat owners. It has affected the livelihood of thousands of people.”

Nasir Shah, a tour guide based in the region, told TRT World that the current crisis had created huge losses for the industry. “We are losing millions of rupees every day,” he said.

“We expected that the government would at least decide to issue advisory steps for Kashmiris trying to earn money before the harsh winter season,” he added.

Shah, who heads the Pilgrim and Leisure Tour Operators Forum, estimated that around 500,000 people were involved in the tourism industry in Kashmir and that 2.5 million depended on it in some way to make a living.

Besides hoteliers and tour guides, many low-income labourers make ends meet by working as horse riders and boatmen, ferrying tourists across the idyllic lakes and countryside scenes.

One boatman, named Bashir Ahmed, said that he now had no way to make a living.

“We are getting mad with frustration because we have nothing to feed our families with,” he said. 

A Kashmiri man fishes as the sun sets over the Dal Lake in Srinagar, India, Wednesday, July 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)
A Kashmiri man fishes as the sun sets over the Dal Lake in Srinagar, India, Wednesday, July 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan) (AP)

“They snatched our livelihood away and it is clear they don’t want any of us to progress. They want that we become beggars and outsiders settle here and run all the industries,” he added.

His fears are not without basis. The abrogation of Article 370 means outsiders can purchase land and settle in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Ahmed estimated there are more than 1,200 houseboats and 3,000 regular boats operating in the Srinagar area - all without custom since the lockdown began.

The unprecedented nature of the Indian lockdown has left many people working in the industry without any idea how to manage. For some, the crisis is an existential threat to their livelihoods.

Siraj Ahmad, a hotelier in Srinagar, said “lives are at a stake,” adding: “There are no tourists now. It is a complete jolt to the tourism industry.”

Source: TRT World