Kashmir: A shark-infested 'Heaven on Earth'!

Despite all my patriotic feelings, I do not recommend a visit to Kashmir. It is ill-organized and ill-prepared to receive the rush of tourists. It lacks elementary infrastructure, basic amenities, and essential facilities at present. Worse, the tourists are always at the mercy of the local mafia.


After having served multiple tenures in Jammu & Kashmir, we, a group of three veterans, decided to revisit the pristine Kashmir Valley with our wives to experience the post-Article 370 abolition environment. It was an eight-day tour from March 21-28, 2024. We stayed in local 3/4-star hotels and had a dedicated Innova Crysta for travel.

Kashmir is witnessing an unprecedented rush of tourists. Every single hotel is fully booked. All tourist spots are teeming with hordes of tourists. In some places, even walking is difficult. Surprisingly, most of the tourists were of higher age groups. Every Indian is keen to get a first-hand experience of the changed environment. All were happy to observe that J&K had been rescued from the abyss it had been sliding. Paramilitary CRPF personnel are doing an admirable job through regular patrolling to instill confidence in the populace.

The natural beauty of the valley is unparalleled. It is truly a heaven on earth. But then…


Failure of local administration

Whereas the central government has made immense efforts to promote tourism, the local administration has failed miserably. It appears to have washed its hands off all the responsibilities. During our complete visit, we did not come across a single state official or policeman at the tourist places. Local trade unions rule the roost and swindle the helpless tourists. Extortion by the local thugs is rampant and tourists are left to fend for themselves. It is a well-organized mafia operation.

All reputed tour operators advise the Kashmir-bound tourists to caution them, “Be very careful while negotiating. Be very clear and certain what you commit and what they commit. Do not get into arguments with them, they can be rude as well. Also beware of vendors like photographers, guides, pony wallahs and cab drivers. Remember to make decisions yourself. Do not believe anyone, not even us or the driver or the hotel manager.”

Fearing reprisals by the local goons, the tour operators ask the tourists not to tell anyone about the cautionary advice. They beseech, “For any help, call us separately, not in front of anyone, driver, guide, vendors, etc.” Can there be more damning proof of the dreadful state of affairs in Kashmir, wherein even the tour organisers are scared of the mafia?

Mughal Gardens: Among the major tourist spots,  most of the gardens are under renovation. Their upkeep and maintenance are not up to the mark. In many places the steps need urgent attention. There are no railings. The toilets are too far away and poorly kept. There is always a local goon demanding money for their use. There are no garbage bins. At one garden, security staff at the entry gate was retaining the entry tickets for recycling, thereby pocketing the ill-gotten money.

Doodhpathari: Although an excellent tarred road exists, taxis are stopped 2 km short of the tourist spot (Shaliganga river site) and the tourists are asked to get down. They are given three options to reach the site – walk both ways in a high-altitude area (8957 feet), or hire a pony by paying the demanded charges, or ride an ATV (a four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle) for a fee of Rs 1,000-1,500 per person. With a single pillion rider straddled behind the driver, it is no option for the ladies. Moreover, an ATV ride is an adventure and only the young can dare. As all three options are unviable for most tourists, especially the elderly, they never reach the river site. The state government is guilty of succumbing to the local hoodlums and thereby depriving the tourists of reaching Doodhpathari, Shameful indeed!


Lack of basic facilities

Sonmarg: It was a lesson in human ingenuity to mint money at the cost of others’ helplessness. The area was teeming with thousands of tourists. Heavy snowfall had covered the ground with a thick white blanket and the tourists were enjoying playing in the snow. However, lack of basic facilities made the visit a nightmare for most. There were no toilets at all. A few enterprising hotels had erected a tent in their backyard with a solitary pot, common for men and women. Even the path to the tent was slippery as it had not been cleared of snow. Users had to pay Rs 10 each. As it was freezing cold, the queues were long and the wait was unbearable for some.

I have personally witnessed an owner of a third-rate hotel (photo above) declining to let a lady use the toilet unless she rented a room for one hour for Rs 2,000. The hapless lady had tears in her eyes. She paid. It is an open loot of the tourists in connivance with the officials. It defies logic as to why the local authorities cannot build adequate toilet facilities.

Pahalgam: It is around 90 km. s from Srinagar. Srinagar taxis are not allowed to take tourists to Aru Valley, Betaab Valley and Chandanwari. They have to hire a local taxi-union cab for Rs 2,700. Thus, the tourists end up paying for two taxis – one, that they had brought from Srinagar (lying idle in Pahalgam) and the second one from the local union.

Although the whole circuit is scheduled to take about 4-5 hrs, the local union drivers keep hurrying up the tourists to save time for the second trip. Worse, they never take the tourists to Chandanwari, stopping 6 km short and turning back. It is outright cheating. They charge for Chandanwari but go just one Km beyond Betaab Valley. There are no officials or policemen to help. The local drivers unite to act as bullies.

Throughout our trip, we did not come across a single toilet garbage bin or parking area. It is chaos all around.
Gulmarg: It is around 60 km from Srinagar. It is a beautiful place, famous for its gondola and the ski slopes. On reaching the place, one is attacked by hordes of guides, pony wallahs and other vendors. Once again, to visit Bhutaphatri and the Maharaja Palace, one has to hire a local union taxi for Rs 3,500 as Srinagar taxis are not allowed to go there.

Gondola tickets are sold online. Mysteriously, they get sold out within minutes of the opening of the sale. According to the local guides, there is a thriving black market for gondola tickets. A ride in a gondola is an experience of a lifetime. One is mesmerised by the sheer expanse of the glaciers. Incidentally, the gondola hosted over a million riders in FY 2023-24.

We saw long queues for the gondola, entailing waiting for up to three hours. There were no shelters or benches for the tourists. Even the snow had not been cleared. Tourists had to hold hands to prevent slipping and falling. One is amazed at the callousness of the authorities. They are minting millions but make no effort to ensure the safety and comfort of tourists.

At mercy of local mafia 

As J&K has recently emerged from the decades-long turmoil, it enjoys a high curiosity quotient. Understandably, tourists are rushing to Kashmir in lakhs. Once the novelty wears off and the current euphoria abates, people will become aware of the real ground situation. Then, Kashmir will be hard-pressed to remain a favourite tourist destination.

Airfares are sky-high. A Srinagar-Delhi air ticket costs more than Delhi-Dubai. Hotels are charging exorbitant rentals. A young couple was frank enough to state that Thailand, Dubai and Malaysia were far better organized tourist destinations.

All tourist places in Kashmir are in mountainous/high-altitude areas with unpredictable weather. Bright sunshine can suddenly turn into heavy rains, snowfall, and even blizzards. Not one place has any shelter or benches for such eventualities. There are no rescue teams or medical aid posts. It appears that the government has abdicated its responsibility and will wake up from its slumber only after a major tragedy.

On the morning of our departure, our houseboat caretaker casually asked for the mobiles of two guests. Without their permission, he cleverly sent feedback on their behalf, grading every aspect as ‘excellent’. Never seen such deviousness.

Despite all my patriotic feelings, I do not recommend a visit to Kashmir. It is ill-organized and ill-prepared to receive the rush of tourists. It lacks elementary infrastructure, basic amenities and essential facilities at present. Worse, the tourists are always at the mercy of the local mafia. They have to remain on guard at every step. Let the government get its act together and make sure that the tourists are not used as easy prey by the sharks that infest the tourism milieu in the much acclaimed ‘Heaven on Earth’.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. Views are personal. He can be reached at mrinalsuman@gmail.com,)

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Tue, 04/16/2024 - 16:37
When I was posted at Srinagar , Rita & Millie came over , this was before article 370 was scrapped. Amarath yatra was yet to begin and the route was heavily picketed by the paramilitary guys . We stayed in luxurious army tents with running hot &cold water . We as Indians , and tourists are to blame for all the shit we leave behind while visiting a place , plastic packets ,polyutherene plates scattered allover , taxi's , trucks belching smoke , visitors peeing on the snow ( as if making rangoli) and the next lot pelting each other with snow balls from the same snow. Wunderbar . Yes the locals are a very canny lot but yes then they were very scared of the uniform . As one clap with one hand the fault lies with both the parties . Who will take the first step for rectification remains to be seen. Playing the blame game is not the answer .