Dal Lake photographers fight tourism slump

Riyaz Ahmad Sheikh was lazily spending an afternoon on the shores of the picture-postcard lake of Srinagar, which has been the base station for thousands of tourists arriving in the area.

Sheikh, 26, was cleaning his camera as he anxiously awaited the arrival of tourists. He earns his living by clicking on the photos of holidaymakers.

“Before 2019, I won’t have time to talk to you. There were so many clients to photograph, ”he said.

Few tourists have come to Kashmir in the past three years, causing the region’s tourism industry to collapse and leaving men like Sheikh in perpetual wait.

Kashmir has remained under a series of lockdowns since August 2019; the first caused by the repeal of the region’s limited autonomy and the other two caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

With another summer here and the deadly wave of COVID-19 infections falling but still impacting lives, Sheikh is in doubt. “I don’t think business will return to this level for a few years.”

Tourists have flocked to Kashmir in different seasons, some to escape the scorching heat waves and others to spend their vacations, over the past decade as the insurgency in the region has subsided and levels of violence have risen. lowered. However, since 2019 Boulevard Road – Srinagar’s most important tourist base station – has taken on a deserted air.

Shikaras outnumber tourists while people who depend on tourism wait endlessly. The streets are empty, shops closed and the apparent absence of tourists, even in small numbers, for nearly three years, has started to weigh heavily on local businesses.

Professional photographers at Dal Lake also claimed to have failed to secure the monetary relief granted by the government.

In May this year, the administration of Jammu and Kashmir announced that it had provided aid worth 5.6 crore rupees to people associated with the tourism industry, but the photographers were not mentioned in the official record.

“Rs 5.6 crore was provided to 28,000 Shikarawalas / Ponywalas / Dandiwalas / Palkiwalas / tour guides as a two-month relief,” Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha tweeted in May.

Sheikh says the photographers are registered with the Ministry of Tourism and have all the documents to prove their eligibility for financial assistance.

“The people who row Shikaras have received help, although it has been very poor, but we have been completely left out of the equation,” he said.

He is constantly thinking about how to put food on the table for his family. He got married two weeks ago.

The tourism industry that flourished around the exquisite Dal Lake inspired around 260 people like Sheikh to make photography a profession.

Sheikh said photographers of the lake would earn 5,000 rupees a day before Section 370 was abolished. “Sometimes our income would be even more than that,” he said.

Sheikh now works odd jobs on construction sites in and around Srinagar and is barely getting by.

When Srinagar was closed to tourists in 2019 amid the revocation of Kashmir’s limited autonomy, thousands of Kashmiris who depended on tourism got into serious trouble.

Tourists were told to evacuate Jammu and Kashmir a few days before the revocation. The Covid-19 pandemic followed months later, bringing travel to a halt and when travel restrictions were relaxed fewer tourists arrived.

Firoz Ahmad Shalla, the president of the lake photographers union, said he had been trying for years to get help from the government.

“We belong to the same tourism industry. We even have the same licenses. However, we are treated very differently, ”Shalla said.

The massive floods of 2014 that claimed 160 lives and left thousands stranded in Kashmir also had an impact on these photographers, many of whom lost their licenses and have so far failed to get them renewed.

Shalla said he wrote to serving Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir Manoj Sinha but still had not received a response.

“A five-person delegation from the association has also visited Jammu twice in the past, but nothing has happened. About 60,000 rupees were spent in the process, ”he said.

Photographers are now desperate and have tried to explore other avenues for financial aid.

Yaqoob, who was part of the delegation in Jammu, said other financial measures like a low-interest loan would also work. “Our business is dead, it seems. There is nothing more we can do.

We have always come to ask for your help: Kashmir Walla is fighting on many fronts and if you don’t act now it would be too late. 2020 was a year like no other and we entered it already roughed up. Press freedom in Kashmir was reaching new lows as the entire population gradually emerged from one of the world’s longest communications blackouts.

We are not a large organization. A few thousand rupees from each of you would make a huge difference.

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