In a normal year, at least 23,000 tourists visit Manali daily during the peak season in June.
Kashmir’s loss is Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand’s gain. Each state is seeing a major increase in tourism as unrest continues in Kashmir.
But can they handle the windfall? Reporters for HT talked to businessmen, officials, and tourists in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand’s most popular hill stations. Focusing particularly on Himachal, we found that the flight of tourism from Kashmir to other states is both a blessing and a curse.
Ripped off and stuck
In a normal year, at least 23,000 tourists visit Manali daily during the peak season in June according to Ritesh Patial, the local tourist information officer. The town becomes a hunting ground for unscrupulous taxi operators, who overcharge tourists right under the nose of the administration.
A restriction by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has added to the chaos. Almost everyone visiting Manali wants to see the famous Rohtang Pass. Three years ago, however, the NGT limited the number of vehicles passing through Rohtang to 1,200 in order to preserve its fragile ecology.
Vehicle owners need permits from the Manali sub-divisional magistrate, which charges Rs550. Local taxi operators often violate the permit system to make a fast buck. After the administration blacklisted 3,000 suspected violators a couple weeks ago, taxi operators responded with a protest that brought traffic in Manali to a standstill for eight hours.
These taxi companies charge tourists Rs8,000 to travel the 50-km stretch from Manali to Rohtang Pass even though the rate fixed by the administration is Rs2,400 for four-seat vehicles. Navneet Kumar, a tourist from Punjab, said he couldn’t find anyone willing to accept even Rs4,000.
Shortage of space, water
On weekends, the tourist footfall in Shimla touches 20,000.
“The number of tourists has seen a steady rise over the years,” said state tourism director Dinesh Malhotra. “There is a need to create more infrastructure to cater to the demand.”
Finding a place to park, for example, is a challenge. The state capital has 14,000 registered vehicles and only 500 parking spots.
“Parking contractors overcharge,” complained Suresh Sinha, a tourist from Bihar. “The lot at the inter-state bus terminus in Shimla charge Rs50 an hour.”
In the summer, most hotels face water shortages. Hoteliers can use water tankers, but these often rely on unsafe sources.
Problem of plenty
The quaint hill town of Dharamshala, especially its buzzing suburb of McLeodganj, sees a steady stream of Buddhists and backpackers from around the world all through the year.
The peak in summer, however, is a difficult time. When the sizzling sun unleashes its fury on the plains, domestic tourists throng the Kangra valley, including Dharamshala and its surrounding villages such as Bhagusnag, Dharamkot and Naddi.
The tourism department said Dharamshala and McLeodganj have 400 registered hotels and guest houses. The total bed capacity is 2,500.
“It’s inadequate,” said Prem Sood, a local hotelier. “On weekends, the number of visitors is between 5,000 to 8,000. We have a problem of plenty.”
Given the demand, the towns are seeing illegal construction, with hotels facing action for violating building laws. The municipal corporation has cut power and water to at least 12 hotels in Dharamshala. Seventy more establishments are also under scrutiny.
“Local residents and the administration are equally responsible,” said hotelier Ashwani Sharma, “locals for their greed, and the administration for not checking on the haphazard construction.” He added that 90% of hotels in the town don’t have a parking facility, forcing tourists to park along roads that are not wide enough. This leads to daily traffic jams in May and June.
The influx of tourists puts pressure on the town’s amenities. Piles of garbage greet visitors, since the town lacks a proper disposal system. “So a dream trip to Dharamshala in summer could become your worst nightmare,” said Sharma.
The summer unrest in Kashmir has also led to a 5-7% increase in tourism to Uttarakhand.
“The rush is evident from traffic woes in the hill stations of Mussoorie and Nainital,” said Sandeep Sahani, the president of the Hotel and Restaurant Association in Uttarakhand, “but we expected more. Perhaps the high-end non-religious tourist opted for Himachal Pradesh, which has better infrastructure.”
“Unlike Kashmir, Uttarakhand offers a peaceful getaway with its pristine environs and cool climate,” said AK Dwivedi, a retired official of the Uttarakhand tourism department.
“Uttarakhand and Himachal are ultimate gainers, but Himachal gets to take the lion’s share.”