On Srinagar’s Dal Lake, intricately decorated houseboats usually packed with tourists lie empty as Kashmir’s tourism sector reels from a three-weeks-long lockdown imposed as India revoked the picturesque region’s autonomy.
With its breathtaking scenery, snow-capped mountains and placid lakes, temperate Kashmir is a popular destination for hordes of domestic and international tourists during the scorching summer season in the rest of India.
But authorities in early August called for visitors to leave “immediately” over “terror threats”, sparking a mass exodus just days before New Delhi’s controversial decision to bring the violence-hit region under its direct rule.
“They went to every houseboat, hotel and street to force every single tourist out of Kashmir,” Shikara owner Yaqoob told AFP.
“Even now they go around hotels to check if anyone is left.”
Streets buzzing with locals and tourists are now mostly deserted. In their place are coils of barbed wire, security checkpoints and tens of thousands of extra troops New Delhi sent to the Himalayan region to reinforce the half a million already there.
Authorities cut off all communications — including the internet and phone lines — making contact with the outside world very difficult.
“This is not what we expected,” said a Taiwanese couple, the only tourists AFP found in Srinagar, adding they had planned their trip a year ago.
“Nowadays not many people can live daily life without having all this modern technology, without the internet… That’s kind of really hard for people, especially tourists.
“We are scared of the entire situation.”
– ‘Switzerland of the East’ –
Kashmir, split at the end of British colonial rule in 1947 between India and Pakistan, was a popular international getaway until an armed insurgency against Indian rule erupted in 1989.
The conflict, which has claimed tens of thousands of mostly civilian lives, has challenged efforts to promote tourism in the so-called “Switzerland of the East”.
Tourist arrivals have ebbed and flowed over the years in line with the scale of the insurgency.