A series of cloudbursts, landslides and flood alerts in Kashmir – a combination of extreme events dubbed “weather terror” by local business people – has caused tourist arrivals to drop 60 percent so far this year, and things may get worse.
Kashmir, whose stunning Himalayan mountain and lake scenery once made it a magnet for visitors, had seen its important tourism industry revive over the past four years, following two decades of armed insurgency against Indian rule which had deterred all but the hardiest travellers.
From 2011 to 2014 Kashmir received some 1.3 million tourists annually, but this year the number has plummeted, as guests worried by reports of perilous weather and frequent flood warnings cancel bookings, hoteliers say.
The fall in visitor numbers has dismayed the more than 100,000 people who directly depend on tourism for their livelihood. “Our rivers and lakes might be overflowing with water this year, but for us it is a dry season,” Srinagar hotel owner Zulfiqar Wani told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Besides three official flood alerts since March after spells of incessant rain, a dozen cloudbursts have struck various parts of Kashmir in the past month, killing 10 people and causing considerable damage to property.
As temperatures rise around the world, more frequent bouts of extreme weather are among the climate change impacts scientists have been predicting for some time.
A flagship 2014 climate science report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said average and extreme precipitation during India’s summer monsoon is expected to increase, with the biggest rise in the Himalayan region.
Shakil Romshoo, head of the earth sciences department at Kashmir University, said Kashmir has a history of cloudbursts. “But what has been happening over the past weeks in this mountain region is certainly quite unusual,” he said.
“Though a detailed scientific study is needed of why the frequency of extreme weather events, especially cloudbursts, has increased, the rise in day temperature across the Himalayan region could be a reason,” he added.
According to the India Meteorological Department, Kashmir has recorded an increase of 1.45 degrees Celsius in average temperatures in the last three decades, while the Jammu region has seen a rise of 2.32 degrees Celsius.
According to Kashmir’s tourism directorate, 1 million domestic and foreign tourists visited the region from January to July 2014 – a similar number to the same period in the previous two years – whereas only half a million tourists came in January to July this year.
Kashmir Economic Alliance (KEA) spokesman Siraj Ahmad said the repeated cloudbursts, landslides and heavy downpours since March this year – on top of last year’s devastating floods – had attracted considerable attention in the media, which has portrayed Kashmir as a disaster area.
“Almost daily news from Kashmir about extreme weather events has scared the tourists. Those who wanted to visit Kashmir this year would have thought ‘Why should we put our lives at risk?’,” Ahmad told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
With pictures of last year’s floods still fresh in their minds, “the weather events and their repeated reportage in the media directly influenced tourist arrivals this year, causing a 60 percent decline,” he added.
More than 300 people died in the floods in September 2014 and thousands were marooned for more than two weeks.
With two months of the current tourism season left, travel agencies operating in Srinagar said they had received a stream of cancellations.
“More than 70 percent of our bookings stand cancelled, as customers … were quite apprehensive about the weather. We couldn’t say much by way of persuasion as it was a matter of weather – something beyond our control,” said Nasir Khan, marketing head for Shiraz Travels in Srinagar.
“How Kashmir’s tourism is doing this year is reflected in the air fares for Srinagar,” he added.
In the past four years, the fare for Srinagar from different Indian cities rose as high as 25,000 rupees ($392) due to visitor demand, but this year it has dropped as low as 3,000 rupees, he noted.
Abdul Rehman, president of Tourist Taxi Stand Srinagar, said his drivers had cut fares by half in a drastic bid to woo passengers.
“There is hardly a car owner in our taxi stand who has not got his car against a bank loan. They have to do something to manage the monthly loan instalments,” Rehman said.