One of the most important sectors of Jammu and Kashmir's economy is tourism.
Being the largest service industry in the UT, tourism contributes significantly to GDP, provides employment, yields tax revenue and also earns some foreign exchange for the country.
Like all vital sectors of J&K, tourism suffered huge losses ever since the outbreak of separatist violence in Kashmir.
Many European countries and the US issued advisories to their citizens not to travel to Kashmir, the place was categorised as 'an unsafe travel destination'.
This brought misery into the lives of thousands of locals, including hoteliers, guest house owners, houseboat and Shikara operators in addition to taxi owners, Ponywallahs, tourist guides and others connected with this industry like shawl makers, Papier Machie artisans, carpet weavers, wood carving artisans etc.
For more than 6 years after 1990, when violence took centre stage in Kashmir, tourism virtually came to a grinding halt.
Revival of this major local industry was a huge challenge for various successive governments that came to power after 1990.
It was not only the main tourist activity that came to halt, but even the pilgrimage tourism like the annual Amarnath Yatra to the Himalayan cave shrine also remained a highly subdued exercise.
One silver lining to the dark cloud was the pilgrimage to the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in Reasi district of Jammu division.
The rush of pilgrims to the deity's abode in Trikuta Hills kept increasing with each passing day.
It is estimated that each year over 2.6 crore devotees visit the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine.
There are places of tourist attraction in the Jammu division that were not adversely affected by the violence in the Valley, but there is no denying the fact that the major tourist attractions with worldwide popularity are in the Valley.
The Mughal Gardens around the Dal Lake in Srinagar, the floating palaces called the houseboats, Nigeen, Wullar and Manasbal lakes. Ski resort of Gulmarg, Sonamarg, the golden meadow and Pahalgam, angler's paradise with abundance of trout fish in its mountain streams, trekkers dream peaks like the Harmukh, Mahadev, Kolahoi Peak, lakes like the Gangabal, Sheshnag, Vishnusar, etc.
These are some places that are generally mentioned in travel brochures and catalogues of tour and travel operators, but the fact remains that Thomas Moore's 'Land of Lalla Rookh' is an unending tourism pageant the moment one crosses the Pir Panjal Mountain range to enter the Valley.
In his endeavour to bring tourism back to its past glory from where it would be taken forward to compete with world class destinations, Lt. Governor, Manoj Sinha said during a tourism promotion event recently, "For the transformation of tourism sector, five pillars will remain in focus which include sustainable development for the tourism industry, strengthening the hospitality sector, Human Resource development, development of golf and popularisation of food."
In J&K Budget 2021-2022 Rs 1,000 crore shall be taken up under the PM development programme for tourism infrastructure in addition to the Capex budget allocation.
Officials said the budget for tourism and culture, the two are allied departments, was Rs 283 crore in 2020-2021 and it is Rs 780 crore for 2021-2022.
Sarmad Hafeez, secretary of the tourism department said, "We are following a collective approach to tourism revival combining it with our art, culture and cuisine.
"We are planning to give the tourists an experience like they never had before. Like the 'Dounga' ride on the Dal and other lakes, living with locals in natural habitat, having ethnic food like not only the traditional Kashmiri 'Wazwan' but a lot of other local foods.
"In phase one of the vaccination drive even in the prioritised sector of 18 to 45 years, we have already vaccinated more than 80 per cent of our travel trade including hoteliers, taxi operators, Shikarawallahs, Ponywallahs, etc.
"We are training all tourism players for Covid protocols, etc."
Asked whether the government is expecting tourism revival this year or next year, the official said, "We are expecting revival soon and already some good signs are there, but it all depends upon how the Covid situation plays out.
"Already Covid situation is improving and we are getting to know from hoteliers and travel agents that they are getting enquiries and they have started taking bookings as well.
"We find an opportunity in the present situation because those travelling as tourists abroad from India cannot do so because of flight restrictions. They are now looking towards Kashmir.
"Our winter tourism was fantastic this year because those not able to travel abroad came to us.
"Even Pahalgam had winter tourism this year for the first time. We have created a lot of positivity outside. It is safe to travel to J&K during the pandemic than it is to any other tourist destination."
Asked about the tourism infrastructure, the official said, "The budget for JKTDC has also been increased manifold. Our publicity grants have gone up significantly.
"We planned several events last year. We did 'Badamwari' festival, winter carnival, 'Khelo India' etc.
"This year we are focusing on adventure tourism like camping, trekking, white water rafting and water sports.
"We are focusing on outdoor activities because outdoor tourism is the safest in the present situation."
Sarmad said in addition to this, efforts to woo Bollywood back to its choice outdoor location of Kashmir have already started bearing fruit.
"We had Bollywood units shooting films in the Valley even during the ongoing pandemic. We are sure that Bollywood is coming back to Kashmir in a big way," the tourism secretary asserted.
The tourism department is also embarking on Saffron and Horticulture tourism to provide additional avenues to the industry in Kashmir.
"Eco circuit tourism, film tourism, golf tourism, heritage tourism, religious/spiritual tourism, wellness tourism, lake tourism, rural/village tourism, wedding destination tourism, commercial corporate conference, etc. the potential is immense and we are sure to put the industry back on the rails," the secretary added.
With no dearth of funds and given the determination and hard work put in by officers of the Lt governor administration like Sarmad Hafeez, one has reason to believe that the dark days of Kashmir's tourism are going to end very soon.