Earlier this month, Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant-Governor Manoj Sinha predicted that the number of tourists arriving to the Union territory this year would create new records.

“There is a 350% rise in tourist footfall compared to last year,” Sinha said at a tourism festival in the border district of Kupwara. He said that 1.58 crore tourists have already visited Jammu and Kashmir. “This year, the number of tourists is expected to cross 2.25 crore, a record figure.” He credited the successful G20 summit meeting held in Srinagar in May for drawing more tourists to the region.

Given the history of conflict, shutdowns and mass public protests in the Union territory, particularly Kashmir valley, the number of tourist arrivals has been often seen as an index of peace in the region.

When Jammu and Kashmir was a state, almost every government at the state and the Centre equated higher numbers of tourists in the valley with “normalcy”.

Since August 5, 2019, the day when Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and statehood was scrapped, New Delhi has laid a massive thrust on attracting more and more tourists to the region.

In the recent hearings challenging the abrogation of Article 370 in the Supreme Court, for example, the government of India said the move was justified by the progress in the territory, including the surge in tourists.

According to the Union territory administration, the number of tourists in Jammu and Kashmir was 1.88 crore in 2022, a number that broke all previous records.

While an improving law and order situation has coincided with more visitors to the Union territory, a closer look at the figures throws up counter-intuitive insights.

For one, the prize draw for tourism in the erstwhile state is Jammu, not Kashmir.

Second, pilgrims to religious shrines drive most of the traffic to Jammu and Kashmir – as was the case before August 5, 2019.

It also raises a question: should Jammu and Kashmir be counting pilgrims as tourists?

Pilgrims head for the Amarnath shrine from Nunwani base camp in Pahalgam. Credit: IANS.

Tourist attraction: Jammu

With a beautiful landscape, gushing rivers and snow-capped mountains, Kashmir is a tourist destination of global fame.

But despite the improving law and order situation in the Valley, official tourism figures reveal that the Jammu region attracts many more tourists than Kashmir.

Stone-pelting and pro-freedom protests have ended after August 2019, the widespread crackdown on separatists and what authorities call the “terror ecosystem” has marked an end to frequent shutdowns. Except for targeted civilian killings, particularly of those belonging to minority communities and labourers from other parts of India, the overall security situation in the Valley has considerably improved.

In 2022, which saw a new record of tourists, only 14% visited Kashmir. That number includes the 3.65 lakh pilgrims who visited the cave shrine of Amarnath.

“This is because of the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in Jammu where millions of people come every year,” said a former official with the Jammu and Kashmir government’s tourism department, who asked not to be identified.

Pilgrims have to undertake a trek of nearly 12 kilometres to reach the holy cave of Mata Vaishno Devi, which is situated at an altitude of 5,200 feet in Jammu’s Reasi district.

Open for visits throughout the year, this is one of the biggest draws for visitors to Jammu and Kashmir – more than 1 crore pilgrims visit the shrine annually.

In 2022, more than 91 lakh pilgrims visited the shrine. “These numbers are now being included in the total number of tourists visiting Jammu and Kashmir annually,” the former tourism department official added.

Pilgrims plus tourists

In November, Omar Abdullah, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and vice-president of the National Conference party said the Union territory administration’s claims of over 1 crore tourists in Jammu and Kashmir was “juggl[ing] with figures”.

“They suddenly came up with this claim that for the first time since Independence some 1.60 crore tourists visited Jammu and Kashmir,” Abdullah told Scroll. “I have also been chief minister and I have also tried to promote tourism. And I was never able to get more than 14-15, maybe 16 lakh, tourists in a year. I was like ‘What the hell did I do wrong?’”

He continued: “…But then, when you start looking at the number, you realise that actually all they have done is reverse a previous decision, which is that we did not count yatris [pilgrims] as tourists.”

Even though governments of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir compiled data of all the visitors to Jammu and Kashmir, pilgrims and tourists were categorised separately. This changed after 2019.

A file photograph of pilgrims making their way to the Vaishno Devi temple in Jammu. Credit: Reuters.

According to an analysis of official data by Scroll, the erstwhile state, which then included the Union territory of Ladakh, saw more than 1.25 crore visitors way back in 2012. But 88% of them were pilgrims to the shrines of Amarnath and Mata Vaishno Devi.

Similarly, the former state saw more than 1.09 crore visitor arrivals in 2013, out of which 88% again were pilgrims.

In both cases, the arrivals at Mata Vaishno Devi shrine dominate the inflows. Out of the total 1.25 crore visitors in 2012, 83 % were pilgrims visiting the shrine. In 2013, 85% were pilgrims headed for the Jammu shrine.

Abdullah had pointed out: “Hardly any yatris actually perform the activity of a tourist.”

A tourist’s visit to Jammu and Kashmir involves a greater engagement with the local economy. They book multiple hotels, shop for local merchandise and eat at restaurants. Pilgrims, on the other hand, usually stay in the camps put up at shrines and eat in community kitchens.

If pilgrims did book hotels, the Union territory would, perhaps, have run out of rooms – a question raised by Abdullah, who pointed out the difference in the high number of tourists and the region’s limited accommodation capacity.

According to Jammu and Kashmir government’s latest economic survey, the Union territory has a total room capacity of 58,100 and an aggregate bed capacity of 124,196. This includes accommodation facilities in both the government as well as private sector.

Raja Yaqoob, the director of Tourism Kashmir, declined to comment on the mechanism employed by the Union territory administration to collect the tourist arrival data. He also refused to comment on why the government was publicising the figures that aggregated pilgrims together with tourists.

Tourists on the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar, in April 2022. Credit: Reuters.

‘Mostly estimates’

Despite the enthusiasm about tourism, Jammu and Kashmir does not have a scientific method of collecting tourist arrival details, two former tourism department officials and representatives of tourism-industry related bodies told Scroll.

The method that has been in place for decades involves posting tourism department officials at Srinagar airport and Banihal, the entry point to Kashmir valley in South Kashmir.

“It’s mostly estimates,” explained the ex-tourism department official. “They stop a vehicle and ask them from where they have come. Let’s say the passengers say they are from Rajasthan; they just peek into the car and note down the number of passengers or sometimes they just write down a figure based on the carrying capacity of a vehicle. It’s just not possible to count everyone,”

The former official said tourism department members “scan through the passengers arriving from each flight and then estimate that this or that much per cent were tourists”.

Only foreign tourists arriving in the region have to register themselves. “Domestic tourists don’t have to register or fill up any form etc.,” the official said.

In comparison, the official added, those coming for pilgrimage are duly registered. “The most authentic tourist arrival data is only about pilgrims as all of them have to get registered and they are allowed only after registration,” he added.

A member of the Valley’s Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Association said the government should invest in creating a systematic method to collect details of tourists arriving in the Union territory. “The estimation model is not accurate,” said the member, who said he is not authorised to speak to the media. “Kashmir has a huge presence of defence forces. Then there are non-locals who also come here for business and work. Therefore, not every outsider arriving in Jammu and Kashmir is a tourist.”

Accurate data will help the government to draft effective policies for the tourism sector, he added. “There’s no doubt that more tourists are coming to Kashmir now,” he said.

For instance, the arrival of 26.73 lakh tourists in the Kashmir Valley in 2022 created a new high. The previous record for tourists visiting Kashmir valley occurred in 2016 – with around 13 lakh arrivals. “That’s why the focus should be on how to make it more productive for the local economy,” said the member of the Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Association.