Houseboats have become inseparable part of the Kashmir tourism industry acting as cultural ambassadors over the decades. However over the past many years’ house boats as commercial enterprises are battling for survival. In an interview with Rising Kashmir senior staffer Rashid Paul, Mohammad Azim Tuman, President Houseboat Owners Association, the old hand in this business talks about the distressed community and measures that can take the traditional sector from the current morass.
Q. How important are Houseboats for Kashmir’s tourism industry?
A. Very important. We are the ambassadors of Kashmir, selling peace and conveying to the world about its culture, hospitality, crafts and its breath taking natural resorts.
Q. What role does a Houseboat play in promoting tourism?
A. Each Houseboat catering to a single tourist sustains scores of people that are directly and indirectly associated with different sectors. We consider a visitor as our guest. By virtue of our accommodation we contribute to the earnings of a Shikara wala, florist, caterer, taxi operator and many other people from different streams of life. We help India earn foreign exchange and also contribute to the local economy.
Q. You have been associated with hospitality industry for over 50 years. When did House boats actually synergize with Kashmir tourism?
A. Historical records speak of the existence of rudimentary prototypes of houseboats since Mughal period. However, boarding houseboats were introduced in the early twenties of the past century. By 1947 Kashmir had 3000 houseboats. Then the number plummeted to 200 by 1952 when Kashmir was out of bound for tourists because of the friction between India and Pakistan over the region. After that Houseboats revived again on their own with out any outside support.
Q. What is the current status?
A. Nearly 1100 houseboats exist in Dal and Nageen lakes of Kashmir. The number is dwindling with each passing day and I apprehend that in next 20 years there shall be no house boats in Kashmir at all. Future generations shall come to know about them through text and images.
A. Due to multitude of factors. Tourists avoid visiting Kashmir in the prevailing situation. Also, some groups and individuals have created an impression that we are precipitating the destruction of the water bodies of Kashmir. The judiciary wants us to go and the executive forces us to sink. Neither can we neither renovate nor reconstruct our Houseboats.
Q. Is there a ban imposed by the government?
A. Apparently there is no ban, but we are supposed to take official permission for even a small renovation and the procedure is backbreaking. We are deprived of timber. For the kind of timber pencil industry gets at Rs 250 per cubic feet we are charged Rs 1700.
Q. What is the policy of the government with regard to Houseboats?
A. The government has no clear cut policy. They neither allow us to live nor permit to die. Most of the houseboats are degenerating and shall sink any day. I have a houseboat built during the World War II, procedural difficulties and expensive timber makes it impossible for me to continue with it. The house boats have become a white elephant for us. In the current circumstances they are untenable.
Q. Assuming the Houseboat sector is revived. What is the potential of this industry?
A. We have a 3000 bed capacity as on date. If allowed to replace the outlived house boats with new ones the Houseboat sector has the potential to generate Rs 360 crores in a single season spanning just three moths.
Q. Has the civilian rule improved the flow of tourists?
A. Yes. A sustained campaign for promotion of tourism did pay its dividends. We had full occupancy in 1999. But unfortunate incidents like attacks on tourists by unknown agencies and Amarnath land row turned us back to square one. Besides, a monstrous image has been created about Kashmir in the outside world. State agencies have a role to play in implementing the desired change.
Q. Are youth from your community interested in Houseboat business?
A. Our younger generations are not interested to carry forward the legacy of Houseboats. None of them is ready to adopt it as a means to live. They are taking up different professions. Besides making of houseboats even if allowed is now impossible given the amount of resources it needs. The cost of making a Houseboat would need a fortune.
A cubic square feet of Deodar wood was available for Rs20 in eighties. Its price has reached Rs 1700 per cubic feet. One could easily construct a houseboat from Rs one lakh two decades earlier. An estimated Rs 3.75 crores are now needed to have the same sized structure.
Q. Houseboats have been alleged as major cause of pollution and encroachment in Jhelum, Dal and Nageen lakes. Your take?