Locals along LoC subsist on border tourism amid financial woes

Homestays in Kupwara district have become popular after authorities restored border tourism last year.

By Suhail Khan

Residents of border areas in the north Kashmir’s Kupwara district have found a new way to overcome financial hardships — they offer their humble houses as homestays to visitors amid booming border tourism.

Due to economic challenges in a region due to cross-border tensions and insurgency, the locals were finding it difficult to make ends meet. As border tourism recently picked up pace, the locals have transformed their traditional houses into comfortable accommodations for tourists, offering unique cultural experiences.

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Nestled amidst the mighty Himalayan ranges, places like Keran, Machhil, and Tangdar in Kupwara district offer picturesque and awe-inspiring landscapes. With snow-capped mountains, lush green valleys, and pristine rivers, these places attract tourists and nature enthusiasts who engage in activities like trekking, and camping.

Some respite after decades of unrest

Apart from their natural allure, Macchil, Keran, and Tangdar hold strategic importance due to the proximity with the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan. The region, being close with Pakistan-administered Kashmir, has witnessed numerous military operations and gunfights.

The local population exhibits a rich cultural heritage and warm hospitality, with a distinct way of life deeply rooted in Kashmiri traditions and customs. Visitors have the opportunity to experience the local culture, indulge in traditional cuisine, and interact with friendly locals.

Around 1.5 lakh people reside in these border areas, most of whom depend on farming for their livelihood. “The people living in these border villages mostly depend on farming. Some work as army porters other move to other parts of the valley in search of a job,” said Rizwan, a resident of Keran.

With the government’s approval of border tourism, nearly 150 people have established homestays, 70 of which are registered with the government department. These homestays provide visitors accommodation, while offering local traditional food and showcasing Kashmir’s renowned hospitality.

These homestays have now become a significant source of income for the local community. The homestay resurgence has not only improved the economic situation of the border residents but has also provided visitors a unique opportunity to connect with these remote communities.

What sets border homestays apart from conventional accommodations is the genuine hospitality and warmth extended by the hosts, ‘who treat guests as part of their own families’. These personal connections create an unforgettable experience for tourists and foster a positive image of border communities.

‘Unforgettable experience’

Sharing his experience, Muneeb ul Haq, a frequent traveler to these places expressed satisfaction with the availability of well-maintained homestays that offer professional services akin to other popular hill stations and other tourist destinations across the country.

Muneeb said that before planning the trip to Keran, he was sceptical about where to stay and how the accommodation would be. “But once I reached there, I found many options from tents to hotels and homestays. Our homestay was very well maintained and the host was very professional,” he said.

He added: “The best part of these homestays is that you get to eat the local traditional food and experience the hospitality that Kashmir is known for. Not only does it help the visitors enjoy this enchanting beauty, but it has become a source of income for the impoverished local community.”

The border residents’ resilience and entrepreneurial spirit in embracing tourism opportunities through the homestay model serve as an inspiration for others facing similar challenges. Their ability to turn adversity into an advantage showcases how community-driven solutions can transform lives and revitalise economies, even in the most difficult circumstances.

‘It’s been like Eid’

Mohammad Asim, a resident of Tethwal, which is situated along the LOC, told Siasat.com, “It’s been a real Eid here since 2022. Tourists from across the country have been coming here in large numbers.”

Earlier, this place was not so popular among the tourists. He said earlier that it was very hectic to travel this part. After the government opened border tourism, a lot of visitors arrive and prefer to stay with local families during their trip.

Asim said he served around 100 tourists at his homestay over the last 8 months. “It’s really a relief for us that we start earning livelihood at our homes. Otherwise, there isn’t much to do here,” he added.

He also urged the government to identify land in the area where they can set up camps for adventitious visitors. He also appealed to the authorities to facilitate the movement of tourists in the area so more people show up.

Another local resident Mohammad Mushtaq said that offering homestays helps them earn livelihood. “We host tourists at affordable rates with comfortable stays. This area is otherwise cut off from the rest of the world due to the closure of roads for six months during winter,” Mushtaq added.

He added that opening border tourism by the government came as a sigh of relief for the locals, who would struggle to earn their bread and butter. “Tethwal used to be a bucket-list destination for many, but due to restrictions, no one was able to visit. However, after the government approved the border tourism here, people visit here everyday,” he added.

Abdul Satar Bhukari, a local shopkeeper said his business has also been increasing with more tourist footfall in the area.

Sudden rise in footfall

In 2022, authorities in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district inaugurated an online portal for e-permission with the aim of making it easier for non-resident tourists to visit border areas.

Tourists from across the country started visiting within less than a month after the order was issued. The move has proved a gamechanger for residents of border areas like Macchil, Tethwal, Keran, and Tangdar.

In absence of accommodation facilities in these areas, local residents came forward with homestay and paying guest facilities to cater to the growing footfall of tourists.

As per official data for 2020–21, 40,000 tourists visited Kupwara district. In 2022–23, 3,75,000 tourists visited the border district, and during the current financial year 2023–24, 2,50,000 tourists have already visited there. Since January, over 30,000 tourists have visited Teetwal alone.

Executive engineer of Tourism Department Kupwara Farooq told this reporter that most tourists visit three places along the Line of Control (LOC) in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district — Tethwal, Bangus, and Machhil.

He added that over seven thousand tourists from across the country visited Kupwara district in the last month alone. “Passes are easily available for tourists at the deputy commissioner’s office in Kupwara, and they can even apply for them online,” he said.

While online passes are available for tourists coming from outside the state, locals can directly visit the DC office to get passes, he said. Tourists need to apply for the passes at least 24 hours before their planned trip to these border areas.

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