Jammu and Kashmir is expected to see a record number of tourist arrivals this year but one of its standout attractions, the houseboat, is struggling to stay afloat. The number of houseboats in four key waterbodies in the Union Territory has more than halved in the past three decades, with many sinking, some others catching fire and several others just not being maintained. Strict pollution and sewage laws are also preventing the construction of new boats and major repairs on existing ones.
According to the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association, the number of houseboats on the iconic Dal Lake, Nageen Lake, Chinar Bagh and Jhelum River has come down to just 750. The number was 2,000 in 1990, around the time that militancy reared its ugly head in the erstwhile state.
For tourists, a visit to Kashmir is incomplete without at least a night’s stay in a houseboat and this was echoed by a couple from Gujarat, who were staying in one such boat in Dal Lake with their children.
NDTV spoke to Allena Modi and Bijal Bhai Modi, from Ahmedabad, who said the houseboat experience – their first – was like no other.
“Even if you visit all the places in Jammu and Kashmir, your trip will not be complete if you don’t stay in a houseboat. We are staying in one at the Dal Lake and the boat – with its intricate woodwork, curtains and carpets – has made us feel connected to old Kashmir. This is something our children have not seen. This is the first time we are staying in a houseboat,” said Ms Modi.
“We had already made a plan to stay here and it was part of our itinerary. Living in a houseboat for at least a night is a must. You get to experience Kashmiri traditions in a way that you can’t in hotels. And, when you look out the window, you see the beautiful Dal Lake and the mountains surrounding it. After some time, you will see the Dal Lake frozen and tourists will get to enjoy that too,” she added.
The idea of houseboats as floating resorts for tourists took hold in the 19th century after British businessman R Foster launched the Clermount houseboat on the western shores of the Dal Lake. He did so after he failed to buy land in the Valley due to laws that barred non-locals from owning land in Kashmir even during the British Raj.
The Butt’s Clermount houseboats are still a favoured destination for diplomats, celebrities and foreign tourists, even as its seven-houseboat fleet is now reduced to three. The who’s who from across the world, who visited Kashmir, have stayed here in the past 80 years and their photographs adorn the walls of the reception.
Manzoor Ahmad Butt, the owner of Butt’s Clermount Houseboats, said, “An Englishman came and lived near the Nageen Lake in Srinagar. He liked Kashmir and wanted to buy land here to build a house so he could return every year. He approached his friend, the Maharaja, and requested permission, which was declined as per local laws. The Maharaja advised him to build a houseboat”
“The Maharaja wanted him to have a houseboat on water and nothing permanent on land,” he added.
These local laws, in some form, were in place until August 5, 2019, when the Centre revoked Article 370.
Since the Kashmir valley was dotted by picturesque water bodies, life and transportation on the water are as old as the Valley’s known history. Boats in Kashmir have a Gujarati link as well, and Mughal Emperor Akbar improved the watercraft.
Hakim Sameer Hamdani, author and design director of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), Kashmir, said “The early references we have are from medieval Sanskrit sources which speak of bathhouses on boats. But, then, as we move towards the late medieval and early modern period, the Sultanate period, there is a reference that Sultan Zain-ul-Abideen got sailors and boatmen from Gujarat who were well-versed in operating as well as crafting boats
“And when we come to the Mughal period, Akbar improved existing boats because the emperors and the courtiers liked to be on the Dal Lake and other lakes,” he added.
Manzoor Pakhtoon, president, Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association, said the decreasing tourist numbers since the 90s contributed to the decline of houseboats and the supply has not increased despite the boom in recent years.
“Since 1990, the number of houseboats has been declining. Some sank, some caught fire and others are not being maintained. For a long time, there was little tourism and people had no money to maintain the houseboats. Some got disinterested and left the business,” Mr Pakhtoon said.
“There are only 750 houseboats in the Nageen Lake, Dal Lake, Jhelum River and Chinar Bagh. The figure was 2,000 in 1990. Some deluxe-class houseboats have been maintained well and are seen in the Dal and Nageen lakes. In the other two water bodies, they are finished. Most of them couldn’t keep pace with market demand and failed to provide modern facilities to tourists,” he rued.
Other members of the association said some owners who want to repair their boats can’t do so in time because of delays in getting official permissions and the limited availability of the expensive Cedarwood.
A ban on making new houseboats and undertaking large-scale repairs was put in place by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court after complaints that the vessels were polluting Dal Lake in the absence of a proper sewage treatment system. The government came up with plans for sewage treatment plants for houseboats twice, but they failed to see the light of day. A fresh effort is now being made to address the issue.
Fire is also a huge factor. In the past year, over a dozen deluxe houseboats caught fire in the Nageen and Dal lakes. Three tourists from Bangladesh died after a fire broke out in a houseboat last week and spread to four other vessels.