Frequent fires and a ban on construction of new boats to be used as homes or hotels are endangering the heritage houseboat industry in Kashmir. The worried houseboat owners consider the industry to be on the verge of extinction. The elaborately decorated and often luxurious vessels — effectively small hotels that line the shores of Dal Lake and the region’s other scenic waterways — have been a major attraction for generations of foreign tourists and for Indians seeking relief from the summer heat of New Delhi. But the number of boats has fallen from 3,000 in the 1970s to a little more than 850 today with a total capacity of around 2,400 guest rooms, according to Abdul Rasheed Khankashi, 60, who has been associated with the industry all his life. Of those, he said, almost 200 need immediate major repairs if they are to remain in operation.
The decline accelerated in 2010 when the Jammu and Kashmir High Court prohibited houseboat owners from engaging in any type of maintenance, citing the need to preserve Dal Lake’s fragile ecosystem. In April 2020, the authorities issued new guidelines permitting the owners to make some repairs, but only after an onerous process of obtaining clearances from various government agencies. Abdul Rasheed Kloo, general-secretary of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association, says the process is still too burdensome. He also referred to a period after August 2019 and then the subsequent shutdown because of COVID-19, which resulted in no business.
“Is it possible for us to abide by such rules if there is no business?” Kloo asked. “The current state of affairs is that we’re unable to cover our basis costs and many among us have not even paid their electric bills for years together. … Our future is quite bleak.”
The history of houseboats in Kashmir dates from the 18th century, when a British army general made the first Doonga (small boat). The placid waters of Dal Lake, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, quickly became a favored summer destination for British colonialists, and the houseboats proliferated. Most of today’s boats are built from Indian cedar and have between two and five bedrooms, a sitting and dining room, an attached washroom and pantry. Houseboats can also be found in other parts of India, but tourists are attracted by the unique style and construction of Srinagar's boats, not to mention the stunning mountain views reflected in the lake.
But the wooden vessels are highly vulnerable to fires, which have gutted close to 10 boats on Dal and Nigeen lakes in the past year alone. Bilal Badyari, who had five of his houseboats reduced to ashes in April, told VOA that the fire started in the middle of the night.
“By the time we got to know about it, the fire went wild and destroyed all the houseboats in the row,” he said. More than 30 tourists were on board the houseboats at the time but none was hurt. “We endangered our lives, but we evacuated and saved all tourists,” he said, explaining that the fire had been started by a tourist who was smoking. Two other houseboats on Dal Lake in Srinagar were destroyed by fire in January. Officials were unable to determine the cause of that blaze. Jahangir Badyari, the owner of a houseboat in Nigeen Lake, described several other challenges facing the houseboat community, including the cumbersome bureaucracy.
“We can’t even open the bank account for our business, and to have one we need government registration or renewals,” he told VOA. “That needs a No Objections Certificate from tens of government departments, which is close to impossible to get.”
Even if the construction of new boats was permitted, he said, there is a shortage of the special cedar that is traditionally used and few remaining craftsmen with the necessary skills. Kloo said his boat was first commissioned in 1984, and construction took 18 months with the help of 12 types of craftsmen. Despite the problems, tourists who stay on the remaining houseboats rave about the experience, citing the opportunity to experience the local cuisine, learn about local customs and enjoy a unique showcase of natural splendor and cultural diversity.
“You’ll want to return to it even after you’ve checked it off your bucket list, to rediscover it as if you’d discovered it for the first time,” said Upendra Sawant, a tourist from Mumbai. Rauf Tramboo, president of the Adventure Tour Operators Association of Kashmir, said tourists prefer to stay in their boats rather than the three- and five-star hotels that line the shores of Dal Lake. He and other tour operators hope the boats will get a boost from a plan to begin giving them star ratings, much like hotels.
There is also a move to review the rules governing the registration, renewal and operation of houseboats on Dal and Nigeen lakes. Arun Kumar Mehta, the chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir, presided over a meeting in April where it was resolved that a committee would take charge of inspecting the houseboats to guarantee compliance with all established rules and procedures, such as structural safety, fire hazards, and sewage and waste disposal. The committee will also be tasked with reviewing any houseboat paperwork for registration or renewal of registration.