Asia's largest tulip garden in Srinagar, Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, is a barometer of how Kashmir's tourism would spread itself for the rest of the year. Tourist footfall this season, however, reflects that the shadow of Afzal Guru's hanging still looms large but all eyes are on upcoming Baisakhi festival.
With more than 10 lakh tulip bulbs, the garden, spread over 20 acres of land at Zabarwan foothills, was thrown open two days earlier on March 27 than the last year because of feasible weather. But political atmosphere remain inclement because of frequent shutdowns, stone pelting incidents by separatists and curfew by the authorities in the wake of execution of Parliament attack convict Guru on February 9.
"Yes, there is a fallout of the execution this season. Most tourists come with a sense of fear and enquire about situation before venturing out," said Javaid Ahmad Shah, curator and in-charge of the tulip garden since its inception in 2006.
So far, the garden has witnessed tourist footfall of around 35,000. "Given the rush last year, we were expecting more tourists. However, mainly visitors from Kolkata have visited the garden. But there is a fall among tourists travelling from Mumbai, Gujarat, Delhi and Rajasthan compared to the previous year. We are hopeful to at least cross the last year's mark," said Ahmad.
Among tourists, locals, according to Shah, comprise only 10%. People still prefer not to be part of any festivals after Guru's execution. "The hanging and the killings thereafter have definitely sullied atmosphere here. Hundreds of youth continue to be on the run for participating in street protests and many behind the bars," said Ejaz Ahmad, a trekker and a picnic freak.
Last year, around 1.40 lakh tourists visited the garden up to last week of April. "We expect locals to throng the garden after Baisakhi, which falls on April 14," said Ahmad.
Tulip bloom is short lived and ends within five weeks. This year, the curator has spread 24 varieties from Holland like 'Fringed' and 'Lily' in beds to add new attraction. The tulip beds are nursed in long rows resembling Holland's Keukenhof garden, which shot to fame in India after 'Silsila' movie's song, featuring Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha.
The good news is that separatists have also climbed down their protest chart. "Tourists need not to fear. Kashmir is known for being the best host traditionally. We always welcome tourists," said moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq adding, "India has written a sad chapter of history by hanging Guru."
In the last 60 days since Guru's execution, Kashmir has lost around a month to protests and demonstrations.