By Shah Abbas
Srinagar, India, Apr 20 (efe-epa).- Kashmir’s famed tulips are in full bloom but Asia’s largest tulip garden in the India-administered part of the region, with over 1.3 million flowers, has had few visitors this year because of a strict lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Tulips in Kashmir signal the onset of spring and the season is extremely important for the economy of the region that has been battling decades of bloody conflict and is at the heart of a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan.
Kashmir was readying to welcome tourists this summer after the entire season last year was lost to unrest following the government’s sudden controversial decision to revoke the Muslim-majority region’s semi-autonomous status.
However, the onslaught of the coronavirus has shattered all hopes for any economic revival of Kashmir, where the disease has claimed five lives and infected over 350 people as on Monday.
The Tulip garden in regional capital Srinagar, spread over an area of nearly 30 hectares opens in the last week of March every year and remains an attraction for thousands of tourists and local visitors until April end.
The garden has also provided generations of visitors with picture-perfect opportunities to create images that have traditionally adorned family albums and are now shared widely on social media.
“We were expecting 300,000 visitors to enjoy the blooming of the world-class tulips which have a small life of just around a month,” Sheikh Altaf, the curator of the tulip garden, told EFE.
Altaf said the floriculture department had introduced an additional 100,000 flowers to the existing 1.2 million tulip bulbs grown in the garden.
“We hoped 1.3 million bulbs in full bloom for around 30 days. Our hope came true but there are no visitors,” he said.
The government threw the garden open for the first time in 2007 on the foot of the Zabarwan hills overlooking the famous Dal Lake in Srinagar.
The seven-terrace garden also grows other species of flowers like hyacinth, daffodil, and ranunculus.
It was added to other famed gardens of the centuries-old Mughal era nearby to boost tourism, one of the mainstays of the economy of Kashmir, which has been devastated since August after the government ordered all tourists to leave Kashmir immediately.
“The negative effects of the advisory were felt till early March this year when the coronavirus came like another spoiler. Only a few hundred tourists visited the region since August last, even after the advisory was removed (in December),” Abdul Salam Chishti, a member of House Boat Owners Association, told EFE.
“Tourist footfall has been drastically down since August last year leaving the people associated with the industry in deep crisis,” Chishti said.
“We had pinned all hopes on the fresh tourist season starting from March.”
A gardener told EFE that dozens of vendors, who used to make their living from their makeshift shops outside the tulip garden, have all lost their livelihood.
Rafiq Ganai is one of the vendors who have been idling away since August last year.
“I am cursing the day I was born in a conflict zone like Kashmir,” Ganai told EFE.
He said the global crisis due to the COVID-19 were temporary but there was no end to the Kashmir problem “as we are going through the same circumstances for decades”.