SRINAGAR, June 3: For nearly a century, hand-carved houseboats bobbing on a placid lake drew millions of visitors to the stunningly beautiful region of Kashmir.
But today a grand houseboat where Beatle George Harrison once stayed sits rotting and half-submerged in the mirror calm Dal lake, one of Kashmir’s main tourist attractions.
The number of ornate boats is dwindling because of an 18-year-old ban on new construction of cedarwood houseboats and strict rules on renovation.
“Less than 1,000 houseboats are left now and the number is dwindling with each passing day,” Mohammad Azim Tuman, president of the Houseboat Owners Association, said.
Tuman said there were 1,500 two decades ago when an anti-India insurgency hit the region, sending tourism numbers crashing.
Houseboats — with names such as Noah’s Ark, Mona Lisa, Helen of Troy and Queen of Hearts — were first introduced in Dal Lake by the British nearly a century ago.
Authorities say pollution from houseboats is one of the reasons threatening the survival of Dal Lake.
Local officials say that during the summer tourist season roughly 100,000 litres of sewage from houseboats spews into the lake, feeding weeds and choking the lake and its aquatic life of oxygen.
“Houseboats contribute to just 3 percent of Dal pollution and there are other reasons for the present condition, which the authorities are overlooking,” Tuman says.
Authorities say they have launched a multi-million dollar Dal Lake conservation plan that could see the mass removal of some 60,000 people living in and around the lake.
“The government’s priority is to save the Dal Lake, so there is a blanket ban on new construction of houseboats,” Farooq Ahmad, former director of Kashmir’s tourism department, said.