Common Tourist Scams in Kashmir, India
You know all those popular quotes of “Kashmir being the paradise of earth” and sure I don’t deny that. It is probably the most beautiful place that I have ever been in my life (maybe except Bhutan). But still. However, there were a lot of things and people we crossed paths with who broke our hearts.
I know there are both good and bad experiences with places and people wherever you go, but being an Indian it was hard to accept that Kashmir could be so difficult to navigate. And while most people are sweet with a big heart, a lot of other people do ruin the experience.
Now I know that there is a lot of story behind it. After Kashmir has been swarmed by the military and the huge drop in tourism, people have suffered. So if I extend my heart, I can empathize with why they do it. But if you are planning your trip to Kashmir, you must know these scams and keep things in mind so as to not sour your experience in this piece of paradise.
Srinagar Airport Taxi Scam
Let’s start from the beginning. When you get down at Srinagar airport and if you are moving out of the airport towards the city, you need a cab. Now the taxi union at Srinagar airport has made it a point that any person who boards a cab from the airport needs to book the airport cab itself.
Outside cab is not allowed. In fact, if you book an outside cab, you will still need to pay the same amount of booking (₹700 in this case) to the taxi union.
I don’t think this applies for locals who use their own vehicles to pick up and drop. Also, it is not applicable while dropping off as well. But if you are not planning to book another cab, may as well book the airport cab to save the double cost.
There is no point arguing over it and you cannot even get around it. They will escort your vehicle outside the gate and extort the money from you anyway.
Rent my pony scam
Almost every place you go, be it a tourist attraction, a hiking trail or the gondola ride, you will be welcomed by a group of pony owners. They will tell you that you need a pony to travel in and around this place. Your cab driver will probably back it up and say that you cannot sightsee without a pony.
Now it’s not always correct. Sure ponies are convenient if you are not that fit to hike rugged terrain, but you don’t always need them. If you are fit, you can probably walk most of these places. Sometimes they also made the trail swampy for the first kilometre so that it looks too difficult to walk, but usually it is flat onwards.
The pony owners usually quote you a very high price and promise you to show 3/5/7 places. The prices are exorbitant and they will never show you all of those places. Some even take you for the ride, show you a random patch of land and return halfway to get another customer.
It will take a lot of persistence to say no to the nagging pony owners. Also, the government has put up fixed prices of boards at every town/tourist attraction. It usually starts from ₹350 for the first hour and ₹250 for every hour onwards. Make sure you fix the price beforehand and do not get into a fight later since they can really gang up with other local pony owners over you.
You need a guide scam
After the pony scam, it is time for the people to come in. Tourist guides are everywhere. It is not necessarily a bad thing since some of them really take you around with all their heart and you can learn a lot about their local culture from them. They are especially useful when touring a heritage site.
But seriously, you don’t need them EVERYWHERE! You don’t need them for short hikes, gondola rides, in open meadows and local monasteries. So if you don’t see the need for them, just say no. Chances are they still won’t listen to you and tag along. Some will even say that there are some points that only they can show to you. There are usually no such points. It is just a scam and like us, you will be pretty disappointed in the end.
Sometimes people offer additional tourist guides even with the ponies and the pony owners and they quote them as ‘helpers’. I don’t know what that means but you just need to be persistent to keep them away.
We will show you the snow scam
If you are visiting Kashmir during the winters, you will see snow everywhere. So this scam won’t apply. But if you are visiting Kashmir during late spring, summer and early autumn, chances are you won’t find any snow. Tourists love snow, and we go all the way to Kashmir to see that. The locals know that.
And to take advantage of that, the locals often promise to show you snow if you hire a cab, a tour guide, a pony or travel all the way to the next point. I can guarantee that what you will see will be a disappointment. Several local tour guides promised us this at the 2nd level of the gondola in Gulmarg and again at the Thajiwas glacier.
There is hardly any snow. What is present is a sad little patch of white powder that could pass as limestone. And people even get tourists to even ski on that, even though it was clearly not possible.
Go in search of snow only if you hear it from another tourist. Or don’t spend your money and time over it at all. Kashmir has another kind of beauty to enjoy during the summers and it is equally breathtaking.
You need a local cab scam
Cabs are a hassle in Kashmir. Even if you hire a cab inside Kashmir, you still won’t be able to go to some places. Why? Because local taxi unions gang up and block access to several tourist destinations for outside cabs. Forget about getting a vehicle from another state.
So if you are travelling to a place e.g. Pahalgam, contact your hotel owner and book a local cab to show you around places like Aru valley, Betab valley, Chandanwadi etc.
The prices are pretty reasonable and the cab drivers are usually very nice and accommodating. It is just the practice of shunning out outside cabs that leads to annoyance. Plus, you end up paying double for transportation at a lot of places.
Renting ski equipment/Snow clothes scam
If you are travelling during the wintertime, you will want to enjoy snow activities, something for which you travelled all the way to Kashmir. Locals sell ski equipment and ski lessons with full passion. You should definitely go ahead and do that but make sure you know the prices that the government has capped it on.
In 2021, the prices for ski equipment are ₹1000 per day and ₹500 for half-day cost. The prices for a ski instructor is ₹500 per day and ₹250 for half day. So make sure you negotiate as per it.
You will also need some solid winter clothes. Make sure you have all of it. Check out the videos on how to layer and what special garments like snow boots that you will need to keep you warm since Kashmir gets shit cold and the temperature drops several degrees below zero.
Because if you don’t you may get engulfed in these scams where the locals pester you to rent out the winter wear or you will probably die out in the cold. You probably won’t but if you are well equipped, you won’t doubt yourself. The ski instructors also ask for a hefty price seeing that you will probably comply since you don’t want to ruin your experience.
If you are in Kashmir, you must try and buy saffron. It is the most expensive spice in the world and is cultivated in only a few parts of the world. Saffron is the filament in the centre of the flower called saffron crocus and 750,000 flowers generate only 500 grams of saffron.
Undoubtedly, there are a lot of knock-offs going around. Even in Kashmir! You will find a lot of people selling saffron ranging from grand shops to street peddlers. Some of it may be real, some may not. If you are not an expert, you won’t be able to tell. Plus it is freakishly expensive.
So if you want to buy real saffron, head to a government-funded shop (you will find them in almost every city). You can also stop at some of the shops in Pampore, the place where all the saffron is grown. The shops there are usually reliable and the product quality is very good.
Again, like saffron, Pashmina is an extremely expensive commodity. A lot of people including foreigners have heard of the royal and rare pashmina wools. And you can find a lot of it in the wrong places. Pashmina is the wool that comes out of this special pashmina sheep. It is extremely fine, rare, soft and warm.
In most shops, you will be able to find some kind of Pashmina product. Most of them does not have any Pashmina wool in them and only a few of them are a mix – a blend of some amount of pashmina with the regular wool. So be very careful.
A Pashmina shawl or a scarf is so thin that you can fold it as a handkerchief and keep it in your pocket. It also keeps you very warm and don’t forget it is extremely expensive. A pure pashmina shawl can easily cost you more than ₹1,00,000. Buy these only at government shops and double-check with a trusted local to verify its authenticity.
Shikara Ride Scam
If it’s your first time in Kashmir or Srinagar, you cannot miss a shikara ride, even if you have been on thousands of boating trips. Dal lake is special and the glamour of Bollywood has popularized these shikara rides into something exotic. It is also as beautiful as it sounds.
But looking at the popularity and naive tourists, the people at the boat station will quote you with random prices. The prices of each shikara ride that lasts for an hour is mentioned on a board next to each ghat from where you can hire a shikara. Make sure you pay only that price.
During the ride, you will encounter a lot of vendors on their boats loaded with souvenirs and jewellery. Sure go ahead and buy them if you want, but keep your distance if you aren’t looking to waste your time because they can get clingy. I pretended to close my eyes sometimes and enjoy the moment and it worked for a few minutes at least.
I know that looked like a lot of scams but if you look past these, Kashmir is beautiful. People in the valley have really suffered in the last few years where their income has dropped considerably. With little or no education or alternate means of earning, they aim to get as much as they can from tourists.
Long winters also force them to stay home and they are dependent on the money that they have earned only during the peak tourist period. One of my guides told me that he walked 7km to and back (14 km) and then 10 km more at work to earn as little as ₹350-500 a day. That could make anyone’s heart melt.
Anyway, since there are two sides to the coin, empathise but don’t ruin your holiday, okay?