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Kashmir is back on the tourist map 
By M H Lakdawala

For centuries, writers have used the words, "paradise on Earth" to describe Kashmir's snowcapped mountains, mirrorlike lakes, flower gardens, fruit orchards, pine forests, rushing rivers, green valleys and fragrant meadows. There are visible signs of return to normalcy almost everywhere. About 80,000 have been thronging Gulmarg, especially during weekends.

  Kashmir is on the tourism map once again. Yes Kashmir is safe for the tourist. Promoting tourism was top of the mind in the recently concluded Travel and Tourism Fair (TTF) in Mumbai, the five associations representing Kashmir Travel industry were in full strength convincing the prospective tourist to the valley.

The valley Tourism department is taking steps to win back travelers. The Farooq Abdullah government is doing its bit by allocating Rs 2 crore [20 million] for promotions and is giving regular loans to hoteliers and tour operators.However, all this does not seem to be enough. Despite the state government’s massive PR exercise, Bollywood, earlier one of the major investors in Kashmir, is not interested. After Mission: Kashmir, not many producers have dared to shoot under the strict army vigil. 

Says M Azim Tuman, vice chairman of the House Boat Owners Association, traditional scenic locations like Gulmarg, which interested the film producers, are still far away from the conflict. But no one seems to be interested. We are trying to contact some of them in Mumbai as coordinating from Kashmir is difficult.

There are a little over 1200 authentic houseboats left in Kashmir, he adds. These traditional houseboats can never be replicated. People have to shed this misplaced fear about a paradise that is part of their own country.

Developing house-boats and cleaning Dal Lake and skiing resorts in Gulmarg has not helped the local tour operators greatly, who are anxious to attract more people from urban cities, offering heavily discounted packages, some as low as Rs 7,000 for a fifteen day excursion. Says G Hassan Surma, secretary general of the Travel Agents Society of Kashmir (TASK), The conflict lies along the border, not the interiors. Yes, there is a military presence and constant vigil but life in cities like Srinagar and Gulmarg carries on as usual. Basically, if a Mumbaikar were to ask me if it is safe to visit Kashmir, I would ask him ‘is it as dangerous as Mumbai?’

Says Amar Singh, deputy director of tourism (publicity), ‘Our state has suffered because of incidents outside its control and territory. The war in Afghanistan is many miles away but was unnecessarily linked with Kashmir. We’re here to dispel these misgivings. Why go to Switzerland for skiing and soaking in the scenic verdancy of the mountains when you can do it in Kashmir? Why spend over $ 100 a day in Switzerland when you can spend as little as Rs 500 in Kashmir?

Tourists have been scarce in Kashmir for much of the past decade, since militants began an insurrection to separate the state from India.Kashmir has been at the center of two of the three wars between India and Pakistan since independence from Britain in 1947.The fear psychosis was at its peak when five Western tourists, trekking in the mountains, were kidnapped by a little-known militant group in 1995.

Set like a jewelled crown on the map of India, Kashmir is a many-faceted diamond, changing its character with the seasons always extravagantly beautiful. Three Himalayan ranges - Karakoram, Zanskar and Pir Panjal - snow-capped, majestic, frame the landscape from northwest to northeast. They are the birthplace of great rivers, which flow down into the valleys below, forested with wild orchards and lily-laden lakes. It is not enough to say that Kashmir is beautiful. Kashmir has captured within its territories the quintessence of all the elements that poetry demands of nature. Awesome grandeur, serenity, a wild profusion of color. The Mughals, who celebrated beauty, planted their symmetrical gardens and added a further dimension to the valleys of Kashmir. They also left behind a heritage of exquisite artisanship among the people, making the handicrafts of the land prized gifts the world over.

Except for the rice paddies, Kashmir Valley is reminiscent of Switzerland, right down to stone-and-timber houses with carved walnut shutters and wooden pony carts. For centuries, writers have used the words, "paradise on Earth" to describe Kashmir's snowcapped mountains, mirrorlike lakes, flower gardens, fruit orchards, pine forests, rushing rivers, green valleys and fragrant meadows. There are visible signs of return to normalcy almost everywhere. About 80,000 have been thronging Gulmarg, especially during weekends. Zahir Shah a house boat operator is very optimistic about attracting tourists from India.The main problem we are facing is to convince people that Kashmir is a safe place. There are no incidents reported when tourist has been harmed in any ways. But we are sure that once awareness is created about Kashmir being safe for tourist, the people will visit the valley in large numbers, he said.

"Last year valley saw a rather heavy inflow of tourists both domestic and international, especially between July and August when people from all over the country were pouring in for the annual Amarnath pilgrimage .People came in large groups from different parts of the country and it gave us good business" points out Abdul Gaffar, a houseboat owner in Dal Lake visiting Mumbai to convince the tourists. "As a result, the rent for overnight stay in a house boat went up to Rs. 1,000 per night this year with enough scope for bargaining when almost all house boats remained vacant. 

Pilgrims going to the holy Amarnath cave invariably extend their stay by a day or two to go around Srinagar. This year, the tourists came mostly from Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Maharashtra. The international tourists have mainly been from Taiwan, China, Japan and the Philippines. Tourism has given a boost to the local small scale handicraft industry also" said Surma. There is a perceptible change in the psyche of the people and also the manner in which they react to `issues/occasions' considered to be of utmost importance once upon a time. The lack of enthusiasm in observing Pakistan's Independence Day (Aug 14) and the death anniversary of Zia-ul-Haq (Aug17) marked a qualitative shift in public sentiment against Pakistan. In contrast the official functions in the state on Aug 15, were well attended as compared to the lackluster celebrations in previous years, he said.

One can only hope that normalcy returns in Kashmir and people can continue to enjoy the breeze of peace, which has started blowing across the state after seven years of turmoil. The political issues can be mutually discussed and solved through negotiations. Majority of Kashmiri people depends on Tourism for survival it is high time state government actively promotes tourism through out the country.

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