Beating the Heat in the Valley
A calm summer in Kashmir draws a record number of tourists, reports Baba Umar
Photos: Abid Bhat
Families enjoying a shikara ride in the scenic Dal Lake, blissful children zorbing in Sonamarg meadows, couples taking a gondola ride over the snow-covered Afarwat peaks in Gulmarg, Israelis surfing the Internet using Hebrew keyboards at cyber cafes, and visitors bargaining at the brightly-decked handicraft shops — call it conflict fatigue, enforced peace or a fragile calm, this summer, the unpredictable Kashmir Valley is back on the tourist radar.
After three years of uprising that saw hundreds of people, mostly youth, losing their lives to troopers’ and police bullets, Kashmir is witnessing the busiest tourist spell since the armed rebellion engulfed the Valley in 1989.
“The hotels are jam-packed. There is no room for fresh batches of tourists,” says Ajaz Kotroo, who owns a houseboat at Dal Lake. Kotroo says his houseboat has seen 100 percent occupancy since April and it has been a stellar year so far as planeloads of tourists have come from the plains and foreign shores to get a whiff of Kashmir’s coolness.
According to government figures, until mid-June, 5,53,216 tourists had visited the Valley. Of this, 17,319 were foreigners, a seasonal high in the past 22 years. Last year, by this time, only 3,33,210 tourists had visited the Valley.
The influx has been so huge that many tourists could be seen spending their nights inside buses and vans. Some are also seen pitching tents in parks across the Valley.
As a result of the tourist bulge, the home ministry has reportedly asked the CRPF to vacate key hotels in Srinagar to accommodate tourists. Sources say that around 45 hotels are occupied by the forces. But CRPF spokesman Sudhir Kumar says, “until the government offers us alternative accommodation, we can’t move out of these hotels”.
Domestic tourists are eager to take advantage of the current situation that has seen a decline in militant activity and street protests. Another attraction is the weather. With the temperature hovering over 40 degree Celsius in the plains, holidaymakers have been thronging Kashmir, which has been enjoying a cooler 29 degree Celsius. “It’s hot across India. As vacations had started, we decided to travel to Kashmir. We want to enjoy the springs and lush meadows before something bad starts again,” says Anju Devi, a Delhi resident.
Another curious sight is the rise in the number of Israeli tourists. David Landan, 32, who has been here since May, says the Muslim-majority region gives a bad vibe “if we discuss politics or conflict” but Kashmiris are “hospitable and good business people at heart”. “Seeing a barricade or a military picket is normal. It doesn’t change the beauty of the Valley. In Israel, everything is barricaded. So we are used to it,” he says.
His friend Ohad Bitan, 31, adds: “They never make you uncomfortable. They understand your value as a customer, regardless of your religion or race. They don’t ask too many questions, unlike their counterparts in the rest of the country.”
To draw more foreign tourists, the tourism department recently organised road shows in Tel Aviv. This is at a time when European Union countries, barring Germany, have cautioned their citizens against visiting the Valley. “Not only Israel, we want tourists from Saudi Arabia, Dubai and West Asia,” Tour-ism Director Talat Parveez told the media recently.
While the state is eager to paint the current situation as peaceful, industry players such as Siraj Ahmed, former chief of the Kashmir Hoteliers and Restaurant Owners’ Association, have warned against linking tourism with peace. “It’s not peace. It’s just a temporary calm,” says Ahmed, who runs Hotel Orion in Srinagar. “The summer of 1999 also saw a large number of tourists, but the Kargil conflict changed all that. Tourism is just an economic activity. Linking peace with it is a political gimmick.”
On the tourism department’s call urging private enterprises to join hands with the public sector in building more hotels, Ahmed says no one will invest in a business that attracts customers for only three months a year.
“The state doesn’t have a tourism policy. For three months of rush, they want us to create space for 12 months. What about the lean months? In a place like Kashmir where all seasons can be utilised for tourism, the government is sitting idle,” says Ahmed.
Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.