Tourists return to Kashmir, but India's jewel lacks its old sparkle

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The Independent Online

In 1812, Thomas Moore asked: "Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere/ With its roses the brightest that Earth ever gave?". Since then, the Kashmir Valley has been a mecca of sorts for visitors. It's been called the "jewel in India's crown", "the Switzerland of Asia", and even, according to the tourism department, "paradise on earth".

In 1812, Thomas Moore asked: "Who has not heard of the Vale of Cashmere/ With its roses the brightest that Earth ever gave?". Since then, the Kashmir Valley has been a mecca of sorts for visitors. It's been called the "jewel in India's crown", "the Switzerland of Asia", and even, according to the tourism department, "paradise on earth".

But over the past 14 years, since separatists in the mostly Muslim region began waging a war against the Indian state, Kashmir has been known more as the sandbag and barbed wire capital of the world than as a valley of natural beauty. All the guidebooks to India mention the threat of terrorism in Kashmir, and some continue to urge against travelling to the region. But this year, neither the dangers nor the inconveniences of visiting a conflict zone seem to have stopped the tourists.

This summer, Kashmir received the highest number of tourists since the insurgency began more than a decade ago, according to state government figures. Some 230,000 tourists flocked to Kashmir's houseboats and mountain pastures - and another 200,000 Hindu pilgrims came to Kashmir's Himalayas to visit a holy cave this summer. In the hot months of May and June, hotels and houseboats were almost completely booked out.

Isabela Chen and her husband are among the adventurous souls who decided to take peace moves between India and Pakistan at face value. They came to Srinigar with 17 other Taiwanese tourists. But, amid the chaotic crackling of military walkie-talkies in the heavily fortified airport, the Chens weren't feeling confident about the decision just yet.

"We've heard this is a very beautiful place," Isabela said. "But we know there's sometimes a war between India and Pakistan, and we cannot go out in the evenings. I am a little worried."

While the warring factions in Kashmir are aware of the importance of tourism to the economy and have tended to leave tourists alone, the 1995 kidnapping and presumed murder of five foreign nationals brought to an abrupt halt the stream of holidaymakers. Tourist agents and houseboat owners say their businesses have never recovered.

Pahalgam, the Valley of Shepherds, is one of the biggest tourist draws in Kashmir, as well as the starting point for pilgrims visiting the holy cave. It's the landscape most often featured in Bollywood love scenes. Tourists wandering the hills in recent days said they had weighed the risks, but decided they simply had to see Kashmir at some stage in their lives.

Pahalgam's shepherds and goatherds, who give pony rides to visitors during the summer months, say they have had their best business in years this season, thanks to the steady flow of tourists from north and west India.

But Yael, a teenager from Jerusalem, who came to Pahalgam in a rented coach along with 15 of her Israeli friends, wasn't so impressed. It wasn't the threat of militancy that upset her - she says she is used to that in Jerusalem, and many of her friends had just completed their duty in the Israeli army.

"Kashmir is very beautiful," she said. "But the people don't have the attitude to be with tourists. They tried to cheat us."

But of course, it is not holidaymakers who have suffered the most from the near collapse of Kashmir's tourist industry - it is the local who relies on their income to feed his family.

The Houseboat Owners' Association in Srinigar was established in 1930 - the first houseboats were built to accommodate the British Raj - and has become an influential lobby of Kashmir's tourism industry. Azim Tuman, head of the association, says the houseboats are such an essential part of a Kashmiri vacation that the state's logo features a tiny boat floating on a lake.

But, he says, he and his fellow houseboat owners have barely managed to stay above water during the long insurgency. The last of seven Kashmiri houseboat hull-makers is in his late seventies, and there is no one to take his place when he dies.

"For 14 years we have survived by stealing, begging, and borrowing. And I am very sorry to say that, 40 years from now, you will not find any houseboats left on the lake," he said.

Mr Tuman's family has been in the business for 140 years, but he even goes so far as to curse his ancestors for having entered the business: "If they had just sold roasted lentils on the road, perhaps we would be able to survive."

A ride in a shikara, or Kashmiri gondola, across Dal Lake is all the proof anyone needs that Kashmir's tourism industry is dying a slow death. It is not only the industry standards that have been neglected. The lake itself, once the gleaming, magical heart of Srinigar, is clogged with water weeds and garbage. Turquoise-tailed kingfishers dart through the hanging lotus and vegetable gardens, but now rubbish mars the back waterways, and many of the houseboats are rotting in the water. A houseboat owner, on his carved porch, takes a long drag on his hookah and stares into the green muck coating the lake. "This used to be heaven," he says.

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