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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Voices
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron appeal to the audience during the Question Time special
voices
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
News
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
news
News
Michelle Dockery plays Lady Mary in Downton Abbey
peopleBut who comes top of the wish list?
News
Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, right, with Lib Dem candidate Jane Dodds in Newtown, Powys, as part of her tour in support of the party’s female candidates
general electionNick Clegg's wife has impressed during the campaign
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living