Jetlagged backpackers fall for Kashmiris' con-trick

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The Independent Online
Every night you can find them outside Indira Gandhi International airport in New Delhi. Their insistent quality would make a timeshare salesman seem bashful and hesitant. Even seasoned travellers have succumbed. Warnings do not seem to work. These people's lies are intricate - and apparently more convincing to travellers than current Foreign Office notices. The results can be disastrous.

Dozens of visitors to New Delhi are duped every night during the hours of pre-dawn purgatory after their planes touch down. While the travellers try to find a taxi and check into a hotel in the Indian capital, the Kashmiri touts move in - to dramatic effect.

Most guidebooks note that the woods, hot springs and mountain trails near Srinagar, although beautiful, remain no-go areas for casual tourists because of tension between militant Muslim separatists and Indian troops. Foreigners who have strayed into the violence have been abducted and murdered; so have Indian tourists. These books do not caution against unsolicited sales pitches from strangers after dark - it would seem to be commonsense to avoid such characters the world over. But tourists keep taking the bait and booking sudden trips to Kashmir.

Resistance is reckoned to be lowest between midnight and 4am and jetlagged tourists arriving in the middle of the night are particularly vulnerable. Or perhaps the pollution in the city, rated fourth in the world for contaminated air, eats away at the brains of those unused to it.

The Vale of Kashmir, a high Himalayan valley surrounded by snowy peaks and laced with waterways, has been racked by insurgency for seven years. Tourism, long the economic mainstay, is now limited to the uninformed or foolhardy.

Security checks, curfews and strikes in Srinagar make the atmosphere grim, despite the beauty of the landscape.Tourism used to be promoted by officials as a sign of normality. Now, however, even the state tourist office suggests "visitors should trek only where there is security."

Simon Grant, a Cambridge gap-year student, fell for an elaborate sales technique when he arrived in Delhi. His taxi-driver, Farid, cruised the capital, going from one guesthouse to the next, and, when unable to find a vacancy, pulled up at an office to ask for help.

A sign read "Tourist Desk. Official." Behind the counter was a sleepy Kashmiri, who told Mr Grant: "Delhi is so crowded there are no rooms. Go some place else. South too hot. East is too dangerous. West also." Mr Grant took this advice eagerly.

He cashed some travellers' cheques and bought a one-way flight to Srinagar which would depart within hours, plus a pre-paid houseboat stay on Dal Lake and a bus ticket to Agra. "The tourist desk told me that Kashmir's now is safe," Mr Grant said as he stuffed his rucksack into the locker on a plane heading for Jammu and Srinagar.

Sometimes the touts' advice has catastrophic effects. Almost two years ago Catherine Moseley and her boyfriend, Paul Wells, from Nottingham, flew to India on holiday. Like most discounted flights, theirs reached Delhi after midnight but the young couple felt prepared. "We hired an official taxi and reserved a room at the Imperial Hotel," Ms Moseley said.

"But the driver said JanPath Lane was dangerous so late at night. We were sure to get robbed. We ended up in Kashmir almost exactly the same way."

She was now returning for her third visit - hoping to find some trace of Mr Wells, whose adventure went tragically awry.

Kidnapped at gunpoint on a popular trekking trail, he was one of six tourists captured by members of the Al Faran group, who at first intended to exchange them for jailed comrades. A fifth backpacker was beheaded and the sixth escaped. The rest are still missing.