Wish you were here? Asian war zones battle for tourists

Golf in Cambodia? Relaxation in Kashmir? Andrew Buncombe reports on the rebranding of a continent
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The Independent Travel

In Cambodia it's golf, in Sri Lanka it's whale-watching, and on the Indonesian island of Bali officials are promoting the benefits of yoga and meditation. In each place, the intention is the same.

Across a swath of south and south-east Asia previously wracked by war or strife, officials are carrying out a rebranding exercise to lure back tourists who have long been scared of visiting. In places such as Nepal, it is more like fine-tuning. In others, such as Kashmir, it means a complete overhaul.

In Sri Lanka, where the long civil war involving Tamil rebels was ended earlier this year, officials have already reported a bounce in the number of arrivals. In May, after the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were defeated and their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran killed, officials announced the launch of a new tourism campaign based on the slogan "Sri Lanka – Small Miracle". "The objective was to create a single core idea that can change people's perception of the country," said Dileep Mudadeniya, managing director of the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau.

Mr Mudadeniya said he hoped the campaign would raise tourist arrivals by at least 20 per cent to 500,000 visitors in 2010. Part of the new campaign includes promoting the watching of blue and sperm whales, which pass close to the southern coast of the island between December and April. "We have an image that has been challenged by war and travel advisories," Mr Mudadeniya explained to the Agence France-Presse, which surveyed the efforts of officials across the region. "Now the war is over. There is lot of interest in us and we will see an upswing by November."

Nepal has also long suffered an image problem as the result of a decade-long civil war between the government and Maoist guerrillas that ended in late 2006. Last year, visitor numbers were back up to 550,000 after foreign governments relaxed their travel warnings, and officials hope to attract one million by 2011.

Part of that effort involves promoting parts of the country that have attracted fewer visitors. "There are lots of unexplored areas in western and eastern Nepal and this time we are trying our best to encourage people to visit those areas," said Aditya Baral, director of the Nepal Tourism Board. "We are banking on the peace dividend."

In Indian-administered Kashmir the tourists are also slowly returning. This long-disputed region was once one of India's tourism gems, annually luring up to 700,000 people. After a new wave of militancy broke out in 1989, tourists became a rarity. But slowly they are returning, and already this year more than 380,000 people have visited.

A key plank of Kashmir's campaign has been to promote itself as a golfing destination and its Royal Springs club has been voted the best in India. Its fifth hole, which looks out over the lake and the mosques of Srinigar's old quarter, is particularly famed, while officials in the town of Gulmarg, located at 2,650m, claim to have the highest green course in the world. The state is promoting itself with the catchphrase "Paradise once again".

Bali also knows about the impact of violence on tourist numbers. Bombings in 2002 and 2005 killed 220 people. In the aftermath of the first attack, visitors to the island, which had been particularly popular with Australian holiday-makers, fell by about 70 per cent. Anak Agung Suryawan Wiranatha of the island's Tourism Board said Bali had since been marketing itself as a haven of peace.

Of all the countries in the region seeking to overhaul their image, the one that perhaps has the toughest challenge is Pakistan. With locations such as the Swat valley and the breathtaking northern areas around Gilgit, Pakistan attracted 800,000 visitors in 2007. But as militancy has worsened since then, so numbers have halved to 400,000. This year's figure is expected to be still lower, despite the recent recapturing of the Swat valley from the Taliban.

"Terrorism has really affected us," admitted Tourism Minister Ataur Rehman. "We have started our endeavours to attract tourists from the world over as the situation in Swat and other areas is stable now and will enable us to again make them attractive tourist zones."