Kashmir Back On Tourist Map

India's hill stations are brimming with tourists looking to escape the peak summer heat, which in New Delhi can often soar above 45C. This year one destination high on the desired list, against the odds and a violence-scarred past, is Indian Kashmir, with multiple flights from Delhi to Srinagar chock-a-bloc with travelers.

For decades Kashmir was a summer hot spot with several Bollywood blockbuster movies being shot at beautiful locations around the capital of Srinagar, the famous Dal Lake, and the hill resorts of Gulmarg, Sonemarg and Pahelgam to name some. Covering more than 15,000 sq. km, it is one of the most spectacular scenic vistas on earth, lying at the northern tip of India. Densely settled, the Kashmir Valley itself lies at an average height of 1,850 meters, with the northeastern flank of the Himalayas soaring up to an average elevation of 5,000 meters above the valley. The area's biodiversity runs from subtropical pine up to the tree line, above which is simply rock and ice. The wildflowers are intoxicating.

Despite the exhilarating natural beauty, however, from the 1980s onwards the region has been the focal point of the bitter rivalry between Pakistan and India. Terrorism began to take a heavy toll on Kashmir's flourishing tourism industry, the second biggest income earner after horticulture. It was in the summer months that infiltrations from Pakistan were at the maximum due to favorable weather conditions, making the state vulnerable to militant attacks and worsening the situation.

The large tourist inflows are taking place even as the Indian Army – or because it -- has reported the lowest levels of infiltration attempts by militants to cross the Line of Control that separates India and Pakistan. The Army has claimed that infiltration this year has been reduced to zero. There is usually a direct link between infiltration levels and terror activity in Kashmir and other parts of the country, as an indicator of the intent and desperation of militants to strike at targets. Last year, the Army reported more than 100 infiltration attempts, in which about 100 ultras were killed.

The lull is the first in the past 20 years along any point in the 550-km Line of Control, the barrier over which India and Pakistan have fought two wars. Nobody is quite sure why the infiltration attempts have ceased, and senior Indian Army officers have warned that activity could pick up again. However, successive elections in the state, which have been certified free and fair by observers, intensified security and a local population keen to win back their livelihoods and incomes has meant that Kashmir is back on the summer map. Tourist income is regarded as crucial to mainstreaming the region's unemployed youth otherwise susceptible to militant and separatist indoctrination.

Indeed, the recent events are a cause for cheer. According to the latest state government figures tourist arrivals in the Kashmir Valley since January this month have exceeded 500,000, with foreign visitors who are most sensitive to any risk, crossing 15,000. Nearly 50,000 visitors have also visited the Ladakh region using the Srinagar-Leh highway, another sign of newfound confidence in the security measures being taken.

And, if one were to add visitors who undertake the Hindu pilgrimage Amarnath Yatra, the tourist traffic to Kashmir could easily total more than 1 million this year, a record of sorts. The statistics are a stark contrast to last year's low of just about 200,000, who otherwise shied away from the Valley due to months of political unrest that took the form of violent clashes with security forces that left 110 people dead.

The army has repeatedly been accused of draconian enforcement tactics, particularly after it was called in during July 2010 to quell a month of clashes between security forces and stone-throwing youth. The cycle of violence led to the deaths of 15 people, most of them youths between the ages of 9 and the mid-20s in what were regarded as outrageous over-reaction to stone-throwing.

A year later, however, there is little sign of the unrest. At Srinagar, over the last week, queues of families waited for a ride on the Shikara, which are uniquely shaped boats with ornate and colorfully hand-embroidered covers. The ride around the Dal Lake offers panoramic views of snow-mountains even as the Shikara weaves among floating markets and vegetable gardens and mobile tea and snack stalls.

The houseboats and hotels meanwhile are booked for weeks in advance, while local tour taxis bristle with activity even as honeymooning couples easily find their quiet corners in the midst of Srinegar's many elegant and well maintained gardens.

Tour operators say that they are hoping that American and Eurozone countries remove travel advisories to their citizens against traveling to India. Indications are that Germany will be the first to do so.

Earlier this month Chief Minister Omar Abdullah pushed the case for a Srinagar international airport for direct to and fro flights to foreign destinations as has happened with several cities in India that are high on tourist and business traffic. "This would give fillip to the arrival of international tourist traffic to the Valley," he said. Abdullah also urged New Delhi to take up the issue of negative travel advisories by western countries at diplomatic levels to boost tourism in the state.

Yet, as the violence last year demonstrates, it is also true that the Kashmir situation is complicated and it is best not to get carried away too much. The state has long been a playground for Indo-Pakistani wars, the 1999 Kargil war and Pakistani strategic scoring over India at global forums apart from the intense jihadi terror problems.

Locally, the people of Kashmir have deep angst against the large presence of security forces and the inevitable skirmishes, clashes, suspicions and accusations of high handedness. Further, the Kashmiri separatist parties have a deep-seated agenda of keeping the population simmering on an anti-India propaganda and platform. Solutions cannot be found in the short term. Still, a summer of business opportunity that so far has brought joy to Kashmiris and respite from heat to the many visitors to the Valley is a cause for cheer.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at sidsri@yahoo.com)