/ 25 May 2007

‘Paradise on Earth’ struggles to seduce tourists

As ski resorts go, Kashmir’s Gulmarg must rank as the most militarised on earth.

The mountain road is peppered with security checkpoints and a High Altitude Warfare School lies nearby. Troops squeeze into a cable car with rifles between their legs. On the slopes, some tourists openly worry if mines are buried under the snow.

”Our families were worried about us coming … but this is so beautiful,” said Rama Malkot, an Indian tourist sitting on top of the mountain as dozens of visitors played on melting snow slopes and soldiers with automatic rifles looked on.

The resort’s edgy feel — Pakistani-ruled Kashmir is a couple of mountains behind — helps explain why Kashmir struggles to attract visitors despite a plunge in separatist attacks, peace moves between India and Pakistan and a tourist boom in the rest of India.

The numbers of tourists to Kashmir fell by 39% in January to April, compared with the same period last year, to 76 106 visits. It was the second year of decline.

Tourism operators say the drop was due to militant attacks last year that killed about a dozen Indian tourists and wounded scores. In some attacks, including in Gulmarg, militants simply lobbed grenades at defenceless tourist buses.

As the insurgency ebbs and a peace process between New Delhi and Islamabad progresses, the threat of attacks on visitors highlights how weakened militants can still target the Achilles heel of Kashmir — its tourism industry.

That fragility surfaces at the airport of Srinagar, Kashmir’s summer capital, where spirits are initially raised after landing by snow-capped mountains, clean air and a large ”Paradise on Earth” sign awaiting tourists outside the terminal.

It is quickly followed by the next sign — ”Inconvenience Regretted” — heralding the first of many sandbagged military checkpoints sprouting barbed wire.

The golden days

Violence has hit its lowest level since the revolt started in 1989, bringing hope that Kashmir could return to the days when it was one of Asia’s top tourist spots, attracting the likes of George Harrison, who played sitar with Ravi Shankar by Dal Lake.

But many governments still advise against travel to Kashmir, infamous for the abduction of six Western tourists while trekking in 1995. Of the six, a Norwegian was beheaded, an American escaped and the rest are presumed dead.

There are still about 500 000 troops in Kashmir, many guarding tourist spots.

”I don’t see any trouble,” Jason Smith, an Australian tourist said. ”But we take precautions. After it gets dark we go to the houseboat.”

Like Smith, most tourists enjoy Kashmir without security problems and operators say word-of-mouth recommendations spur new visitors. But it can be spoilt by unsavoury media reports.

”It’s a challenge,” said Kashmir’s tourism director, Farooq Shah, sitting by a golf course as soldiers in boots nonchalantly strolled over the manicured green of the first hole.

”This is the only industry that can boost the economy of the state and we still have not used Kashmir’s potential.”

Kashmir touts itself in brochures as ”Paradise on Earth”, boasting Dal Lake — a favourite break centuries ago for Mughal emperors escaping the summer heat of India’s plains — as well as its famous houseboats, mountains and glaciers.

Some tourists are returning. In the winter months Gulmarg sees an influx of adventurous European skiers to enjoy its unspoilt slopes.

”Look at Europe, there’s hardly any snow,” said Shah. ”Here in Kashmir we haven’t yet experienced the effects of global warming.

The state government is making some investments — including two new five-star hotels in Kashmir and two new golf courses.

But businessmen say investing is not just risky, but difficult.

Kashmir forbids non-Kashmiris from buying land, meaning operators must get government permission to lease land.

”We are optimistic. We have to be,” said Manzoor Ahmad Shah, who has invested $1-million in a new hotel in Srinagar. ”There are local people interested in investing in tourism, but outside people, no.”

For thousands of handicraft traders who live off tourism, life is harder. About 60% of Kashmiris are traditionally dependent on tourism, officials say.

Many traders complain about the security presence.

”The army is everywhere and that scares tourists. Of all places, why do they put soldiers on the banks of Dal Lake? The border with Pakistan, yes, but the lake?” said Sheikh Mohammad Yusuf, a shop owner for the last 40 years.

Officials acknowledge tourism in Kashmir will stay fragile.

”We are keeping our fingers crossed. Tourists are indefensible. They can be attacked anywhere,” said Kashmir’s police chief, Gopal Sharma. — Reuters