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Page last updated at 10:23 GMT, Tuesday, 24 June 2008 11:23 UK

Tourists flock back to Kashmir

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Srinagar

A shikara boat in Srinagar's Dal Lake
Kashmir has some stunning scenery

Not long ago, people on flights from Delhi to Srinagar, capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, were either government officials, local businessmen or journalists.

Years of fighting between separatist militants and Indian security forces had created a feeling that it was unsafe to travel to the region and tourists stayed away.

But now travellers are back in numbers. At Delhi airport, my fellow passengers are families and other tourists.

The queue at the departure gate is noisy with happy chatter and the squeals of excited children.

On the flight, the conversation is about cheap airline tickets, mountains, lakes and snow.

Improved security

In Srinagar in the early evening, the boulevard near Dal Lake is buzzing with tourists.

Shopkeepers selling traditional Kashmiri handicraft and embroidered clothes call out to prospective buyers and women in jeans, T-shirts and sleeveless tops admire the wares on display.

The turn-around in tourism can be attributed directly to improved security in the past few years - India and Pakistan have better relations and incidents of violence are greatly reduced.

A floating vegetable market on Srinagar's Dal Lake
Some say tourism is the lifeline of Kashmir

And a semblance of peace has brought in more visitors than ever before.

In 1989, before militancy erupted in Kashmir, there were 250,000 visitors. This year, there were 400,000 visitors in the first six months.

Many in the tourist trade find it hard to suppress their glee.

Taxis and tourist coaches are doing roaring business ferrying visitors from Srinagar to the other tourist hotspots of Gulmarg, Sonmarg and Pahalgam.

"There are 15 flights landing in Srinagar a day and each one is chock-a-block with tourists," says Nazir A Bakshi of Shiraz Travels.

'Making money'

Mr Bakshi is handling 5,000 tourists at the moment and his phone is ringing off the hook.

"You can't get a hotel room in Srinagar or Pahalgam easily. Everything is booked. We have a situation where we are refusing customers."

Mr Bakshi says for the first time in many years, "a lot of people are making a lot of money".

Tourists haggle with boat-owners in Srinagar (Pic: Geeta Pandey)
Dal Lake is the most popular tourist resort in the region

He says if things continue the way they are "we can expect up to 700,000 tourists this year". By 2010, he expects that number to cross the one-million mark.

Some say even that is a conservative estimate. But is Kashmir prepared for this influx?

Yes and no.

Many of the hotels and houseboats which had shut down during the years of insurgency have reopened. As the situation improved, new hotels have been built and many have been refurbished.

Now, the tourism department is also inviting applications for "bed and breakfast" and "paying guest" accommodation to meet the ever-growing need.

"There are new, better hotels coming up at all tourist destinations. The number of rooms has increased manifold in the last few years," says Mr Sarmad Hafeez, joint director in the state tourism department.

"The remarkable thing this year is that we have received a lot of high-end visitors - we've had golfers, skiers and leisure tourists - who spend a lot of money and hence contribute to the local economy."

Few foreigners

Srinagar's new international airport is due to open at the end of the year and Mr Hafeez says direct flights from Dubai, Singapore and Bangkok will bring in more tourists.

But, he admits, a lot more needs to be done. "At the moment, about 10,000 visitors arrive in Kashmir every day. We need to develop full infrastructure, build better hotels if we want to have more affluent visitors."

Almost everyone I speak to here says too few foreign tourists are coming to Kashmir.

Houseboat Owners' Association chairman Yaseen Tuman (Pic: Geeta Pandey)
Houseboat owners miss foreign tourists

"In 1989, 14 flights used to land in Srinagar every day from Delhi, Bombay [Mumbai] and Ahmedabad. Twelve of those used to be full of foreign tourists. The foreigners prefer to stay in houseboats. We want those types of tourists," says the chairman of the Houseboat Owners' Association, M Azim Tuman.

After militancy peaked in the 1990s, most Western governments advised against travel to Kashmir.

Since then, the number of European and American visitors has been a trickle - and tourism officials are trying to change that.

"Militant attacks happen everywhere in the world. New York, London, Delhi, Bombay, everyplace has seen attacks. And more people die on Delhi's roads because they are hit by buses than in militancy-related violence in Kashmir. Why single us out," Mr Hafeez asks?

"In fact, Kashmir is the safest - there's no crime against women here, there have been no instances of rape or molestation. It's time for the Western governments to reconsider their travel advisories," he says.

'Thrilled'

For the moment, Indian tourists are having a great time in Srinagar. The lake front is crowded with holiday-makers and most houseboats have "house full" signs.

Tourists in Srinagar (Pic: Geeta Pandey)
The Satyamurthy family say they are having a great time

The Satyamurthy family are "thrilled" to be here.

"We went to Sonmarg this morning, the children saw snow for the first time today. They were so excited," says mother Usha Satyamurthy.

Her son, Vikram, says: "I had heard that there are terrorists here. But I'm not afraid any more."

Father V Satyamurthy says he wanted to bring his children to ensure there were "no demons in the mind".

And if hundreds of thousands of visitors are anything to go by, the demons of Kashmir's immediate past seem to be losing their grip

But uncertainty about the future remains.

"Tourism is important for Kashmir. But it's a very touchy industry," says the president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mubeen Shah. "Something happens and the tourists would be the first ones to run away."



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