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Amid hopes and fears, a strong comeback for Kashmir tourism

Sunday July 03, 2011 02:17:20 PM, Sarwar Kashani, IANS

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Srinagar: As the sun sank behind the picturesque Dal Lake leaving the Sringar skyline crimson, Abdur Rehman, a boatman, counted his day's earnings and thanked god for ensuring another "peaceful day" in the troubled Kashmir Valley.

The boatman in wrinkled but neat traditional dress counted Rs.300 and kept aside Rs.13 to be given to a Muslim shrine to ensure that the new-found peace stays in the valley after three summers of deadly street protests had forced visitors to retreat.

"This is for Makhdoom Sahib (a 16th century Srinagar saint) whose blessings bring peace and good business for us," Rehman, in his late fifties, told a visiting IANS correspondent, pointing towards the hillock shrine at a distance from where he docked his taxi boat - the only source of his income.

Amid fervent hopes for a bumper tourist season in the valley this year, Rehman is apprehensive that the shadows of violence may repeat, because "peace looks too fragile" in the valley that has seen over two decades of armed separatist campaign backed by Pakistan.

His fears are not unfounded even as India and Pakistan are revisiting the peace process to solve all issues including the territorial dispute over Kashmir.

Tourism is the valley's second biggest money spinner after the Rs.2,000-crore horticulture sector. Like in the past three seasons, tourists are rushing to the valley that is witnessing 100 percent occupancy in hotels and houseboats. But even a slight trigger-off of violence can dash the hopes of those who rely on the tourist trade.

That is what happened in 2008 when a controversial deal allotting swathes of forest land to a Hindu shrine triggered violent street protests forcing cancellation of hotel bookings and tourists fled the valley. That year over 60 people were killed.

In 2009, the season was lost again to street violence triggered by the mysterious killings of two women in a south Kashmir village. Some 30 people were killed in the months of violence.

The 2010 summer was more violent than the previous years. The cycle of civilian killings and stone-pelting protests that started in June lasted for over three months, leaving some 110 civilians dead mostly in firing by security forces.

But Rehman and others associated with the trade want to forget that.

"No. Not this year, please. Let us make some money. We have to survive. We have to feed our kids. We have to educate them," said Abdus Samad, another boatman.

The boatmen said they were encouraged after separatist leaders issued statements declaring tourists as honoured guests and efforts were made by the tourism department to welcome visitors to a peaceful valley.

Separatists like Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik have declared that they would desist from prolonged shutdowns to ensure a peaceful tourist season - a statement that was welcomed by Tourism Minister Nawang Rigzin Jora.

The valley has so far hosted close to 500,000 tourists since January this year. This includes over 13,000 foreigners.

On the Srinagar streets, peace indeed looks round the corner. The evenings leave Boulevard Road along the Dal Lake chock-a-block.

Traffic jams on the necklace-shaped road brings smiles on everyone's face. Even Chief Minister Omar Abdullah loves the sight of long queues of cars on the road on the Zabarwan foothills.

"I would rather be stuck in a traffic jam than be confronted with deserted roads," Abdullah said at a recent Srinagar get-together after his cavalcade was stuck for some time on the Boulevard.

Lateef Ahmed, president of the Kashmir Hoteliers and Restaurants Federation, said the trends of the tourist season have shown "positive signs" so far.

"It all depends on how we treat our guests. How peaceful we make them feel. After all, they are here to get peace of mind from the mundane routines of their daily lives," Ahmed told IANS.

(Sarwar Kashani can be contacted at









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(Photo: Fulchand)



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