- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

SRINAGAR, India — The lines to take cable-car rides to a Himalayan snowfield are long. Every viewpoint on the forested mountain roads is full of camera-clicking picnickers. Resorts, hotels and houseboats are overbooked with visitors.

The tourists have come back to Kashmir.

For the first time since an Islamic insurgency erupted here in 1989, thousands of Indian tourists — encouraged by recent peace overtures between India and Pakistan — are leaving the sweltering summer plains to enjoy vacations in this picture-perfect place. Nearly 100,000 tourists, including 3,000 foreigners, have visited Kashmir since January — compared to a little more than 10,000 during the same period last year, according to Shazia Khan of the Jammu-Kashmir State Tourism Corp.

“Our expectations are high this year. We hope that many more will continue to arrive,” Miss Khan said as she prepared to receive a new batch of tourists disembarking from air-conditioned coaches at the Tourist Reception Center in Srinagar, the state’s summer capital.

Set in the Himalayas at 5,600 feet above sea level, Kashmir is a green, saucer-shaped valley full of fruit orchards and surrounded by snowy mountain ranges. About 100 lakes dot its highlands and plains. Glacier-fed streams flow through the forests and hillsides and over grasslands covered with wildflowers. The tourist season lasts until late October.

“I can’t describe what it feels like to lie down on the houseboat deck and count the stars on a clear night,” said Pawan Kumar, a computer professional from the steaming southern Indian city of Secunderabad, enjoying Kashmir’s coolness.

A short distance away, on the promenade along Srinagar’s famous Dal Lake, Akhtar Hussain, a 30-year-old boatman, invited strolling tourists for a ride in his brightly colored gondola, called a shikara.

“I painted my boat and got new upholstery for the seats. I was a boy when so many tourists used to come here,” Mr. Hussain said. He described the new arrivals as “God’s mercy.”

Kashmir once was one of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations, particularly with trekkers and honeymooners, drawing 800,000 tourists every year — about 40 percent of them foreigners. Tourism accounted for nearly 20 percent of the economy of the Indian-controlled state. Then in 1989, the explosions and gun battles began. The crowds trickled to fewer than 25,000 per year after repeated travel warnings by Western governments, fears of war and extensive media coverage of the separatist violence.

Kashmir, at India’s northern tip, is divided, with Pakistan controlling one-third of the Himalayan region. Both countries claim all of it and have fought two wars over it since 1947. Relations between the two countries are improving, and most countries, such as the United States, have withdrawn their warnings against travel to India. They continue, however, to advise against visits to Jammu-Kashmir, the state’s official name. Latin American and Southeast Asian nations never issued such advisories, and their tourists outnumber Westerners.

Mohammed Ashraf, director general of tourism in Jammu-Kashmir, said he is fighting to bridge what he calls a “communication gap” with the international media to counter the negative image of the Kashmir Valley portrayed to potential tourists.

“Our efforts are bearing fruit. … We are getting back on the rails,” Mr. Ashraf said.

Yet a first-time visitor being driven through Srinagar to his idyllic houseboat can’t help but notice the soldiers patrolling with loaded rifles, some in trucks with their guns pointed at cars on the road. Sandbagged bunkers dot the roads around the mirrorlike lake.

“It’s a war zone,” shocked New Delhi resident Vijay Long said on his first visit to Kashmir in mid-June. Although he reveled in the cool, clean air, the peaceful shikara rides on Dal Lake and the chance to stand on a snow-covered hill, it was the guns and soldiers he told his friends about back in New Delhi.

He also described the extensive searches required to board the flight out of Kashmir and the attempt by a policeman at the airport to confiscate his bird-watching binoculars under the guise of security precautions. “He said he couldn’t see through them so he would have to keep them,” Mr. Long said, relating an experience other travelers also have encountered.

Travelers to and from Kashmir cannot take any batteries, soap or liquids in their carry-on bags and frequently are separated from their valuables — such as cameras and other equipment — during the security checking process.

Some tourists also complain that Kashmir’s travel industry has become greedy, and hoteliers and boatmen fleece customers because of the long years of uncertainty.

“We feel bad about it and assure tourists that it is an anomaly. But we also realize that the long strife has made us anxious. … What if tourists don’t return?” said Mr. Hussain, the boatman. “Fourteen years of idleness can make some people unscrupulous. But we still try to maintain our credo of goodwill and honesty.”

Many hotels are surrounded by bunkers and sandbags, occupied by security forces. Still, Amit Amla, proprietor of the multistoried Hotel Broadway in downtown Srinagar, said that for the first time in 14 years, “our rooms are booked until the end of the summer.”

One Indian tourist, Sunanda, who uses only one name, said she enjoyed her 10-day visit with her husband, the first since she was a child. “To come here is a sheer delight,” she said. “The beauty is so overwhelming that one has no time to think about guns and bombs.”

Shikara trip passes floating market

The best time to visit Kashmir is May to October in summer and November to February during winter.

Two domestic airlines — Jet Airways and Indian Airlines — operate daily one-hour flights from New Delhi to Srinagar. Round-trip airfare for foreigners is about $125. Tourist buses make the 20-hour, 560-mile journey for $10 to $20.

Foreigners should always carry their passports with them. Kashmir Valley has been the center of a separatist insurgency since 1989. Stray incidents of shootings and bombings occur in Srinagar and outlying towns. Armed troops and police patrol streets, man checkpoints and discourage traveling at night.

Go by shikara boat or car to gardens laid out by the Mogul emperors around Dal Lake. Take a shikara ride on the lake at sunset and in early morning to see the floating vegetable market and floating gardens. Kashmir’s first mosque, Khanaqah-e-Mualla, built in 1395, is a synthesis of Buddhist and Muslim architecture on the banks of the Jhelum River, which flows through Srinagar’s old city of carved, wooden houses and shops. Typically, a shikara ride lasts two hours and costs about $4.25.

Srinagar’s new 18-hole lakeside Royal Springs Golf Course offers temporary membership for $21, plus greens fees and golf cart rental.

Gulmarg (Meadow of Flowers), about 30 miles north of Srinagar, has a cable-car ride to the snow, or one can negotiate for a donkey ride, including sled.

A taxi ride to and from Gulmarg from Srinagar should cost about $22.

For overnight stays, Pahalgam (Valley of Shepherds) is 60 miles southeast of Srinagar and is known for its glaciers, dense forests and the trout-filled Lidder River.

The local fisheries office sells angling permits for $8.50, allowing a catch of six trout per day. A round-trip taxi ride should cost $32.

There are more than 1,000 houseboats on Srinagar’s lakes and rivers, giving tourists the unique experience of living on water in an elegant cedar-paneled bedroom.

A double room, including meals, can range from the low-budget $15 per person, per night, to $35 a person for one of the best, Butts Clermont Houseboats, at the far end of the lake, with excellent service and food.

In the center of town, double rooms in hotels range from $42.50 at the Boulevard, which overlooks Dal Lake; to $85 at the centrally located Broadway; to $117 at the Grand Palace Hotel, a converted palace built on a terraced hillside with lawns overlooking the lake.

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