Tourism in India

Kashmir warms up to tourists

Text: Sheikh Imran Bashir 
Photos: Shahid Tantray 

In Kashmir, things are picking. Tourist flows to the Valley have increased in recent times, restrictions of the past few weeks notwithstanding. According to tour and travel operators in this northern-most Indian state, comprising the regions of Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh, the increase in number of visitors is partly, of course, because of the sustained torrid summers in the plains this year. And partly because Kashmir, is Kashmir. The pull factor is magnetic. 

If there is heaven on earth: It’s here, it’s here. These were the words of the Mugal emperor Jahangir when he visited Kashmir and as they say the rest history.

The state Government and the tourism department have realized that they need to proactively counter all talks on Kashmir being terror-struck. They are busying up with new plans and coming up with projects to improve the tourist frequency in the Valley. The local Media organizations have been asked to project Kashmir in a better way to the outside world. Things are normal, and the buzzword that is being spread is that Kashmir is “safe” for tourists.

One new found tourist destination is Rafiabad. It is being spoken of as the new trekking destination of the valley. The recent program by the state tourism department in Rafiabad was known as “trekking for trees”. The program was launched in collaboration with the local people from Rafiabad. The timber smugglers of the area were convinced to join hands with the tourism department to work as tourist guides because of their extensive knowledge about that area. By doing this the smugglers were given a chance to lead a crime free life. Abdul Rehman (name changed), a timber smuggler said he wants to give up the illicit trade. “I have been arrested many times while smuggling timber for survival. I want to live a decent life by working as a tourist guide,” he said.
Adds Basharat Ahmad, a local, “Rafiabad has rich forests and roaring streams. But we vandalized it for earning quick bucks. Rafiabad has the potential to become a tourist spot like Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonamarg.”

Nature’s pull remains ever so magnetic in Kashmir. J and K’s chief minister Omar Abdullah says, “In a state like ours where tourism is predominantly dependent on natural beauty, everyone has a role to play in the conservation of nature. Unnecessary human interference is not required.” He points out that the “future depends on safeguarding the invaluable natural wealth which God has gifted us in plenty.”

Abdullah himself has made special efforts to bring the big corporate names to the Valley. It has majorly helped in two ways: First, state’s financial health improves, and secondly it creates avenues for employment for the local youth. Communication firms such as AirTel, Reliance Mobile, Vodafone, Aircel, Idea and Tata have a presence in the valley, All these companies have hired a significant number of local youth, and that is creating a great deal of confidence in the Valley.

“After I completed my engineering I was literally jobless for more than a year because Government jobs were not available and the presence of the private sector in the valley was next to nothing. But now I have a job. I didn’t have to go outside Kashmir,” says Tabish Khan, an engineer with one of the leading telecommunications company in the Valley.

Coming back to nature, other areas such as Daksum, Dhara, Lolab Valley are being developed. “The list is never ending,” says Cerin Jodha Fischer, a consultant with the tourism department in Kashmir who has pioneered the developmental work in Rafiabad and adjoining areas. Of course the well-established and known destinations like Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonamarg, Dachigam, Nishat gardens and the famous Dal lake are being looked after and maintained.

In Gulmarg new projects include the setting up of an international golf course to woo foreign nationals who are into golf. The golf course has state-of-the-art equipment. These are backed by professional trainers who are made available to tourists who wish to try their hand at golf. In winter, Gulmarg presents a festive look because foreign nationals come to enjoy the alpine skiing. And with the second phase of the Gulmarg Gondola taking off, there is an added excitement on the skiing scene. Skiers can now plunge down from heights of 4,500 metres (14,700 feet), from the slopes of Koundori and Affarwatt.

“The feeling is simply awesome when we go up in the gondola to the top-most point and ski down the same mountain. It just takes 25 minutes from the topmost point to reach the gondola station .I cannot describe how I feel, you have to experience it. It is so much fun,” says a Russian tourist on a first-time visit to Kashmir.

The slopes of Kashmir are regarded as the best natural slopes in the world and every year in the winter season many international tourists and skiers come to Gulmarg to test their skills.
“The potential in Kashmir is immense for sports tourism and we are making sure that we introduce new ideas” says tourism department official.

Of late some new projects have been started by the state tourism department, the most popular ones being river rafting and mountain climbing. The river rafting program in Pehalgam has been a great success with both the local and the international tourists who come here to enjoy the rafting experience in the Rapid 4 Lidder river.

The Dal Lake too has received a fresh lease of life. It had been paralyzed far too long with unwanted waste and indiscriminate dumping, but the tourism department has engaged contractors to clean it up. Already water sports including water ball, kayaking, water boating, and para-sailing have been introduced. The lake is now regaining some its lost glory with the shikaras and house boats adding to the beauty. The boulevard along the lake is one of the most talked about driveways.  

July 2010

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