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Camels woo tourists after troop pullout

Sam Sand Dunes, Rajasthan, Feb. 17 (Reuters): Growling and grunting, 25 camels drag themselves from a crouch and take off into the desert, which comes alive with cheers and shouts.

The camel race is one of the highlights of the desert festival in Jaisalmer, which draws up to 20,000 people from the country and around the world to the desert, near the border with Pakistan.

A few camels veer off course and among the scattered spectators on the sides of the make-shift race track before following the leaders in a cloud of sand to the crowded finish line three km away.

But proximity to Pakistan and a 10-month military standoff that brought the nuclear rivals close to war last year have driven tourists away from Jaisalmer, and its 850-year-old fort, considered the country’s most popular monument after the Taj Mahal.

“The border tensions really reduced the number of arrivals,” guide Nauvneet Vyas said. “And tourism feeds about 90 per cent of the people here. It affects everyone.”

Now the local maharaja and the tourism industry hope the end of the military standoff and a revamped festival will woo the tourists back.

“It is to get people to Jaisalmer to see our customs and our culture,” said Maharawal (maharaja) Brijraj Singh, who also runs a hotel. “Sadly, the last two years have been very bad as far as tourism is concerned.”

Last year’s festival was scaled down because of the tension — Jaisalmer is a frontline district — but it has been boosted this year with new events such as the camel race in the dunes, to draw the tourists back.

The centuries-old three-day festival which wound up on Sunday attracted a diverse crowd, from UN health workers based in Geneva to village women in bright red and orange saris, with scarves covering their faces, to turbaned men.

It celebrates the culture and history of a tough desert state where summer temperatures pass 55 degrees Celsius, with traditional music, dance, food and offbeat events such as a turban-tying contest for foreign tourists and a camel dance.

“The camels,” says former dotcom worker Meredith Wade, from California, when asked why she came to Jaisalmer.

“But I’m really impressed with the music. To be out here in the middle of nowhere and hear this music playing — it’s really soothing.”

But music is the last thing on 25-year-old Rahim Khan’s mind.

The camel handler is figuring out whether his Rs 5,000 prize for winning the race will be enough to pay for the feast his desert village will expect to celebrate.

“I knew I would win. I work very hard to look after my camel,” he said, riding crop in hand. “Now my village is proud of this camel, too. There will have to be a feast. Nobody can celebrate on their own.

“Now I will have to spend more money.”

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