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Season of peace brings back tourists

Srinagar, July 1: Thousands of tourists have been flocking to Kashmir this summer, encouraged by the recent peace overtures between India and Pakistan.

Nearly 50,000 tourists, including 3,200 foreigners, have visited the state so far this year, Mohammad Ashraf, director general, tourism, said. There were only 10,104 tourists during the same period last year.

“Year 2003 is different. Not only have the domestic tourists been coming here in good numbers but the message that has gone out because of the renewed tourist influx is heartening,” Ashraf said, his face breaking into a smile.

He said the trend indicated more were likely to visit the state this year than in 1999, when a record 2.17 lakh showed up due to a lull in militancy between Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Lahore bus ride and the outbreak of hostilities in Kargil.

Tour operators said tourists now felt confident about visiting Kashmir after a thaw in India-Pakistan tension, triggered by Vajpayee’s renewed bid in April to make peace between the neighbours. Despite the thaw, violence has continued, with 12 soldiers being killed in a suicide strike on an army camp on Saturday.

“I am sure the peace initiatives have encouraged these tourists,” said Mohammad Aksar, a houseboat owner. “I pray that peace returns to the Valley.”

Mudasir Shah, who owns a hotel, shared the same sentiment but kept his fingers crossed. “I think the present thaw is the contributing factor and the word is spreading (that all is well on the ground). I hope things remain normal so that more tourists arrive here in the coming months.”

Hotels and houseboats have been packed to capacity and there is a huge rush for bookings, especially in the health resorts of Gulmarg and Pahalgam. Taxi drivers, too, have been blinking in disbelief. “I am pleasantly surprised at the turn of events this year. I have been doing good business for the last one month and not one day has gone by without a booking during this time. I am seeing this happen after ages,” said Mushtaq Ahmad, who drives tourists around in his Tata Sumo.

Tourists also appear willing to believe that Kashmir is not that unsafe after all. Some have even taken a chance based on pictures in newspapers of tourists frolicking on the Gulmarg greens. Not only that, they have been spreading the good word.

Rahul Bharti, a doctor, said he had a “wrong notion” that Kashmir was not safe. “But on reaching here we were amazed. Things are far better than we have heard,” he said. “It is breathtaking, very beautiful.”

Another doctor, one Rita from Haryana, said she had decided to visit the state despite fears expressed by her family. “I saw a picture in the newspaper and this prompted me to come here,” she said. “I found the places I visited fairly normal though one has to be careful. The Valley is at present tension-free and maybe it is because of the thaw in Indo-Pak relations,” she added.

The peace initiatives apart, tour operators have been doing their promotionals well, too. An operator who bumped into Sanjeev Sharma at Vaishno Devi in Jammu literally prodded and pushed him to take a break in Kashmir. “I think we took the right decision to take a week-long holiday in the Valley,” he said, wife Saroj, and children Rahul and Sunita in tow.

But overwhelmed tour operators and houseboat owners have been giving a large slice of the credit to tourism director general Ashraf, who has relentlessly promoted the state for the last 30 years. “Even during the darkest period, Ashraf used to organise groups of tourists,” an operator said.

“I never lost hope and today my optimism seems to be paying off,” Ashraf said, smiling.

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