| Children play cricket at Srinagar’s Nishat garden
Srinagar, Nov. 26: Next time, if you find Kashmiris clapping for the South African cricket team in any exciting contest, don’t be surprised.
Young club players from South Africa will soon be out on the greens here not just to boost apartheid-hit cricketing relations with the outside world but also to give a fillip to the Valley’s struggling tourism industry.
Only two international matches have been played in Kashmir in the eighties, the latest being the India-Australia thriller in 1986. No international team or even a club side has visited Kashmir after that as militants turned the Paradise on Earth into a killing field.
Now, the state government is pinning hopes on foreign club cricketers to show that Kashmir is a safe destination.
Over the next few days, the Valley will host a group of 37 players, between 14 and 18, from Help Mekaar College in South Africa. The budding cricketers will play two Twenty20 matches with local players on December 1.
Tourism department director Farooq Ahmad said the objective was to boost sports tourism in the state. “The visitors will play two matches, one with our under-19 team and another with a school team,” he added.
“We hope they will act as ambassadors of Kashmir in their country and we expect more tourists from South Africa next year.”
Official sources said the tourism department was trying hard to woo tourists from countries that have not issued travel advisories to their citizens against visiting Kashmir. “South Africa came first to our mind and we are following it up with other countries,” an official said.
The officials said developing sports tourism was an important part in the package to woo visitors. Among the ambitious plans is a scheme to turn the Valley into a prime golfing and skiing destination.
Golf courses are being upgraded in Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Srinagar while a new course is being laid at Sidhra in Jammu to target high-spending tourists.
For adventure lovers, new facilities for skiing are coming up in Gulmarg and fresh slopes are being explored to offer them variety.
Gulmarg, where heli-skiing was introduced earlier this year, has the distinction of being the highest ski point in the world at a height of 13,500 feet, accessed by the highest ropeway.
“For skiers, there is a single-run opportunity of six-and-a-half kilometres at cheap rates. We are trying to host the Commonwealth Winter Games 2010 and facilities are being developed for that,” said a senior officer.
Gulmarg is also scheduled to host the national winter games in the coming months.
The government is also exploring several other heights for skiing in Yusmarg, Pahalgam and Sonamarg.
“We are organising camps at some of these places during the coming winter,” the officer added.
Nearly 4,000 people, mostly from Canada, New Zealand and Australia, visited Gulmarg during last winter.
This year, the Valley has so far hosted over four lakh visitors, including some 20,000 foreigners.