Tourists are a force to be reckoned with in Kashmir

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 May, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 May, 2004, 12:00am


The Kashmiri capital is used to violent separatist demonstrations against Indian rule, but it now faces a radically different breed of protesters.

Hordes of tourists have staged protests almost daily in Srinagar's downtown Lal Chowk area - with apparent success - to demand that the government stop greedy hotel, houseboat and taxi owners fleecing them.

Kashmir's chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, this week ordered police to arrest anyone caught over-charging tourists and appealed to ordinary Kashmiris to throw open their homes to help authorities cope with an unexpected surge in numbers.

After a long absence, Indians and foreigners are flocking to the Himalayan region, once described by a Persian poet as 'paradise on earth', thanks to a sharp decline in violence since India and Pakistan signed a ceasefire agreement six months ago. All rooms in hotels and houseboats dotting Srinagar's picturesque Dal Lake are fully-booked, as are all flights to Srinagar's heavily guarded airport.

And with a record number of Indians fleeing the sun-baked plains for a cooler Kashmir, it is almost impossible to get a berth on trains to Jammu, the railhead gateway to the picture-postcard province.

Scores of buses wind along the Jammu-Srinagar highway packed with people from all parts of India.

Dubbed the Switzerland of the East, Kashmir was once India's top tourist destination, luring one million visitors a year to its snow-capped mountains and lakes.

Since 1989, separatist violence has hit an industry that was once Kashmir's biggest revenue earner. In early 2002, when the insurgency was at its peak, the number of tourists had plummeted to 10,000.

But when the new state government headed by Mr Sayeed came into office in November of that year, it aimed to woo back the tourists. Thanks to its efforts, 100,000 visited last year, the most for nearly 15 years.

Salim Beg, Kashmir's director-general of tourism, said the return of high-spending western tourists, including trekkers, was a highlight of the tourism boom.

Last week they were joined by New Delhi-based diplomats and officials of 42 multinational companies for a golf tournament organised by the state government.

'This year is like a dream come true. So far, we have recorded 75,000 arrivals and the estimate for the full summer tourist season ending in July is over 300,000,' Mr Salim said.