Tourists return to Kashmir despite the years of unrest
DESPITE CONTINUED security concerns in the region, the mountains, lakes and forests of Kashmir are beginning to lure domestic and international tourists once again.
Government officials say the region is swiftly becoming the country's latest emerging destination.
'Three to four years ago there was not very much tourism there at all,' a representative of the Indian consulate in Hong Kong said. 'But that is changing. There are still some security concerns, but tourism is really picking up now.'
The consul said that while visiting Kashmir was not 100 per cent safe, the level of danger was relative. Tourists seem to have decided that the risk is outweighed by the rich cultural and spiritual experience the region offers.
An area of outstanding natural beauty, Jammu and Kashmir has been called the 'Switzerland of the east'. India's sixth-largest and northernmost state is home to some of the tallest mountains in the world, and has traditionally been popular with tourists - from home and abroad - prior to the fight for independence.
During the late 1970s, more than 50,000 foreign tourists visited the region each year, while domestic tourism peaked at 662,000 in 1988. Visitor numbers dropped dramatically when hostilities broke out the next year.
After more than 15 years of unrest, the security situation in the region remains serious and should not be dismissed out of hand. Many countries still advise their citizens to avoid visiting Jammu and Kashmir.
In the first seven months of last year, there were 269 explosions in the region and 1,263 people died as a result of militant activity. Almost 500 of those were civilians. Since 1990, nearly 11,000 civilians have been killed in the region.
But a growing number of tourists are undeterred by such statistics. Visitor numbers to the region shot up last year, reaching some of their highest levels since the uprising began.
According to figures from the Jammu and Kashmir government's website, about 9,500 foreign and more than 198,000 domestic tourists visited the region in the first seven months of last year. That was up from less than 4,200 visitors from overseas and less than 119,000 Indian tourists in the same period of 2003, and 1,500 and 13,200, respectively, between January and July 2002.
The state's rugged mountains - including the Panchal, Karakoram and Kazi Nag ranges - are among its biggest draws.
A large percentage of foreign visitors to the region come for trekking holidays during the summer. A smaller number come as part of mountaineering expeditions to tackle the higher peaks, including the infamous K2, which lies in the north of the region, on the border with Pakistan.
The trekking season runs between April and November, and though parties are required to register with the local tourist office, no special permits are needed.
Skiing is also popular during the winter months, particularly with domestic tourists. Gulmarg boasts the highest ski runs in India. Although the ski area's focus has been primarily on beginners, the provision for more advanced skiers is increasing.
The region is also home to the world's highest 18-hole golf course at Gulmarg. Established in 1904, the Charming Golf Club sits at an impressive 3,730 metres and offers a golfing experience unlike almost any other.
To many overseas travellers, Kashmir offers a clean cultural experience as yet unspoiled by the influence of mass tourism. They choose simply to enjoy the relaxed pace of life in the region's capital city, Srinagar, on the shores of the famous Dal and Nagim lakes.
More information: www.jammukashmir.nic.in