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Kashmiris on the Hunt for the Elusive Tourist

Idyllic Himalayan valley loses its draw after 13 years of secessionist violence. Businesspeople pounce on the few travelers who come.

November 03, 2002|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

SRINAGAR, India — Forget the snow leopard or ibex. Kashmir residents are looking for a different endangered species these days: tourists.

Once touted in brochures as "Heaven on Earth" and "Shangri-La," this idyllic valley in the Himalayan foothills has been racked by 13 years of bombings and secessionist violence.

Toss in Kashmir's disputed status between nuclear powers India and Pakistan, the hundreds of thousands of soldiers facing off on the two nations' frontier and an ongoing rebel campaign to wrest control of this portion of Kashmir from Indian rule and you have a pretty hard sell for those in the travel promotion business.

"Kashmir used to be a brand for paradise," said Mohammed Ashraf, director general of tourism for India's Jammu and Kashmir state. "Now it's a brand for trouble."

Locals are so desperate for business that the few remaining tourists are besieged.

"Customers are like rare birds," said Ajaz Ahmad, a resident here in Srinagar, the state's summer capital, whose house abuts several lakeside souvenir shops. "So everyone rushes in to grab at their golden eggs."

Days pass without a sighting, said houseboat owner Nazir Dubloo. Weeks slip by before he snags a tourist.

Catching such elusive prey demands skill and cunning. Three Swiss backpackers recently appeared only to be mobbed by hungry boat owners. Dubloo, a longtime angler, held back and eventually earned the foreigners' trust. "Sometimes to catch a fish, you need to be very quiet," he said.

Tourism once accounted for one in five jobs here in the Kashmir Valley, as visitors flocked from elsewhere in India and abroad to enjoy the cool summer air, luxuriate on houseboats and eat local delicacies.

After rebels went on the offensive in 1989, however, the exodus was swift and merciless. Fewer than 20 visitors a day showed up in 1991, in contrast to the nearly 2,000 a day that flocked here the previous year. And many of the shrinking pool of visitors were journalists or relatives of residents.

Since then, the numbers have fluctuated, with about 30,000 visitors expected this year.

At the airport, a faded sign reads "Visit Tourist Paradise" in and among half a dozen checkpoints, sandbag barriers and tire traps.

On beautiful Dal Lake, more than 1,000 houseboats nudge each other in the calm waters. These famous floating hotels -- a legacy of 19th century imperialism after Kashmir's maharajah refused to let the British build summer homes on land -- boast balconies, Internet access and names the likes of "New Cherry Ripe" and "Queen's Lap."

With lakeside streetlamps casting a romantic glow as dusk descends, however, few people other than the struggling owners are around to enjoy the scenery.

"We're all suffering, the government hasn't helped us a bit and we can't pay our children's school fees," said Mohammed Amin Kawa, one of several angry owners killing time at the group's lakeside hangout. "What can we do, eat our houseboats?"

Hariparbat Fort, once a must-see on the tourist trail, has become a well-defended base for border police fighting insurgents, a throwback to its 16th century origins. Cheshmashahi Garden is closed to all but VIPs because of fears that its grounds might be used to attack the nearby governor's mansion.

A sign at the entrance to the Grand Plaza hotel -- once a maharajah's palace and now an Intercontinental -- warns visitors to leave their weapons at the door. Inside, its long empty hallways evoke haunted hotel scenes in the 1980 horror classic "The Shining."

Closer to town, the Broadway Hotel has switched clientele and now specializes in war correspondents. Another two dozen hotels, including the Bilwar and the Dok, are de facto barracks for police, army, border and special operations forces amassed in the area.

The number of taxi drivers has been cut in half as banks repossess their chariots. "Having three or four cars blown up and our drivers killed didn't help," said Abdul Majid, president of the Kashmir Taxi Assn.

For locals who lived through the boom years, it's all a waste.

"If only Kashmir's problems can ever be solved, the tourists will flood in once again," said motorized rickshaw driver Mohammed Ismael Kaloo. "Our livelihood has been smashed from us. I feel we deserve to get it back."

In a classic case of bad timing, the Royal Springs golf course recently staged its grand opening, 15 years after this "golfer's dream" was envisioned. Since then, it has slashed greens fees and waived membership rules, and there's never a wait.

Local officials dream of a Tiger Woods visit to put the course on the map. "We're told Tiger needs a minimum of $1 million to play anywhere," said Ashraf, the tourism director. "Our argument is: We have billion-dollar mountain views."

In the meantime, the course has worked to turn a liability into an asset by hosting an all-India police tournament. "One thing there's no shortage of around here is police and armed forces," said grounds manager Nazhat Gul.

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