Peace Moves To Draw Tourists To Stunning Kashmir
28 April 2005
Srinagar: As spring sets in, Kashmiris are busy polishing their pinewood houseboats on the mirror-calm waters of the Dal lake and renovating hotels in the hope that a renewed push for peace will bring back the tourists. They hope talks between Pakistan and India, which include he fate of Kashmir, will see tourists once again flock to their stunningly beautiful Himalayan region. 'Things have changed ... for the first time, both countries are condemning militants' attacks in Kashmir with one voice,' said Indian Kashmir's tourism minister, Ghulam Hassan Mir. Kashmiri officials said they were expecting more than half a million visitors this summer, up from last year's 350,000. That is still much fewer than the nearly 1 million tourists who visited Kashmir each year before a rebellion broke out in late 1989 against Indian rule in the mostly Muslim region. More than 45,000 people have died in the revolt and, despite the new push for peace, there are daily gunbattles between Indian forces and Muslim guerrillas. Fifteen people, eight of them militants, were killed in separate gunbattles in Kashmir in the past 24 hours, Indian authorities said on Thursday. A few tourists are already trickling in, undeterred by the violence in Jammu and Kashmir, sometimes called the Switzerland of the East. 'I have no words to describe it, I can only repeat if there is paradise on earth, it is this,' said 27-year-old honeymooner Kanwalnain Singh, riding a shikara, or small boat, with his wife Joyti on the shimmering Dal lake. Ghulam Qadir, a houseboat owner in the summer capital, Srinagar, said he was booked through the summer. 'Let us keep our fingers crossed and pray for peace so that everything goes smoothly,' he said. Kashmir, at the heart of more than half a century of enmity between India and Pakistan, was once one of Asia's major tourist destinations, a haven for honeymooners, trekkers, skiers and film makers. As the rebellion dragged on, tourism dried up and most Western countries still caution citizens against travel there. Five Western tourists disappeared in Kashmir in 1995 and are presumed dead. This month two suicide attackers stormed and torched a heavily guarded tourist centre which was sheltering passengers, a day before they took the first bus between the Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir in more than half a century. The cross-border bus is widely seen as the most powerful sign of peace between India and Pakistan, who in 2002 went to the brink of a third war over Kashmir.