Kashmir Says Come On In, The Tee Times Are Safe

7 April 2008
The New York Times
AMELIA GENTLEMAN

Srinagar: Naeem Akhtar has an improbable task in the Indian government’s drive to revitalize Kashmir after 18 years of militant violence: rebranding this heavily militarized Himalayan region as a global golfing destination. Mr. Akhtar, who is permanent secretary to the government tourism department, the most senior official in charge of tourism in Kashmir, readily admits he has a difficult challenge. “We face a lot of uncomfortable questions,” he said last month, staring out at the empty fairways of the Royal Spring Golf Course here. “Tourists travel to relax. A tourist doesn’t want to come to a place that creates apprehension in his mind.” Nevertheless, lyrical brochures declare the state to be a “golfers’ paradise,” and officials have been dispatched to tourism conferences in London, Berlin and Dubai to persuade the world of Kashmir’s golfing attractions. Introduced by the British during the Raj, the game has recently become a symbol of the new and increasingly wealthy India. And Kashmir’s government believes that golf will attract tourists who spend more than the penny-pinching backpackers who still come to trek in the mountains and stay on Srinagar’s latticed wooden houseboats. The state is spending $6.2 million to build a golf course in the winter capital, Jammu, to be completed later in the year, the fifth course in the region, and an international airport is scheduled to open in the summer. The golf-loving chief minister of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Ghulam Nabi Azad, has spoken of his desire to see the region become an “international golfing hub.” “There is a need to mobilize golfers across the world to come and play the game here,” he told reporters recently, in something of an understatement. Peace talks between India and Pakistan have inched forward in recent years, and violence in Kashmir, which peaked at 4,507 fatalities in 2001, dropped to its lowest level since 1990, with 777 fatalities last year, only 164 of them civilians. As the violence wanes, tourism is undergoing a tentative recovery, although the United States and most European countries still advise their citizens not to visit Kashmir, excluding the safer Ladakh region. In 2007, 450,000 tourists came, 25,000 of them foreigners, and Mr. Akhtar hopes to double that number this year “if something very bad doesn’t happen.” But a gun battle between security forces and Islamist militants a week ago on the outskirts of Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, attracted unwelcome headlines, and memories endure of the violence that has long crippled the region as the Indian Army fights insurgents who are backed, India claims, by Pakistan. “These small incidents are allowed to create a mind-set that we are finding very hard to change,” Mr. Akhtar said. In an office decorated with pictures of Kashmir bathed in autumn golds and spring flowers, Farooq Shah, Kashmir’s director of tourism, slammed his papers down on his desk with irritation at the mention of the continued cautious travel advisories. “People are going to Sri Lanka. People are going to Israel and Lebanon. But why not Kashmir? It’s safer here than New York,” he said. “Terrorism is a world phenomenon now. In 18 years of trouble, we have had only 25 tourist victims.” No tourists have been killed here since July 2006, Mr. Shah said. It is clear that it will take all the skills of the tourism department’s copywriters to make this city a draw for golfers, who, department officials admit, are typically comfort-loving, conservative and risk-averse. Srinagar is a short drive from the Line of Control, the de facto border between India and Pakistan, often described as the most likely nuclear flash point in the world. So far, despite the large government investment in golf, few foreigners have visited the state-owned Royal Spring course. Certainly, the price is right - just $20 for a round on the 18-hole course, $10 for a golf cart rental and $3 for a caddy, said Javed Ahmed, the club’s manager. He said the beauty of the landscape at the fifth hole was so distracting that players unfamiliar with the course tended to lose concentration and misplay their shots. But for newcomers to Kashmir, the view from the 13th hole is probably more distracting: a large Indian military encampment set up by the Border Security Force, enclosed by barbed wire, with several pairs of military camouflage pants slung over a spiked fence to dry. In late March, Kashmir looked just as the brochures portrayed it. The landscape, budding into spring, was bewitching. The trees were heavy with pink and white blossoms; tulips and pansies were blooming; and the willow trees were bursting into leaf. Horses pulling cartloads of vegetables trotted through the streets. But the brochures make no mention of the disquieting presence of an estimated 600,000 Indian soldiers, some of them visible at intervals of around 100 yards along the roadside, in bullet-resistant vests, rifles dangling at their sides. A sign by the airport exit reads “Welcome to the Paradise on Earth,” a sentiment undermined by the tangle of razor wire to the immediate left, the fortresslike security fences and the line of armored vehicles outside. All travelers flying to Srinagar are subjected to double security checks: their baggage is X-rayed twice, and they undergo two body searches. The move to promote Kashmir as a golfing destination has been politically contentious. Many have questioned the wisdom of spending so much on such an inessential project when Kashmir’s citizens are struggling to cope with the effects of the prolonged violence. “The government is obsessed with showing to the international community that things are normal here,” said Pervez Imroz, a lawyer with the Coalition of Civil Society, a human rights organization based in Srinagar. “These golf courses are the big, beautiful lies that they want to sell to the world community, part of the camouflage to disguise what is going on on the ground.” Sighing with the weariness of a man who knows he has been given an impossible task, the tourism secretary, Mr. Akhtar, acknowledged the doubts and said there was much work to be done. “We have not yet established ourselves as a golfing destination,” he said. “It is an aspiration. We have to work to fulfill that goal.”