Summer Rush In Paradise

Summer Rush In Paradise

30 June 2012
India Today
Naseer Ganai

Srinagar: Can you please help us find a hotel room for a night?' Vejnath Gupta asked, eyes pleading, a group of journalists returning home. Having been forced to spend four consecutive nights in a tour bus, Gupta and his wife - they are from Gujarat and have come to visit Jammu and Kashmir - are looking for a place to rest their weary bodies. For these days, finding a hotel in the Valley is proving to be as difficult as finding a speck of cloud over the frazzled Delhi sky. And the Guptas are not alone. There are many like them who have been forced to shack up outdoors, or in cars and buses, for the unprecedented rush to the Valley this summer has rendered hotel rooms out of bounds. The huge inflow of tourists is great news for Kashmir tourism, trying to find its feet after years of conflict. With temperature soaring in the hills across Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, Kashmir offers some relief, and the peace that has been prevailing in the Valley has helped in the influx of tourists, which the state is now finding difficult to handle. These days, Lal Chowk - the nerve centre of Srinagar - looks like any other part of the country where every evening one can find tourists chatting, shopping, enjoying the barbecue and chicken biryani or just simply lazing around. After a long time Kashmir is throbbing with tourists like never before. Since January this year, over seven lakh tourists, including nearly 19,000 foreigners, have visited Kashmir. Officials said this year the Valley is likely to host 2.5 million visitors, seven lakh more than last year. To keep the momentum going, the department of tourism is providing long-term soft loans to people to help them convert their residential property into guest houses and has identified 50 villages across the Valley to be developed for tourism. page20graphic.jpg 'We are providing soft loans to people to convert residential property into guest houses and we are improving infrastructure. We don't want to confine tourism to a few pockets in the Valley,' Jammu and Kashmir's director of tourism, Talat Pervez, said. People associated with the tourism trade claimed the department has been doing a fine job, but it is the politicians who are creating problems. 'We don't feel happy when politicians in the state assembly or in Parliament talk about the number of tourists visiting the Valley. Their statements link tourism with conflict. Tourism is like any other activity and once you link it with conflict resolution, you are making the whole industry vulnerable,' G.M. Dag, chairman of Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Alliance, said. Dag said whenever tourism is linked with conflict, it becomes incident specific. 'A small incident can stop all tourism activity here. You have to be cautious in your statements. In fact, politicians should not make any statement on tourism at all,' he added. Interestingly, this year separatists too have championed the cause of tourism in the Valley. Earlier this month, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the Hurriyat Conference's moderate faction, met a Japanese delegation and discussed travel advisories with them. 'Kashmiris are courteous and peace-loving people. We want visitors from across the globe, including Japan, to come to Kashmir and enjoy its natural beauty,' Mirwaiz had told the delegation. Shabir Ahmad Shah, another separatist leader, met tourists at various places and informed them that Kashmir is a safe place to visit. Last year, Germany became the first European nation to modify its travel advisory to Kashmir. This is the first such incident after most European countries put out travel advisories, cautioning their citizens against visiting the Valley ever since the outbreak of the separatist movement. A royal voyage for thrill junkies The Mughals conquered Kashmir in 1586 AD and left in the wake of their 120-year rule, multiple relics that still stand testimony to the empire's rich cultural heritage as also their conquests. Among the most significant of such structures in Kashmir is the Mughal Road, an 84-km stretch that connects the Valley to Jammu's Poonch and Rajouri districts and provides an alternative road-link to the Valley. But as of now the road, dotted with architectural testaments to the Mughal Empire, is out of bounds for the public, although things look set for change. On Saturday, Kashmir tourism minister Nasir Aslam Wani flagged off the Mughal Road car rally from Royal Spring Golf Course in Srinagar, in what is being seen as an attempt to promote the stretch as a tourist hotspot. The car rally, scheduled to cover over 600 km, will pass through the Mughal Road, which is also known as the 'heritage' road. Around 190 adventure lovers began the journey in 93 vehicles including a few daredevils, who will undertake the trek on motorcycles. 'The car rally through the Mughal Road is a big step towards the promotion of adventure tourism in Jammu and Kashmir,' Wani said. 'Besides, it will also encourage the youth of the state to come forward and participate in adventure sports,' he said. Surrounded by a picturesque view, the Mughal Road passes over the Pir Panjal mountain range, at an altitude of 11,500 ft. During the Mughal reign, the road was used extensively by the emperors to travel and is the same route Akbar took to conquer Kashmir. Emperor Jahangir, whose famous words 'paradise on earth' are still evoked to describe Kashmir, breathed his last on the Mughal Road, near Rajouri. The Chingus fort, where he died and his body was kept for some time, still exists. And in Rajouri's Thanamandi, is a grand sarai and terrace called 'Noori Chamb' waterfall, named after Jahangir's queen Noor Jehan. But the road lay abandoned after 1947, until 2005, when re-construction work on the stretch began. The Mughal Road is expected to be opened for traffic in 2014.