Srinagar – The shadows of violence still linger but the hills and meadows, lakes and valleys beckon, and tourists are once again flocking to Kashmir. It’s summer and time for brisk business again as the peak season sets in with the fervent hope that the months will pass off peacefully.
As hotels, houseboats and guest houses in the Kashmir Valley get packed with tourists and everyone, from taxi drivers to handicraft sellers, reports good sales, Jammu and Kashmir’s tourism industry is praying that there will be no repeat of the violence that singed the last three summers.
According to official figures, around 210,000 tourists, including 10,000 foreigners, have arrived in the Valley so far this year.
“We are so deeply impressed by the attitude of the local people. Not only those who own hotels, taxis or houseboats here but ordinary people who have no connection with our visit go out of the way to help us. Kashmir is a great place,” said Sanjay Kumar, 27, who is here on his honeymoon.
The sheer visual beauty in this conflict zone have won over legions of fans over the decades. And they do this year too.
Scores of buses carrying groups of tourists reach north Kashmir’s Sonamarg resort each morning, from where groups move uphill for a glimpse of the Thajwas Glacier.
“It is a slow moving mass of frozen snow…what a majestic sight”, said Sunil Sharma, 48.
Chief Minister Omar Abdullah maintains that tourist inflow into the Valley should not in any manner be linked with the political or the law and order situation.
“Let them come silently and go back silently,” Omar tweeted recently.
The state tourism department too is enthused by the inflow and is eager to offer additional activities like adventure tourism.
“We provide technical support and expertise to rafters who come here to enjoy the thrill of rafting in the fast waters of the Sindh stream,” said an official of the department in Sonamarg.
Most locals and those connected with the tourism industry are hopeful that the situation will remain peaceful this year.
“We have seen the worst times during the last three years… We have nothing to do with politics. All we demand is that we be allowed to earn an honest living to support our families,” said 54-year-old hotelier Noor Muhammad.
Previous summers had started off peacefully, but events soon spiralled out of control in this conflict zone.
In 2008, the streets had erupted in protest against the government decision to divert 100 acres of land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board for providing facilities to the pilgrims.
While protests erupted in the Valley in 2009 after the alleged rape and murder of two women in Shopian, clashes between unruly mobs and security forces in 2010 left around 110 people dead. Violence during the peak tourism seasons hit the industry hard.
“We have huge bank loans to repay, besides maintaining an establishment. It is a well-known fact that a good hotel must at least have 30 percent occupancy to afford the running costs. The last three summers saw us literally living with our doors shut,” said Rafi Ganai, a hotel owner in south Kashmir’s Pahalgam hill station.
Taxi drivers suffered as well.
I have an Innova Toyota taxi and my monthly bank instalment is Rs.10,000. This has to be paid irrespective of whether I earn anything or not,” said Zahoor Ahmad, a taxi driver in Srinagar.
Porters, ‘ponywallahs’, who give tourists rides on horses, and roadside tea-stall owners depend entirely on the tourist and pilgrim inflow for their annual sustenance.
“I must earn for myself and my family during four months and save enough to live for the rest of the year. Four months of no work means starvation for me and my family,” said Wali Muhammad, 45, a ponywallah in north Kashmir’s Gulmarg tourist resort.
“Although we had 270,000 tourists here last year up to this period, yet the turmoil that followed put a complete stop on their inflow,” said an official of the department.
Fingers are crossed that the peace this summer is here to stay.