Kashmir Woos Tourists With X'mas, New Year Parties
19 December 2004
Srinagar: As tourism makes a slow comeback in Indian Kashmir, authorities in the bloodied region are wooing visitors with Christmas and New Year celebrations, the first since a violent separatist revolt began 15 years ago. The message is simple - the scenic Himalayan region with its snow-covered mountains is equally, if not more, beautiful in winter as it is in summer. 'We want to send a message across that Kashmir is normal and project it as a winter destination,' Saleem Baig, head of the state's tourism department, told Reuters. 'We expect a good response.' He said the department would organise Christmas celebrations at Gulmarg, a hill station popular for its skiing pistes. The action then shifts to Pahalgam, another hill station in southern Kashmir offering New Year's eve parties on snow- covered slopes sprinkled with towering pine and chinar trees. Kashmir is at the heart of half a century of enmity between India and Pakistan. Both nuclear-armed neighbours claim the entire Muslim- majority region as their own and have twice gone to war over the dispute. More than 45,000 people have been killed in Indian Kashmir since 1989 when Islamic guerrillas rose in revolt against New Delhi's rule. India accuses Pakistan of arming and training the rebels, a charge Islamabad denies. Although gun battles between troops and militants, grenade attacks and bomb blasts continue unabated, India says there has been a fall in violence in Kashmir this year, coinciding with the opening of a peace dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad. The decline in violence has been reflected in a growing perception that it was safe to visit Kashmir, with a record number of tourists flocking to the valley this last summer. 'Winter months have remained mostly off season here. But this year we have bookings on the eve of Christmas and New Year,' said Aksar Tunda, a houseboat owner in Srinagar, the main city of Indian Kashmir. Tourism officials said 362,000 tourists, including thousands of foreigners, had visited Kashmir this year compared to 191,000 in 2003. While that is still a small fraction of the two million tourists who came to Kashmir every year before the revolt began in 1989, it is a great leap from the annual figure of about 6,000 during the early years of the insurgency. 'The number is very encouraging ... despite travel warnings a good number of foreign tourists also visited the valley,' Baig said, referring to foreign governments' advisories to their nationals to avoid Kashmir. Tourism would boom if there were permanent peace, houseboat owner Tunda said. 'I wish peace returns. We will have business through the year,' he said.