Tourists'bring Smiles To Faces Of Houseboat Owners
12 June 2005
Srinagar: After a deadly insurgency erupted in Kashmir and tourists shunned the region, Abdul Rashid decided to sell his ornately handcarved tourist houseboat. Now, with visitors returning in big numbers as India and Pakistan keep up efforts to settle their feud over the breathtakingly scenic mountain state, he is glad he could not find a buyer. 'This looks like being the best season since the revolt began 15 years ago,' said Rashid, 51, who struggled to make ends meet during the lean years by hawking his antique carpet collection and handicrafts in Indian cities. 'I'm booked solid,' he said, sitting on the balcony of his newly painted houseboat on the famed Dal Lake in Srinagar. 'I went to many asking them to buy my houseboat but no one would as they all had money troubles.' he said. 'Now I think it's a blessing I couldn't sell it.' State government officials say they expect some 600,000 people to visit the Valley this year. That figure is up from 375,000 visitors last year. 'We're headed for a bumper season,' said the tourism minister Ghulam Hassan Mir. In fact, a tourism official said that by the end of May over 200,000 had already visited Kashmir. That was with four months still left in the peak tourist season when many people flee India's baking hot plains for cooler climes. 'We knew about violence before we came but there's violence everywhere,' said Salman Rafique, a student from India's commercial capital Bombay, who was accompanied by his sister. 'We're enjoying every moment, it's so beautiful.' The rise in visitors to Muslim-majority Kashmir is part of the so-called 'peace dividend' from the drive launched in January 2004 by nuclear- armed India and Pakistan to settle their decades-old row over the region, the cause of two of their three wars. 'The peace process has definitely helped revive tourism,' said Mir. Also, this year for the first time, a hardline rebel group, Al Badr, welcomed foreign and Indian tourists to Kashmir. 'For the first time in years my houseboat is booked to the end of September,' said Laje Dal houseboat owner Mohammed Yusuf. 'I hope it stays like this.' Lake Dal, dotted with Kashmir's famed guest houseboats, and the 17th- century Mughal gardens with terraced lawns, cascading fountains and flowerbeds that stretch along its shores, are Srinagar's key tourist draws. The number of visitors is still below that of 1988 - the year before the insurgency began - when one million tourists visited the state known for its clean lakes, fast-flowing mountain streams and verdant scenery. There are also virtually no foreigners among the visitors. Last year, only one percent of the visitors to the region were from abroad, according to official figures, despite the state government's efforts to assure foreign countries their citizens will be safe in Kashmir. Gunmen targeted foreign tourists in 1995 when six foreigners were seized in Pahalgam tourist resort in south Kashmir. One managed to flee, another was beheaded and the fate of the other four was never known. But many nations warn their citizens against visiting the region, citing the revolt in which some eight to 10 people are killed daily in explosions, shootings and clashes between soldiers and militants. That is down from the 10 to 12 killed daily at the height of the insurgency but it still one of the world's deadliest conflicts. Indians, however, are increasingly ready to take their chances and visit the region, once one of Asia's major tourists spots where the mountains were a favourite backdrop for Bollywood film-makers. 'We've been here 10 days. It's been wonderful. It seems peaceful,' said Anil Sharma from New Delhi, accompanied by his wife and two children.