Unrest Ends Kashmir Tourism Revival

15 September 2008
Agence France-Presse

Srinagar: Protests against India's rule in the spectacularly beautiful Kashmir valley have brought an abrupt halt to tourism, which had been showing signs of a hard-won recovery, officials said. In the past few months, Kashmir has witnessed the biggest pro-independence demonstrations since the separatist insurgency erupted in 1989. The protests have triggered a heavy crackdown by Indian security forces, and tourist numbers have dropped to virtually zero, officials said. Last year nearly 500,000 visitors travelled to Indian Kashmir, the largest number since tourists rediscovered the region as violence declined after 2004. This year nearly 400,000 people - mostly from India itself - had already visited Kashmir by mid-June, tourism officials said. But the renewed violence, and a series of curfews, quickly dissuaded anyone planning to flee the summer heat of India's plains in search of cooler climes from choosing Kashmir. 'My houseboat is empty. The business was flourishing in May but it has come to a grinding halt since the protests began,' said Abdul Rashid, who owns one of the famous houseboats on Dal Lake in the region's summer capital Srinagar. 'I was fully booked until early October but now everything is cancelled,' said Rashid, adding that this year would have 'surely been the best tourist season but for the unrest.' Since June, 42 Muslim and three Hindu protesters have been shot dead by security forces in unrest sparked by a state government plan to grant land to a Hindu pilgrim trust, a move opposed by Kashmir's majority Muslims. 'The continuous disturbances for the last two months have brought down hotel occupancy from 100 percent in May 2008 to almost zero in September 2008,' a government statement said. Tourism in Kashmir has received repeated setbacks since armed militants launched their insurgency against New Delhi's rule 20 years ago. But after 2004 the bloodshed tapered off in the picturesque region known as the 'Switzerland of the East' for its snow-capped peaks, fast-running rivers and verdant valleys. The lull came against the backdrop of the peace process between India and Pakistan over the disputed region, which is held in part but claimed in full by both countries. Officials say about 30 percent of the population in the Kashmir valley was directly or indirectly dependent on tourism for their livelihoods. Leading tour operator Nazir Bakshi said he had suffered 100 percent cancellations of bookings, and was not optimistic about the future. 'The tourist trade is finished at the moment. I am not hopeful of any positive change in the near future,' said Bakshi. Instead, riot police patrol the shores of the Dal Lake, a spot previously favoured by Indian tourists, especially honeymooners. And many foreign ministries - including those of the United States and Britain - have now advised their nationals against travel to Kashmir. .