Kashmir Reverberates With Summer Tourists24 June 2011
Times of India
Srinagar: Thanks to the prevailing peace this summer, Kashmir Valley is once again the vaunted paradise on earth, overflowing with tourists who have snapped up every possible airline seat and accommodation in hotels, guest houses, houseboats, tourist huts and lodges. The arrivals for the year could touch a staggering one million, an official said. 'Up to Wednesday, we had 485,828 tourist arrivals in the Valley since January. This includes 442,540 domestic and 13,207 foreign tourists. This apart, 30,081 tourists visited the Ladakh region during this period with most of them using the Srinagar-Leh highway to reach there', said a senior official of the state tourism department. He said the arrivals are likely to go up, especially in July, as more tourists are expected to reach here. 'The annual Amarnath Yatra begins on June 29. Around 300,000 pilgrims have registered their arrival to the Valley for this year's Yatra,' the official said in an interview. 'Amarnath Yatra pilgrims included, we are expecting a record number of tourist arrivals in the Valley this year', said the tourism department official, adding that the figure for the entire year could go up to one million. Tourism is the Valley's second biggest money spinner after the Rs.2,000-crore horticulture sector. It was badly hit last year as the Valley had remained shut for over four months because of the summer unrest during which 110 people died in bloody clashes with the security forces. 'Tourist arrivals had dropped to zero after the unrest started here last year. Thanks to the prevailing peaceful atmosphere, more and more tourists are flocking to the Valley. 'Most hotels, guest houses and tourist lodges and huts in Srinagar and (hill stations of) Gulmarg, Sonamarg and Pahalgam are fully booked. We have advance bookings for hotels and tourist huts for the next two months. All fights to Srinagar are operating at their full capacity these days,' the officer said. Most of the floating palaces, known locally as the houseboats, on the Nigeen and Dal Lakes in Srinagar city have full occupancy these days. 'It is a wonderful tourist season and all of us are praying things stay this way in the coming months and the next year as well', said Muhammad Ramzan, 54, the owner of a Dal Lake houseboat. Tourist arrivals in 2009 were just 207,013 while 535,374 tourists - the bulk of them Amarnath pilgrims - came to the Valley last year. It is very difficult to get a taxi in the city these days as most of them are booked to ferry tourists to various destinations in the Valley. There is a heavy rush of visitors daily to the Mughal gardens of Nishat, Shalimar and Chashmashahi in Srinagar and roads outside these gardens are usually crammed with vehicles carrying tourists. Shikaras are used by the tourists for joyrides in the Dal Lake and the Nigeen Lake. After many years, the shikarawallahs are doing a roaring business here. 'I am busy these days carrying tourists for joyrides. My son also assists me when I get tired rowing the boat. Thank God it is a good tourist season this year,' Abdul Salam, 48, a shikarawallah in the Nigeen Lake, said in an interview. A new attraction for the joyriders this year are the high-speed water bikes in the Dal Lake. Wearing life jackets, tourists enjoy the thrill. 'It is great fun. There is no thrill bigger than the one you get riding a high-speed water bike in the Lake', said Suman, 31, a tourist from Delhi. Another major attraction for the tourists is the pony ride from the north Kashmir Sonamarg tourist resort to the Thajwas Glacier. The slow moving mass of snow and water present a spectacle which defies description. 'As sunlight filters through the white mass of the glacier, it gives out a blue dazzle that is amazing,' said Ragbir Singh, 51, from Chandigarh who returned to Srinagar after spending a night at Sonamarg, the meadow of golden flowers. 'There is fast stream rafting, snow boarding, water skiing, cable car rides in Gulmarg to the snow capped Afarwat Hills, mouthwatering local cuisine, disarming hospitality of Kashmiris and a hundred more indulgences for the tourists. 'It is rightly said one can never have enough of Kashmir,' Suresh Kumar, 31, a tourist from Hissar in Haryana.