Tourists return to Kashmir valley

Dal Lake The scenic beauty of Dal Lake is a big draw for tourists

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This summer, an announcement that followed prayers one Friday afternoon took the residents of Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir by surprise.

"If you have a spare room in your home, please accommodate tourists," they were told.

The request was made on behalf of the Jammu and Kashmir tourism department, reeling under an unprecedented surge of tourists. Officials say that the region has had up to 600,000 tourists this year.

They expect an equal number - if not more - to visit the picturesque Kashmir Valley before the year is out. But just last summer there were angry protests across the valley.

As calm has returned so have the tourists and they are eager to soak up the famed tranquility of Srinagar.

Harish Agarwal and wife Santosh are part of a 60-member group who are visiting from Gujarat.

On a warm July evening, they sit in the beautiful gardens of Srinagar's Nishat Bagh, eating ripe delicious peaches and watching the sun set over the placid waters of the Dal Lake.

"A month ago, two people from our area visited Kashmir. On their return, they told us that it was all safe and secure here and that gave us the confidence to come for a visit," Mrs Agarwal says.

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Ghulam Mohammad

Our entire families, with children, slept in one room so that we could take in guests in our second room”

End Quote Ghulam Mohammad Srinagar resident

But as plane-loads and bus-loads of tourists continue to arrive in Srinagar, many without even booking any accommodation, there have been reports that many tourists were forced to spend nights in their vehicles.

Kashmir 'homestay'

"One morning, as I stepped out, I saw an astonishing sight - there were lots of cars parked by the roadside and people were sleeping in them. Some people were sleeping on the pavements too," says John Mohammad Guru who lives in the Kohan Khan area of Srinagar city.

Next to their living quarters, the Guru family has built a new building where they intend to take in tourists for a "homestay" option.

The six-room home is still awaiting license, but the tourism department asked them to take in visitors this season.

Mr Guru says he did record business - his guest house was packed the entire month of May and June when schools across India are closed for summer.

On some days, he says, there were tourists staying even in the four rooms of his family's personal quarters.

His neighbours have similar tales to tell.

"When the tourist rush started, the hotels, houseboats and guesthouses were all full, so we helped out," says Ghulam Mohammad.

"Our entire families, with children, slept in one room so that we could take in guests in our second room. There were tourists driving up to the nearby roadside restaurant at midnight and asking for food. We had never seen anything like this before," he says.

Meeta Sharma with her mother and daughter Meeta Sharma said she felt safe in Kashmir

Azim Tuman, 77, is the president of Houseboat Owners' Association and represents 800 plus houseboats berthed in Srinagar's famous Dal Lake and Nageen Lake.

He says "2012 is the best summer I have seen since World War II" when a large number of soldiers, on their way to the battlefield, came to relax and enjoy the scenic beauty of the valley.

"In those days, all our 3,500 houseboats and two hotels were always full," he says.

Incentives for homestay

An armed insurgency against the Indian rule which began in 1989 has kept tourists away from the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley for the better part of the last two decades.

But as the situation has eased in the last few years, things have begun to look up. Last year saw a record tourist turnout of 1.1m. This year, tourism director Talat Pervez expects it to be at least 10% more.

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Srinagar is a beautiful city, full of flowers. It was my childhood dream to come here and it's been fulfilled now”

End Quote Meeta Sharma Tourist

At any given time, Srinagar can accommodate 35,000 tourists. But as the numbers in season have far exceeded that, the tourism department a few years ago announced the concept of homestay in Srinagar and other popular tourists spots.

"Nearly 600 homes have been identified across the state for homestay and at least 300 are operational. We are offering 200,000 rupees ($3,620; £2,314) as incentive to families who want to renovate their homes to introduce homestay," Mr Pervez said.

Tourism has long been the mainstay of Kashmir's economy, but after the armed uprising began, tourists started staying away fearing trouble.

"After the disturbance started in the late 1980s, our troubles began," says Vivek Wazir whose family owns the Green Acre guest house, one of the oldest and best homestay options in Srinagar.

"There's no industry in Kashmir, everything is connected to tourism here. The last 22 years have been challenging for all of us involved in the tourism industry," he says.

But this year, he says, has been different.

"Many tourists said they were told by their travel agents that 'Kashmir is open now, this could be your only chance to visit the region. You never know what will happen tomorrow'," he said.

Tourist paradise

The travel agents were perhaps speaking from experience.

The summer of 2008 was particularly good when arrivals crossed the 400,000 mark, until a controversial decision by the Kashmir government to transfer land to a Hindu shrine board in June led to angry protests and days of strike. It also scared off the tourists.

Tourists at Nishat Bagh Kashmir has received 600,000 tourists so far this year

The valley remained on the boil for the next two summers with regular clashes between the stone-throwing youths and the Indian security forces.

Tourism officials say adverse travel advisories by the US and most European countries have meant dollar-paying foreign tourists are yet to return, but that has not deterred Indian tourists from flocking to Kashmir in large numbers.

The boulevard near the scenic Dal Lake is the scene of regular traffic jams and the well laid out parks and gardens of Srinagar are overrun with visitors.

Meeta Sharma of Patna, who is visiting with her mother and daughter, says: "We were a bit afraid, we had heard about militants, but we are not feeling afraid here any more.

"Srinagar is a beautiful city, full of flowers. It was my childhood dream to come here and it's been fulfilled now," she says.

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