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Kashmir Tourism:  A Hidden Treat


Kashmir has enjoyed a tourist surge this year, despite the on-going conflict in the region claimed by both India and Pakistan.

The fields along the main highway outside Kashmir's summer capital, Srinagar, are dotted with small purple and orange flowers - from which the spice saffron is harvested to use in cooking and in dyes. As laborers bend over baskets to pluck the blossoms, a handful of tourists gathers to take photos of the charming country scene.

Jagdish Sathe, a civil servant from Bombay, brought his family to Kashmir. He says he is not afraid of the on-going insurgency.

"Kashmir is heaven on earth. It's a part of India, an integral part of India, so that is not a question," says Mr. Sathe. "We had a love for Kashmir, we know we wanted to see, and this is the right time to come here. In the coming days, more and more tourists are going to come, because the militants are losing their ground here."

It may not be that simple. Islamic militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir have waged a separatist campaign against Indian troops since 1989, leading to the deaths of more than 60,000 people. Nor is fighting confined to remote parts of the countryside. Insurgents have killed three people and wounded 50 more in two attacks on a government office in central Srinagar in the past month. Both the attacks took place in broad daylight.

Despite the continued violence, tourism in Kashmir is on an upswing. State officials say more than 64,000 Indian tourists and 800 foreign tourists visited Kashmir by June of this year. That is six times the number of tourists who visited during the same period the previous year.

They have come to enjoy mountain treks, horseback riding, or simply to stay in one of the hundreds of houseboats on the misty shores of the sprawling Dal Lake.

Lassa, 56, has worked as a boatman on Dal Lake for the past 40 years. Visitors willing to rise before dawn can charter Mr. Lassa's gondola to go to a floating vegetable and flower market, where farmers gather in canoes on the water to sell their goods to local shopkeepers.

Even though last year brought more visitors, Mr. Lassa says the numbers still do not compare to before the insurgency began.

"We were working only six or seven months in a year, and we was earning enough money for all of the year," he says. "Our children were going to good schools for education. These days very few tourist people - those are the Indian tourist people - very few foreigners coming here these days."

Still, Mr. Lassa counts himself lucky that he has job that earns him enough money to support an extended family - when many of his friends, he says, are unemployed.

Some say the push for jobs, combined with a resurgent tourism industry, may create its own momentum for political change.

Mehbooba Mufti is the head of the People's Democratic Party, part of the coalition running Kashmir's state government. She says once people in the service sector see the money they can make through tourism, that will keep tourists safe, and militants at bay.

"The message goes clear to the militants that the local people get benefit from this," says Ms. Mufti. "So if we try to disturb them, if we try play with their livelihood, then whatever support left is also going to go. They will not be tolerated."

In the meantime, Kashmir remains a largely undiscovered holiday retreat - for those who do not mind taking a little risk for their reward.

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