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Tourism Industry Begins Rebuilding in Indian-Controlled Kashmir

Kashmir, the disputed border region between India and Pakistan has long been considered off limits to all but the most adventurous of tourists.

In recent years that's begun to change. Now, officials say, more and more tourists are taking advantage of the two powers' push toward peace to reach a beguiling holiday destination. VOA's Patricia Nunan has more from Srinigar, in Indian-held Kashmir.

Srinigar's Dal Lake - an oasis of tranquility on a weekend afternoon.

It's long been a spot popular with Kashmiris, who ply the lake's waters in traditional wooden boats. Now, increasing numbers, including foreign tourists, come to stay in some of the 1,200 houseboats moored here - charming reminders of India's colonial past.

Azim Tuzman, is head of Kashmir’s Houseboat Owners' Association says houseboats are important for the tourism industry, "Houseboats have served as the backbone of the tourism industry in Kashmir for the last 140 years -- when Kashmir was introduced to Britishers as as holiday resort."

Officials say that between 2003 and 2005, the number of tourists coming to the Kashmir Valley has nearly tripled - and is expected to reach more than a million in 2006.

The houseboats, Tuman says, are a large part of the appeal. "You live in concrete blocks - back home, in the hotels and everywhere. You do not get, you know, the freshness and fragrance of cedarwood. And then you know, living in a

houseboat is equal to living in a bird sanctuary. And you are living away from hustle and bustleand the soaking smell of cement. That's why houseboats are very, very popular."

But they haven't been as popular as they could be.

For the past 17 years, India has fought an Islamic insurgency in the two-thirds of Kashmir it controls. Militants want independence for Kashmir, or for it to merge with Pakistan, which controls Kashmir's remaining third. The militants have carried out terrorist attacks in the heart of Srinigar.

And that's not all.

Since British colonial rulers left the sub-continent in 1947, India and Pakistan have gone to war over Kashmir twice, and came close to a third time in 2002. Each of the nuclear-armed rivals wants full ownership of Kashmir, and each has forged its national identity in part, by decades of resistance to the other.

That means Dal Lake, and the communities, which make their living on it, have remained largely hidden to all but the most adventurous - and the friends with whom they share their stories - like these Singaporeans who commented, "We have some friends who also came back from Kashmir not long ago. They said it's safe to go."

Saleem Beg is Kashmir's Director General for Tourism. The problem with Kashmir's tourism industry, he says, is not safety - but infrastructure. "Things have to happen locally first. If the place for locals, it becomes safe for national tourists. If the place is safe and secure for national tourists, it carries a message internationally. Until last year we didn't have a very good air capacity for Kashmir This only happened in the last four months that about seven airlines coming to Kashmir. Last year it was four. And it was jampacked during the season when tourists used to come."

Recently, India and Pakistan have agreed to a series of measures to ease tensions between them, as a step towards an eventual resolution of the Kashmir conflict. Right now, Kashmir remains largely a hidden treasure. But perhaps not for long.