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Kashmir Lures Golfers to Bolster Tourism

Kashmir wants to become a destination for golfers. It has invested millions of dollars in building and sprucing up at least three golf courses in the region, hoping to attract high-dollar tourists to some of the world's most breathtaking links. Raymond Thibodeaux reports from Srinagar, the capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir.

These golfers are trying out for membership in Kashmir's exclusive Royal Springs Golf Course in Srinagar, in the hills overlooking Dal Lake. It has a sprawling $5 million, 18-hole course.

The course has plenty of hazards: sand traps, ponds, patches of wildflowers too close to the fairway for comfort, and a family of Himalayan black bears living on the links, also too close for comfort.

Ashiq Hussain Masoodi, who lives in Kashmir, hopes to be a Royal Springs member. He seems to be having a rough morning. He shanks a ball into some wildflowers. Even as he hunts his ball, Masoodi is enthusiastic about the course.

"It is a very wonderful experience. This is the finest course I have ever seen," he said.

Massodi says that the course in "not difficult" but "you have to play cautiously here."

Royal Springs golf director Farooq Shah is confident this course and others in the region will attract high-dollar tourists from around the world.

"This golf course is India's best and one of the top 10 in the world," said Shah. "The best golfers of India are playing here. … Kashmir is really a paradise for the golfers."

But for golfers, there are other hazards not so visible from these green links.

A quick drive from Srinagar's airport hints at another side of Kashmir. Razor wire in the market place, military bunkers and barracks spread throughout the city. As many as 600,000 Indian army troops patrol the region with assault rifles and flak jackets.

Srinagar looks like a city under siege. The region, with a mostly Muslim population, is divided between Pakistan and India, and they have fought two wars over it. India accuses Pakistan of supporting Kashmiri separatists, a charge the Pakistani government denies.

Since the insurgency began in 1989 in Indian Kashmir, an estimated 40,000 people have been killed. As many as 10,000 people, mostly young men, have disappeared after being detained by Indian security forces.

The 18-year conflict shows signs of ebbing as peace talks between India and Pakistan have inched along in recent years.

Kashmiri officials are counting on tourism, one of the region's most lucrative and fastest-growing industries, to rebuild the economy.

Farooq Shah is not only the director of the Royal Springs Golf Course, he is also Kashmir's tourism director. He hopes golf will be the centerpiece of the region's economy.

"So, as far as this golf course is concerned, it is the face of the tourism in the state," he said. "You see, when a golfer comes to the state he is a high-spending tourist. He hires a taxi, he stays in a good hotel, he goes shopping. So, indirectly, it really benefits the tourism industry."

Some people have their doubts.

Lyn Robinson is a global tourism expert. She advises nonprofit agencies on emerging tourism markets that benefit local communities.

"This is not traditionally a high-end tourism market. This is traditionally a backpacker, independent traveler market," she said. "But if they're looking at golf tourism as something that's going to be a mainstay of tourism? I don't think so. Plus, [there is] the fact that golfers are not traditionally those people who are adventurous, who are willing to be less comfortable."

Still, the tourism ministry is going ahead with plans to build or spruce up three more golf courses. That has angered many Kashmiris who say the money should be spent on building schools and hospitals - projects, they say, that directly benefit ordinary Kashmiris, few of whom can afford to play at Royal Springs.

But people like Khan predict that golf tourism eventually will benefit ordinary Kashmiris. More tourists mean more tourist dollars for everybody. That is one reason some experts say tourism is a good peace-builder.

That is one thing the Kashmiri government is counting on.