Published On:17 May 2013
Posted by Indian Muslim Observer

Kashmir Festival aims to rehabilitate state

By Nupur Acharya

Srinagar: Kashmir is possibly one of the most beautiful places in the world and shouldn’t need much help attracting tourists. But two decades of militancy and strife in India’s northernmost state and a recent return to violence after a few years of relative calm, mean officials have to go to special efforts to entice tourists to visit.

With that in mind, India’s government is holding a two-week long event, Kashmir Festival 2013, to promote tourism and attempt to boost an economy that relies heavily on the tourist dollar.

The festival, which began Monday, will run until May 29 and covers many destinations, some of which have yet to make it onto tourists’ maps. Organizers say it is the first time the event has been held over such a long period and on such a large scale. Previously it lasted a few days and was restricted to a couple of locations, they said.

“The festival is a way of showcasing the adventure spirit of the region,” said Mehmoob Ahmed, the chief executive of the development authority at Gulmarg, a popular mountain resort.

Kashmir’s stunning natural beauty — think snow topped Himalayan peaks, evergreen forests and fresh mountain air – is the ideal setting for activities like trekking, cycling, paragliding and rafting, which are all on offer during the fortnight.

The festival will be held in Sringar, Pahalgam, Gulmarg, Sonmarg and the less well known regions of Yousmarg, Manasbal, Doodhpathri, and Lolab Valley. Activities laid on include Shikara (a kind of wooden boat) races, canoeing, painting, swimming competitions and horse races. Some hotels are reported to be offering a 20% festival discount on rooms and the state’s tourism minister has offered the same reduction on Air India tickets for those flying to the state during the festival.

It will also showcase the culture of Jammu and Kashmir with music and dance by the cultural troupes of the state.

Tourism is one of the major sources of livelihood in the region apart from smaller industries involving agriculture produce or handicrafts.

But travelers tend to visit the cold and barren regions of Leh in Ladakh or Hindu pilgrims make a short stop-over in Srinagar before heading to the shrine of Amarnath, 141 kilometers away.

They have kept away from other areas in Kashmir mainly out of fear caused by regular incidents of violence and militancy in the area.

Efforts to establish peace in recent years however were bearing fruit and, barring small incidents, the region has seen a sustained period of peace since the decade began.

In 2012, about 1.5 million tourists visited the region, excluding the pilgrims to Amarnath, Mr. Ahmed said.

But this year, the summer season faced a setback after the Indian government executed Mohammad Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man sentenced to death for his role in a terror attack on India’s Parliament in 2001 in February. This led to large scale protests in the region.

In March, in one of the only major attacks in last three years, five soldiers were killed, leading to a large number of cancellations from holiday makers.

“We were set to have a record year (in tourist arrivals) but the Afzal Guru hanging impacted the season. However, we are very hopeful that these activities would revive the tourist flow,” Mr Ahmed said, while declining to share the number of tourist arrivals to date. The season indeed is heating up as the rising mercury levels in the plains further south are making the mountains look ever more appealing.

On a recent Tuesday, at the famous Dal Lake in Srinagar, the summer capital of the state, the road was full of honking cars and vans lined up bumper to bumper at 9 pm.

The pavements were crowded with tourists wearing light woolens, the balloon sellers were doing brisk business while the houseboat operators made sales pitches to young couples on their honeymoon.

A few years back, the markets would have been deserted before nightfall and an army personnel decked in battle fatigues and guns would have been patrolling the area. A curfew after Mr. Guru’s execution would have made evening strolls impossible a few months ago. But locals hope that the festival will bring people back to the area and rehabilitate the state’s image.

“Our aim is to form a friendly bond with the tourists so that they go back remembering our hospitality and come back again,” said Mushtaq Ahmed Batt, a tourist cab driver. Mr Batt, 45, lost his son in one of the many cross firing incidents between the army and the militants in mid-1990s and hopes for a better future for his surviving daughter.

The sustained efforts towards peace and relative stability in recent years has attracted big hotel chains to invest in the region.

In 2011, the Indian Hotels Co. Ltd. opened a branch of their famous Taj chain in Srinagar. The Taj Vivanta Hotel was the second five-star hotel in the city after The Lalit Grand.

Another famous hotel chain, Sarovar Portico, recently took over the management of Royal Khazil City Forest Hotel. Airlines GoAirlines (India) Pvt Ltd and Indigo have also recently started daily direct flights between Srinagar and Mumbai, which is helping to draw many tourists from Maharashtra.

Aqil Nedous, the owner of the heritage 125-year old Nedous Hotel in Gulmarg and the Orchard Villas in Srinagar, is a fifth-generation Kashmiri hotelier.

A decade ago, Mr. Aqil says he was contemplating quitting the business as militancy was rife, tarring Kashmir’s image as the “Venice of East.”

“Kashmir today is as risky as a Delhi or a Mumbai,” Mr. Nedous told The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time.

In the last couple of years, concerted efforts have been made to revive tourism.

“Last year we had almost 5000 tourist arrivals per day in the peak season,” he says.

The peace in the valley has also improved prospects for Nedous Hotels, which has entered into a tie-up with five-star hotel chain ITC Ltd. to develop a 190-room heritage property in Srinagar, Mr. Nedous said.

“The government should start international flights and promote Kashmir tourism in countries like Dubai,” he added.

Mr Nedous and cab driver Mr Batt both think Kashmir’s image is vulnerable to negative portrayals in the media.

“Television media blows even a small incident out of proportion without realizing that it impacts the livelihood of thousands,” said Mr. Nedous.

Mr Batt, is also critical of the portrayal of Kashmir on local television channels. “The media reports show as if every locality is involved in creating disturbance, when all what a local Kashmiri is trying to do is eek out a living,” he said.

Efforts to improve Kashmir’s reputation as an international tourist destination will be given a further boost in the fall when the first Kashmir festival is held in Washington D.C. organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry, according to reports.

(Courtesy: The Wall Street Journal)

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Posted by Indian Muslim Observer on May 17, 2013. Filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Feel free to leave a response

By Indian Muslim Observer on May 17, 2013. Filed under , , , . Follow any responses to the RSS 2.0. Leave a response

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