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Tourists head for Kashmir as heat bakes plains

By F. Ahmed, IANS,

Srinagar : Its cool climes and scenic beauty have made Jammu and Kashmir the choice destination of thousands of domestic tourists this season as summer temperatures continue to soar in the Indian plains.

Surender Mehta, 29, who has come here with his wife for their honeymoon, said: “It is a dream destination. If you haven’t been to Kashmir you have been nowhere.”

Kashmir had a thriving tourism industry until the beginning of a bloody insurgency in 1989. While the number of tourists was around 475,000 in 1988, the figure fell to a few hundred in the 1990s.

But clearly things are changing. In 2006, the figure was over 50,000 – that too excluding pilgrims to the Amarnath cave shrine. And this year domestic tourists are coming here in droves.

“Kashmir is the ultimate tourism destination anyway, but this year the early rise in the temperatures in the plains is attracting more and more domestic tourists to the valley,” said Farooq Ahmad Shah, director of the tourism department here.

“We have a bed capacity of over 22,000 in hotels, guesthouses and houseboats in summer capital Srinagar,” he said.

Scores of buses, taxis and other vehicles carry tourists to the hill stations of Sonamarg, Gulmarg and Pahalgam daily these days.

“There are 5,000 bedded accommodations available in the south Kashmir hill station of Pahalgam and 1,500 bedded accommodations in the north Kashmir resort of Gulmarg.”

The weather could simply not be better for the heat-tormented visitors from the plains where the mercury has gone past 40 degrees Celsius. The maximum temperature in this summer capital of Kashmir these days hovers around a pleasant 27 degrees Celsius while the minimum is around 11 degrees.

“That is the ideal climate that heat sick tourists always look out for,” said T.K. Jotshi, assistant director of the local weather office here.

While officials accept that the tourist influx is good this year, they seem reluctant to divulge the exact numbers.

“Let us not speak in terms of numbers. Yes, we have a very good response and, god willing, things will show up further,” Shah said.

“We have travel and tour packages to suit every purse. In fact, Kashmir comes so cheap for domestic tourists. Especially for middle class domestic tourists, it is simply breathtaking. A small family of four can do reasonably well in around Rs.2,000 daily and this includes travel, board and lodging.”

Perhaps the authorities are extra cautious not to speak in terms of daily tourist arrivals because there have been a number of guerrilla attacks on visitors in the past.

“Tourism is unfortunately sometimes linked with the overall situation here. That could be the reason for militant attacks on tourists in the past. The best option is to allow tourism as part of the daily routine here as it has been for centuries,” said Gowhar Maqbool, a hotelier here.

“Nobody should try to get political mileage out of tourism which is one of the basic industries and source of sustenance for thousands of locals.”