Foreigners will be allowed to climb nearly 100 high-altitude Himalayan peaks for the first time in Kashmir, an official said on Friday.
The move by the government to allow foreign climbers follows a significant decline in violence by insurgent groups in the region since India and Pakistan started a peace process in 2004, said Farooq Ahmed Shah, a state tourism official. The move is aimed at helping to boost tourism, an important source of income for Kashmiris and their saucer-shaped valley of fruit orchards, lakes and wildflowers.
Before the start of the insurgency by separatists in 1989, hundreds of thousands of tourists flocked to the region, known as the Switzerland of the east, to enjoy the glacier-fed streams flowing through the forests and grasslands or lounge on houseboats floating on Srinagar's Dal Lake.
"We are optimistic that the decision will give a big boost to tourism and attract more and more foreign tourists," Shah said.
Separatist violence caused the number of tourists to drop to a few thousand every year, deterred by travel warnings from Western governments and extensive media coverage of fighting between government forces and insurgents.
The government in Jammu-Kashmir declared 2010 a "visit Kashmir year" following an improvement in the security situation, Shah said.
"The decision has been taken at the highest level and nearly 100 peaks in Ladakh region are open for trekking and mountaineering," he said.
These peaks are situated at an altitude ranging from 9,840 feet (3,000 meters) to nearly 26,246 feet (8,000 meters). The Indian climbers have been scaling those peaks for decades. Aijaz Ahmed, a travel operator, said the opening of the peaks to foreign tourists would help promote Kashmir.
"The tourism sector has suffered a lot during the last two decades. We're hopeful the decision will attract foreign tourists to the region," he said.
Ladakh is a remote part of the former princely state of Kashmir, which is at the heart of the decades-old conflict between India and Pakistan. The heavily militarized region also borders China. A part of Ladakh, an ethnically distinct region with historical ties to Tibet, has been controlled by China for decades.
More than a dozen rebel groups have been fighting for Kashmir's independence from India or its merger with neighboring Pakistan since 1989.
India accuses Pakistan of arming and training Muslim militants. Islamabad denies the charge, saying it only gives moral and diplomatic support to the rebels.
More than 68,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the uprising and the subsequent Indian crackdown.