On the face of it, Kashmir, once a tourist haven but now one of the most violent regions in the world seems to be most unlikely destination for foreign tourists.
Gun-battles between terrorists and government troops, grenade attacks and bomb blasts are almost order of the day but this has never reduced its attraction to foreign tourists.
This is despite the fact that domestic vistors show little readiness to make the valley their destination. The most surprising part of it is that majority of the visitors coming from outside countries is of Israeli, who themselves are caught in a fierce conflict with Muslims in Palestine.
“It is an amazing place. People here are good. It would have been a great miss, had I not visited this place” says Noham Beth, a 35-year old Israeli tourist at Pahalgam. Noham was persuaded by one of his friends to visit Kashmir,, who spent 15 days in Kashmir, last year. “I had some doubts that Kashmir is a Muslim dominated region. He told me there is problem”, he says.
Noham, along with four other friends has trekked high in the mountains at Aro, the place where five western tourists—Keith Mangan and Paul Wells of UK, Donald Hutchings (US), Dirk Hasert (Germany) and Hans A Christian of Norway—were kidnapped by Al Faran militants in July 1995. While body Norwegian citizen was found from a nearby village after 45 days, the fate of other four tourists is not known.
"We didn’t see any militant or security personnel anywhere. Everything was ok. We enjoyed it", says Perry Noham’s friend. Dozens of other foreign tourists could be seen scurrying around the gushing waters of Lidder stream.
Officials in the Tourism department say that the inflow of foreign tourists was increasing substantially as against domestic tourists. “The number of foreign tourists visiting Pahalgam is three times more than what it was last year”, says Tourist Officer Muneeb Ahmad. "Majority of them were Israeli. Now we are preparing to receive tourists in large numbers from the western countries", he adds.
Around 15000 foreign tourists have visited Kashmir in the past four months. They were from Malaysia, UK, Germany and China besides Israel. "This year tourists are coming from Middle-east countries also”, says Farooq Shah, Director state tourism department.
“Foreign tourists never shunned Kashmir. They always used to come here, though not in large numbers”, says Fayaz Ahmad Malik, a tour operator at Pahalgam, who organizes trekking in mountains.
Fayaz was in touch with an Israeli lady tour operator Moga Luzia, who has promised him to come with a high-spending group of Israeli tourists very soon. “She (Moga) was here last month, and spent several days here. She was quite mesmerized by the beauty of Kashmir and said she would organize tour groups for Kashmir.
Paul Haritos, a 29-year old UK tourist, is little scared of violence in Kashmir. Strolling on the Boulevard on the southern shore of Dal Lake in capital Srinagar on an absorbing evening on Tuesday, says “violence is everywhere in the world — in Washington, in UK, in France or any other city”. “Death keeps no calendar and one can die anywhere, anytime”, he believes.