As the heat of the summer has started its sting in the plains, Kashmir is looking forward to a good tourist season this year despite last year's tragic grenade attacks on tourists that left the tourism industry shuttered and the Valley shattered.
Kashmiri separatists are also in the forefront of a campaign this year to assure tourists of their friendliness and promise Kashmir to be as beautiful, soothing and hospitable as ever.
Kashmir'a beauty is promoted this year to attract tourists' .For the first time, separatists have participated in 'Visit Kashmir' campaign on their own and have urged the locals to welcome tourists and befriend them.
The tourism department is projecting the 'hospitality and beauty' of Kashmir tourism. "We have everything for tourists- beautiful places for them to visit and comfortable hotels, houseboats and guest houses to see and enjoy," Tourism Minister Dillawar Mir, who is leading the campaign said.
He is happy that all section of society are united in their wish to welcome tourists. "Tourism industry is the face of Jammu and Kashmir and we want to be as beautiful as nature has bestowed us with."
"The people of all races, religions, whether from India or abroad are our welcoming guests. We want them to come, said All Parties Hurriyat Conference chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq.
"This is an opportunity for all of us to win hearts of tourists through our hospitality," said Democratic Freedom Party president Shabir Shah. He has already issued an appeal to all Kashmiris, including militants to mount a 'heart warming campaign' and showcase as Kashmir as a warm and friendly host.
A tourism official said that Kashmir is expecting good amount of tourists.
"So far there has been good response and it would be equally good in future as well."
However, in all this tourism promotion campaign, the words of normalcy are being avoided.
Apparently, these are the lessons learnt of the last year's incidents. Suspected militants had targeted tourists with grenades and killed 17 of them and wounded 44 others. All these tourists were from Gujarat, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra - the states that contribute maximum tourists to the Valley during summers.
Until July 11, 2006, when a spate of grenade attacks targeting tourists, made the visitors to flee the Valley en-masse, more than 3000,000 tourists visited the Valley. Thereafter it was an end of " one-million tourist dream" for the Valley.
"Linking tourist arrivals with political normalcy was a mistake and we paid for it ," says former Director General of Tourism , Mohammad Ashraf . "This blunder should never be repeated as the Western countries still have advisories for their citizens cautioning them against visiting Kashmir. And with daily violent incidents and infiltration reports, the term normalcy is a misleading.
The result is that the bookings are nowhere close to what Kashmir hotels had last year. It is not even 60 per cent of the 2006 at this point of time. Mushtaq Chhaya, a leading hotelier of Jammu and Kashmir, having a chain of hotels in Srinagar, Pahalgam, Gulmarg , Jammu and Delhi , said that ," Last year we were completely sold out at this point of time. This year it is tentative and that too less than 60 per cent."
He resents that the Government is not doing enough. "There are no festivals, no efforts to showcase Kashmir's potential from the government side," Chayya said.
"If government and private sector join hands. Tourism industry in Kashmir will boom," he said.
What has bolstered the confidence of the people connected with tourism industry, is separatists have joined hands to promote tourism in Kashmir after learning the economic benefits of tourism.
Moreover the new attraction of Asia's largest tulip garden has started attracting tourists and so are the traditional tourist spots of Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Sonamarg.
"It is a good beginning," Nazir Bakshi said. He, and others hope that the arrivals would increase. But they are determined not to connect that with normalcy .
History of Kashmir tourism
Kashmir had the best tourist season of all the times in year 1988, when it received 7.22 lakh tourists, of these 6,62,097 were domestic tourists and 59,938 foreign. The figures dropped drastically in 1989 when shutdowns and violent incidents started grabbing headlines. The arrivals stood at 5,57,974 and of these 67,762 were foreign. Then started the real militancy and violence and in 1990, the number dipped to 10,722 and in 1991, the arrivals touched all time low at 6.287.
Thereafter it was a gradual rise with the tourist arrivals fluctuating around 10,000. However in 1999, before the Kargil conflict erupted, the number of arrivals touched 1,21,467. Again in the subsequent years it was a dip before it again picked up in 2005 to more than 500,000 arrivals and 2006 failed to cross the 300,000 because of attacks on tourists.
Tour operators are keeping fingers crossed for the current year. No one is willing to make guesses.