Sudha Patel (42), a boutique owner, is celebrating her son Mohit Patel’s (12) birthday under the shade of chinar at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk with British-era polo ground in the backdrop. Busy in drafting travel plan for tourist spots in Srinagar, Patel has not faced any hostile environment to believe Kashmir was not safe to stay. She is among record number of 3.85 lakh tourists who traveled Kashmir till April this year.
“I see no reason not to travel to Kashmir and enjoy cool climes of Gulmarg and Pahalgam and musical evenings on Dal lake. Unless politicians play some foul game, the Valley is safe and peaceful for tourists at least,” said Patel.
Once violent streets of Lal Chowk – both Residency Road and Maulana Azad Road – are witnessing a huge rush of tourists resulting in traffic jams after sundown. These streets might be witnessing violent incidents with lesser frequency now; it’s not deterring tourists anymore.
The reason: de-hyphenation of tourism from normalcy by mainstream and separatist politicians. Immediately after the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) took over the reins of the state in 2002, its patron and the then chief minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed correlated the two. Mufti projected normalcy of Kashmir with the rise of tourist footfall in the state. The result: militants to negate the argument attacked tourists and killed more than a dozen were killed just in 2006; since being sitting ducks for militants.
“It was a mistake to correlate the two. But immediately we realized the two needed to be kept separate. Even the tourism department stopped disclosing the figures of tourists traveling to Kashmir,” said Naeem Akhtar, former tourism secretary, who held the office during Mufti’s rule.
The ban on releasing the figures continues till date and so does the restrain by politicians to relate normalcy with tourism. “Ever since Omar Abdullah took charge of affairs, he never projected tourist numbers as an indicator of normalcy,” said Naseer Ahmad, a columnist with a leading daily Greater Kashmir.
Even PDP who tried to relate the two opposed it now. “The two has nothing to do with each other. Tourism is like any other activity of economy. It was wrongly used to project normalcy in the state,” said People’s Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti.
Akhtar, chief spokesman, admits that it was wrong to mix the two. “Yes, it did provoke militants to attack tourists,” said Akhtar.
The separatists have also followed the line. “How is tourism and normalcy related to each other I fail to understand?” asks Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Party chief Yasin Malik adding “we want tourism in Kashmir.”
Malik said tourists should visit the valley and enjoy its beauty. His statement is echoed by hardline separatist leader Sayeed Ali Shah Geelani, who heads the All Parties Hurriyat Conference.
“We should act as good hosts to outsiders, particularly to non-Muslims. We should ensure they face no difficulties during their stay in the state,” said Geelani.
A senior official in the tourism department, pleading not to be named, said more than 3.85 lakh tourists have visited Kashmir till April with more than 18,000 foreign tourists. “We expect the figures to cross 10-lakh mark this year,” said the tourism officer.
The Tourism industry was badly hit after the militancy broke out in the state in 1989. More than four lakh tourists visited Kashmir in 1987 and lowest 30,000 travelled in 1992, according to rough estimates.