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Promoting Kashmir

In December 2001, the Indian government described a terrorist attack on the Parliament in New Delhi as "India's 9/11." In response, nearly a million soldiers were mobilized on either side of India's long border with Pakistan, adding to the 80,000 or so permanently stationed at the "line of control" between the Indian and Pakistani areas of Kashmir. India has long accused Pakistan of backing the 15-year-old insurgency in Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley, which is under Indian rule. It seemed that the two nuclear-armed neighbors would go to a third and potentially catastrophic war over the disputed state when, following another terrorist assault on civilians in May 2002, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee told the Indian military to prepare for a "final battle."

The United States and several other Western countries evacuated their embassies and instructed their citizens to leave the subcontinent. Newspaper headlines and editorials in the West made it seem as if the world's first nuclear exchange was imminent. Today, war in South Asia seems much less likely than it did just over a year ago. Despite sporadic violence in the disputed state, India and Pakistan have restored full diplomatic relations. (As part of its "war on terror," the U. S. strongly encouraged the two countries to put aside their differences and attempt to resolve the issue of Kashmir.) And though many Western nations have yet to withdraw their travel warnings, Kashmir no longer seems, as President Clinton billed it in early 2000, "the most dangerous place in the world." But the hard work for the tourist industry there is only beginning.

That work may be somewhat mitigated by the fact that the basic infrastructure for tourism—hotels and houseboats, including the five-star InterContinental Grand Palace; plenty of taxis; regular flights from Delhi—has survived more than a decade of violence. Efforts to promote tourism also have a powerful sponsor in the Indian government, which tried to encourage visitors to Kashmir (known officially as Jammu and Kashmir) even during India's recent military standoff with Pakistan.

In June 2002, the government announced that it was negotiating with a U.S.-based company to provide insurance coverage for all tourists to Kashmir. It spoke of further developing the Buddhist-majority region of Ladakh and attracting tourists to the Indus River, which the Hindu nationalists claim is the seed of Indian civilization. It offered special packages to Hindu pilgrims in the Hindu-majority region of Jammu. However, the government has found it harder to sell the Kashmir Valley as a tourist destination.

This is hardly surprising. By mid-1990, almost the entire Muslim population of the Valley had revolted against Indian rule. Large numbers of Muslims from Pakistanand even Afghanistan had joined what they called the "freedom struggle" in Kashmir. New militant groups kept announcing themselves with attacks on Indian security forces. The frequent massacres of civilians cleared the Valley of the handful of intrepid tourists who had shown up despite the travel warnings issued by American and European governments. In 1995, a new group called Al-Faran claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of six foreign tourists from Britain, Germany, Norway, and the U.S., who had gone missing on a trek (one American later escaped). Police eventually recovered the headless body of the Norwegian; the other four are still missing and are presumed dead.

Aziz Wani, the managing director of Kashmir's Tourism Development Corporation, told me he plans first to entice Indian tourists to Kashmir with package deals on flights and hotels, and only then will he focus on attracting foreigners. The chief minister of Kashmir, a veteran politician named Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, and his daughter, Mehbooba Mufti, a popular human-rights activist, are also stressing this gradualist approach. When we met late last year in the Kashmiri ski-resort town of Gulmarg, they had just said good-bye to a group of travel agents and tour operators from New Delhi. "We are trying to be optimistic," Mehbooba Mufti said, smiling slightly.

It was much easier to be optimistic about Kashmir's tourist industry when I first visited the Valley, in the fall of 1987. If you had grown up on the oppressively warm, dusty, flat, and blindingly bright Indian plains, as I had, the bowl-shaped Valley of Kashmir could seem to offer all the marvels of the world: soft light, cool air, and a gentle landscape of lakes and mountains.

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