SRINAGAR, INDIA // Kashmir is hoping to revive its sagging tourist trade by targeting travellers from the Gulf, Central Asia and the Far East. Sixty years after the fabled Silk Road was closed to trade after the violent partition of the Indian subcontinent, the government of Kashmir is trying to re-create it, but in the air. "Yes, our effort is, hopefully, going to give a big boost to foreign traffic to one of the most spectacular locations in the world from these short-haul [flight] markets," said Naeem Akhtar, the outgoing secretary of tourism. "The arrivals from the Gulf will make a fundamental change in the tourism scenario in Kashmir."
Tourism officials hope the region's climate, Islamic cultural attractions and spectacular scenery will appeal to travellers, both Arab and western, who are living in the Gulf. The move follows the modernisation of Srinagar airport, the only civilian airport in the Vale of Kashmir nestling in the lap of the snow-capped Himalayas. Air India Express started weekly direct flights from Dubai to Srinagar yesterday and other Gulf cities are expected to be included at a later date. Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of India's ruling alliance, said when inaugurating the airport: "Peace is returning to Kashmir and with Srinagar finding a place on the international aviation map the region's economy is destined to thrive."
Tourism officials said the decision to operate flights to and from the Gulf was taken in view of the region being "our thrust area for attracting tourists". Kashmir is just a four-hour flight from Dubai and authorities believe its cultural attractions as well as accessibility - in contrast to Europe and the US where Arab and Muslim travellers are finding it increasingly difficult to secure visas - will be a big attraction. They also said the quiet season in the valley coincides with the July-August holiday season in the Gulf. Air India Express, which offers flights to 10 major international destinations, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi, within four hours from nine Indian cities, is also considering a Dubai-Jeddah connection in the future. Only chartered flights operate to and from Srinagar airport during the Haj season. Indian government officials have said they hope Asian tourists will replace westerners who have rejected Kashmir as a destination for fear of being caught in the region's long-simmering insurgency. Nawang Rigzin Jora, the minister for tourism and culture, said with the start of the first flight from Srinagar to Dubai a gateway would be opened to many more destinations. "Jeddah, Muscat, Kuwait, Doha and Bahrain are all almost equidistant from Kashmir," he said. He also said the flights would be able to carry cargo from Kashmir, including handicrafts such as carpets and scarves, fruit, vegetables, flowers and possibly fish. Kashmir tourism officials hope that after the flights to the Gulf have started, other areas such as South East Asia and Central Asia, with which Kashmir has traditional trade links, could be explored. While it may not be easy to revive the old land-based caravan route, the opening of an "Aerial Silk Route" could be possible. "If we are able to connect Srinagar with some of the Central Asian capitals through direct flights, Kashmir will get a tremendous boost both in tourism and trade," said Muhammad Ashraf, the former director general of tourism. "It would also help us to revive the broken cultural links and will greatly help in removing the alienation which Kashmiris feel with outsiders especially from the southern part of the subcontinent." Following the bloody break-up of the subcontinent after independence from Britain in 1947, Kashmir has been a flashpoint for violence. Despite the tensions, it remained a popular tourist destination, with more than 800,000 visiting in 1988. The arrivals were expected to touch an all-time high of one million the following season. But with the Kashmiri separatist campaign exploding into violence towards the end of 1989, tourism, once the second major source of income for locals, was reduced to the trickle of a mere thousand. Ironically, most of those listed as tourists in the records of the tourism department were in fact journalists from across India and abroad who came to Kashmir to cover the uprising. With the drop in travellers, many of those employed in the tourist trade shifted to other jobs. But those who could not find any alternative source of living were left jobless for years and many were forced to sell their houseboats and guesthouses. Several buildings, mainly around Dal Lake in Srinagar, were requisitioned as temporary barracks by the security forces - brought in large numbers to combat the militancy - and their owners were paid nominal rents. But now the government and the tour operators are trying to lure foreign tourists back. Included in their plans are international roadshows promoting the region. The Srinagar-based Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), along with India's federal ministry of commerce, is hosting a month-long trade festival in London. "The festival is part of the multi- pronged strategy to market Kashmir," said Mubeen Shah, president of the KCCI. Other similar festivals have been held in Dubai, Melbourne, Moscow and Singapore. Mr Shah said tourism benefits all sectors of society. "In spite of Kashmir passing through worst times of its history during the past two decades, a traditional [handicraft] infrastructure which is very much vibrant and intact for the last six centuries plays a vital role in its economy," he said. firstname.lastname@example.org