Strife dries up Kashmir tourism

SUN JOURNAL

Insurgency: The disputed Indian state has struggled to win back vacationers in a time when even golf courses have armed guards.

February 05, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SRINAGAR, India - Mohammed Ashraf has one of the world's tougher sales jobs. As director general of tourism for the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, he tries to persuade people to spend their leisure time and money in an area that two years ago, President Bill Clinton called "the most dangerous place in the world right now."

A few weeks ago, Ashraf's job got a little harder, when Indian soldiers gunned down two men whom local newspapers described as "Dutch tourists." The soldiers claimed the two were Islamic terrorists who attacked them with knives. Some local people were dubious. From Ashraf's perspective, the damage was done.

"Earlier, we had said that militants weren't targeting tourists," says Ashraf, 58, an amiable civil servant who approaches his daunting job with loads of enthusiasm. "Now, when they get killed by [Indian] Border Security Force, it's very difficult to convince people."

Long before Kashmir became synonymous with grenade attacks, massacres and the specter of nuclear war, this Utah-sized stretch of mountains and valleys was one of India's leading tourist spots. Hundreds of thousands of Indians and tens of thousands of foreigners flocked here each year to trek in the mountains, fly fish for trout in the streams and lounge on the ornate wooden houseboats on picturesque Dal Lake.

In 1989, an insurgency against Indian rule erupted, and New Delhi deployed troops in what would eventually become an occupying force numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Srinagar, the capital, became an armed camp filled with soldiers and riot vans. India's Border Security Force placed bunkers made of sandbags, bricks, cargo netting and razor wire at practically every large intersection.

In the past dozen years, tens of thousands of people have died here as local separatists and Pakistan-based Islamic militants have fought to free Kashmir from India's control. India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir, over which they have fought two wars. The dispute has grown even more dangerous since 1998, when Islamabad and New Delhi each tested nuclear weapons.

India has massed troops on Pakistan's border for more than a month after accusing Pakistan-based militants of attacking its parliament building in New Delhi in December. Tensions have eased in recent weeks after a crackdown on Islamic militant and extremists groups ordered by Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president.

India, though, has yet to pull back its troops.

In Kashmir, A. Aziz Surma speaks nostalgically of the peaceful and profitable days when his home was a place people wanted to visit rather than avoid. Travel agents had to book his houseboat, Helen of Troy, at least a month in advance during the summer season. The four-bedroom boat, which operates as a floating guesthouse, was filled 100 to 150 days a year.

Most of Surma's guests were Europeans and Americans, who spent their days sunbathing on the roof or reading books beneath umbrellas. Sometimes they would water ski or swim off a bathing barge.

"I had Charlton Heston in my houseboat," Surma says proudly as he drapes a blanket over the lap of a visitor and hands him a traditional Kashmiri warmer - a wicker basket and a clay pot filled with embers.

Heston visited in June 1982, after shooting a documentary in India on refugees for the World Relief Organization, a United States-based charity. Taped inside a glass cabinet in the houseboat's dining room is a black-and-white photo of Surma and Heston, who is wearing a garland around his neck.

Dal Lake lies on the edge of Srinagar, surrounded by mountains. In the middle of the lake sit about 1,000 houseboats, most of them huge wooden barges. The larger ones are the size of two railway cars and weigh more than 1,700 tons.

A few, like the Neil Armstrong, stretch 200 feet and are made of sandalwood. Surma's is made of cedar and cost him $21,000 to build in the mid-1980s. The boat is luxurious. Walnut tables and heavily upholstered chaise lounges sit beneath a cut-glass chandelier in the living room. The paneled cedar walls are adorned with carved flowers.

According to local lore, an English businessman who wanted to live in Srinagar started Dal Lake's houseboat tradition. Foreigners were prohibited from owning land, so he built a houseboat.

Since the insurgency began, Surma's business has collapsed. He has sold a fleet of seven cars he had used to shuttle guests around the Kashmir Valley. And he continues to spend money on the boat, which produces no more than $1,000 annually.

"If you don't repair it every year, it will rot and sink," says Surma, who charges $31 for a double room. "If things remain like this, what's the use of it?"

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