Tim Fitzsimons | Paradise on Earth, Lost | EXPOSURE-VII workshop in Kashmir

Program News | Posted Nov 13, 2007
Program: Exposure

EXPOSURE-VII workshop in Kashmir | Photo Gallery

Tim Fitzsimons

Forty-one years ago, George Harrison was paddled out into the center of Dal Lake in Kashmir by Lassa, a shikara walla. While he floated under the moonlight, he strummed his guitar, singing along with Ravi Shankar, the Kashmiri sitar player. Several years later, in the same houseboat where Harrison vacationed in 1966, Nelson Rockefeller spent a summer holiday taking in the beautiful mountain scenery. Today, Lassa still paddles his flat-bottomed shikara canoe, but the houseboat, neglected and rotten, has sunk to its gunwales.

• • •

Several centuries prior to Mr. Harrison’s ride, a Mughal emperor chose to call Kashmir “Paradise on Earth,” or so says the lore. Nobody seems to actually know—or care—whether or not an emperor coined the term. The nickname, today repeated abundantly in tourism pamphlets and by Kashmiris themselves, stuck.
Kashmir was once among the top tourist destinations in India, attracting a quarter of all overseas visitors in 1988, according to the president of the Hotel Association of Kashmir. Tourism had grown to 20 percent of the region’s economy. And then the insurgency began.

The eruption of violence following the contested elections of 1989 put an abrupt end to Kashmir’s tourism boom. The tourist infrastructure crumbled as barbed wire went up and the army settled in for the long run. Newly built hotels and houseboats sat empty for years, and the only visitors to these places of lodging were journalists covering the violence that was tearing the valley apart. A state of relative anarchy in the city of Srinagar allowed for land-grabbers and squatters to further and further encroach their homes into the lake, which polluted and strained Srinagar’s most recognizable landmark. Today, the Dal’s water is stagnant and full of trash, sewage, and weeds; a more accurate name for Dal Lake might be “Dal Swamp.”

Today, the overwhelming violence of the 1990s has passed and the tourism business in Kashmir is limping back to the table. The industry is trying its best to promote Kashmir as a tourist destination, but the odds are stacked against them. The insurgency seems to have left a lasting impression in the minds of foreign tourists, who were the biggest spenders in Kashmir and who have yet to return. The economy has backpedaled and is now agriculture-based. The seasonal injection of foreign capital has almost completely dried up.
Some Indian tourists are coming back, but by the most optimistic figures it is barely 6 percent of the gross domestic product of the region. Their effect, whether it is real or imaginary, has been to reinforce in the minds of the Kashmiri tourism industry the belief that Kashmir is a tourist’s pariah, shunned by the rest of the world.

The Dal

Dal Lake is famed for its houseboats, which range from floating palaces to dilapidated, cracked hovels. The houseboats are still a chief form of lodging for travelers in Kashmir, but their condition is worsening and little is being done to renovate or grow the industry. Many of the boats, once the jewel of the industry’s image, are now structurally in disrepair, with the only remaining woodcarver too elderly to practice his craft, and the boats too expensive to maintain. Some boats literally sit on the bottom of the disgusting lake, roofs or windows still peeking above the surface.

Foreign tourists used to come to the houseboats and stay for weeks, according to Rashid Koull, the general secretary of the Houseboat Owners’ Association. Business was brisk. Now, after ten years of sitting empty in the Dal’s increasingly corrosive waters, their hulls are covered in slimy black rot. Azim Tuman, the chairman of the Association, pointed sadly under the floorboards of the Venezia, where a particularly mushy piece of wood had been patched several times. “One day, it will break and the boat will sink,” he said, with an air of resignation.

Mr. Tuman expects that within ten years nobody will remember how to build a houseboat, and that within fifteen to twenty years, the whole houseboat industry will have fallen apart. Simply, the boats cost too much to repair when nobody is staying in them.

The houseboat industry is only receiving dodgy support from the government. The Owner’s Association is in debt to the federal government because of a loan granted to help beautify the boats, but since the tourism industry has been stuck in something close to neutral for eighteen years, it has yet to recover enough to repay its debts.

Shikaras are a mainstay of both Dal’s local economy and its tourism industry (and the logo of the Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Office). The small, hand-paddled wooden canoes come in every variety and were a favorite among tourists who wanted to take a lazy float around the lake; some of the boats also still serve their original purpose: transportation. Everyone from early morning fishers and seaweed gatherers to children on their way to school use shikaras as a means of transport.

A few shikaras still paddle around the lake laden with tourists, and some lucky houseboats find themselves booked during the high travel season, but this is not the norm. While the houseboats accumulate dust and rot, most shikaras bob empty in the lake, save a few morose shikara wallahs attempting to balance their books.

Growth and Development

Kashmir’s new development strategy can be summarized in five words: “five star and golf courses.” Contrary to the traditional mainstays of the Valley’s tourism industry, the focus is now on luring back high-spending foreign tourists with the trappings of an international leisure destination. So far, it is an experimental business model.

“We need more five-star hotels,” said Farooq Shah, the Director of Tourism of J&K State. Under construction on a hill on the outskirts of Srinagar is the city’s second five-star hotel. To one side, a mountain soars into the clouds, to the other, Dal Lake shimmers with Srinagar city spread out behind it. The developed plans to sell the rights to the hotel to Marriott or Hyatt, or another western hotel chain. Other similar deals are in the works.

However, the tourism economy of Kashmir’s early days was one based on simpler pleasures, not five star restaurants with complimentary massages. Even the fanciest houseboats are not like five star hotels, and less-than-deluxe boats and guesthouses made up the majority of lodging options. This new development plan represents a distinct shift in the focus of Kashmir’s tourism development.

When asked why tourists should travel to Kashmir, Mr. Shah explained that by visiting Kashmir a tourist could experience “nature at its best,” specifically citing Kashmir’s famous lakes and waterways as one aspect of that natural splendor. Lake Dal, Kashmir’s most famous body of water, could be seen as a scream of disagreement. The lake is, in many places, a cesspool filled with trash, abandoned glassware, algae bloom, seaweed, and carp plump from feasting on a bountiful supply of human sewage.

The president of the Houseboat Owner’s Association, Mr. M. Azim Tuman, explained that the houseboats contribute less to the overall pollution of the Dal than the hotels and homes of the city, citing a government study that said the boats put roughly 3% of the pollution into the lake while the surrounding homes and hotels provide the lion’s share. He boasted that the waste his houseboats produce makes the Dal’s fish fatter.

Others in the tourism industry are not trying to contribute to the diet of the Dal’s carp. Carin Fischer, a German environmental consultant based in New Delhi, has experimented successfully with eco-tourism in the far northeastern Arunchal Pradesh state of India, which also has a military presence and stunning natural beauty. Her organization, using grant money, has provided training and planning free of charge to a village that then used its skills to set up a money-making business that would draw foreigners to stay in a traditional village with little impact on the environment. Ms. Fischer looks to replicate her success in the mountains of Kashmir, and hopefully through tourism and the economy it will create, discourage villagers from participating in the illegal logging industry that is felling the protected trees of Gulmarg. Ms. Fischer suspects that some of the trouble she has been having in setting up her project has been due to the Police Chief in the district, who she believes is involved in the illegal logging industry there.

Unfortunately, Kashmir’s spoilt environment goes even further than simply unbridled logging in remote corners of the state. In Pahalgan, a controversial amusement park financed by the Jammu & Kashmir Bank sits in the center of a valley that is world-renowned for its scenic natural beauty. And in Gulmarg, another such valley, cement hotel blocks that resemble spaceships (or trendy 1970s ski resorts) are being thrown up with reckless abandon.

Kashmir’s increasingly destroyed environment is far from the only adversary in its quest to reestablish itself as one of the world’s vacation hotspots. The enormous and pervasive presence of Indian paramilitary police will continue to frighten away foreigners as long as Srinagar looks like a war zone. While some foreign tourists are returning to the region, those who have chosen not to return speak more loudly than the handful that have.

The Central Reserve Police Force

Spiked vehicle barriers and stray rolls of razor wire, rusty from years of disuse, litter the streets of Srinagar. Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front graffiti peek out from behind hasty paint jobs near military complexes, and enormous convoys, rumbling around town in a symbolic show of force, regularly disrupt traffic. Protests and strikes always threaten to escalate into violence. Random “reminder” attacks plunge the city into lockdown. Nobody celebrates Indian Independence Day.

Whether the situation has improved from the mid-1990s, when Srinagar was a war zone, is not up for debate. Undoubtedly, the situation today looks much better in the eyes of Kashmiris, but in the eyes of foreigners, it looks like the threat of danger and violence are imminent.

Politicians, politicos, and tourism industry talking heads claim that the situation in Kashmir is improving and that travel advisories are the true reason why foreign tourists have yet to return. When prodded about the universally-intrusive paramilitary presence in the state and reduced levels of violence, the Minister of Flood Control and Tourism in the Secretariat of Jammu & Kashmir State, would only state that the state government “is taking measures in [the] direction” of reducing force levels.

Statistically, it may be true that tourists are as safe in Kashmir as in any other region of the world, but in cases such as these, appearances and feelings often count for more than hard facts.

Kashmir is still a region under occupation where machine gun-wielding paramilitary police exercise their authority with varying degrees of tact. Foreign tourists are harassed extensively alongside Kashmiri citizens, many times with no apparent motivation or purpose other than, it would seem, to lend an unfriendly impression that would discourage further foreign tourism. The situation is not normal there, foreign tourists have not returned in any noticeable numbers, and the status quo of militarization seems to be more entrenched than the casual observer might guess.

The harassment lends the impression that the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) are not interested in seeing normalcy reestablished in the valley, where their presence has become ubiquitous and their authority unchecked. In a region where the force-to-civilian ration is about twelve-to-one, the military establishment in Kashmir is an industry, and it seems to be there to stay. Soldiers stand guard on every street corner and every sidewalk, on every hill, on the shores of the Dal, and everywhere in between. The invasiveness of security checks has a distinct air of an attempt to reestablish lost authority, but confidence and respect for the CRPF is not increasing.

These checks are conducted everywhere at all hours of the day and night, and an unofficial military curfew keeps people in their homes after sundown. The Kashmiri population scorns the CRPF as meddlesome foreigners, and their presence keeps the ire of Kashmiris stoked, which further fuels the tension that pulses through the city and sometimes bursts out.

The direct effect that the police and military presence has on the tourism industry is varied.

In Gulmarg, a mountain resort west of Srinagar, the paramilitary presence is not pervasive. The town is well known for its skiing and not for its militancy, so the checkpoints and roadblocks of the valley are few and far between. The shadow of the militancy still looms in the minds of foreign tourists, according to Mr. Dar, a ski instructor and tourism coordinator at the resort. In the winter, during the ski season, the fresh powder on the ungroomed slopes is never too crowded. But in Pahalgam, a mountain town that is also part of the Kashmiri tourist repertoire, military encampments are everywhere, as are checkpoints and the CRPF. The difference between the two is that this town is a Hindu pilgrimage site, so the central government provides extensively for their protection.

Also, conspiracy theories are rife in Srinagar about the true motives and the culprits behind the more recent attacks, since they bear little resemblance to the insurgent attacks of the 1990s and because they seem to have little political impact. Some interviewees even went as far as naming specific Indian states—namely those bordering Kashmir and the Himalayas—as possibly in cahoots to use media attention to ensure that Kashmir does not benefit from mountain tourism on their behalf.

According to Sheikh Rafiq, a shawl salesman at the Boulevard Shopping Center on Boulevard Road in Srinagar, his daily intake in the late 1980s was nearly 20,000 Rupees (today, about USD $500), and today he is lucky to receive even Rs 5000 (USD $125). He managed to survive through the militancy period by using his savings, but he was forced to relocate to Delhi, where business was tepid at best. He has now returned to Srinagar, his home, only to find that business here is still stale. Indian tourists are coming back in large numbers, he said, but they only pay in installments, whereas foreign tourists used to pay in one lump sum. Additionally, he was only able to return because the military vacated the shopping complex they had been occupying since the insurgency began.

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So where does this leave Kashmir’s tourism industry? In no good place, if history is any judge. Tourism, even after years of relative calm, is slow to pick up again. Kashmir’s image has mutated from one of beauty and tranquility to one of war and death.

The government insists that this will change. However, the problem is exactly what the government insists: Kashmir is safe, but it looks dangerous to the foreign eye, one ignorant of what Kashmir was like during the height of its violence. Unfortunately, though it has surely calmed, it is still far from peaceful.

Just recently, in July 2006, a series of grenade attacks killed eight tourists and created a scare that emptied hotels and resorts for about a month. The Tourist Reception Center was bombed to the ground in April 2005 as well. Even more recently, in summer 2007, an explosion on a bus carrying tourists killed five and scared away many more, even though it turned out to have been caused by a gas leak and not by a bomb or an attack. The specter of insurgency is enough to empty the hotels.

Mr. H. U. Mir, President of the Kashmir Hotel & Restaurant Association, went even further than the Minister of Tourism and Flood Control. “This is paradise on earth,” he droned unconvincingly from behind his dark sunglasses, as the room’s electricity flickered off, Indian soldiers glared down the dusty sidewalk below, auto rickshaws dodged roadblocks, and pedestrians stepped over razor wire.

“Things are completely normal here,” chimed in the secretary general, Siraj Ahmad. “This is paradise on earth,” he insisted, “this is what you want.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Mir and Mr. Ahmad and all Kashmiris, paradise has been lost.


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