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The Rediff Special/Amberish K Diwanji
Trouble in Kargil hits tourist traffic
"Kargil is over 300 kilometres away from Srinagar. If there is any fighting going on there, why are you stopping tourists from coming down to Srinagar," is the anguished plea of the people of Srinagar. This common refrain is heard across the city, especially from people who depend on the tourist trade for the their livelihood. And given the fact that tourism is the largest industry in Jammu and Kashmir, the numbers are huge.
The locals are particularly upset with the Government of India for shutting down the Srinagar airport, thereby scaring away tourists. "Airports are shut down when a country goes to war. Has any war been declared this time? No doubt there is trouble in Kargil, but it is localised. Why then should the Srinagar airport be out of bounds for tourists," asked Faiyaz Ahmed Khan, president of the All-Kashmir Taxi Operators' Association.
Khan's statement about the damage caused by shutting down the airport echoes round the city. "By shutting down the airport, you give the impression that things are very wrong in the city and the entire state, when the fact is that Srinagar and all of Kashmir, save the Kargil region, is peaceful with absolutely no hint of trouble," said Abdul Rashid, former secretary of the Tourist Taxi Stand No 1, the largest taxi stand in Srinagar.
The figures are telling. Till the air-strikes on the positions held by militants began on May 26, hotels reported full bookings. After the air-strikes began and the Srinagar airport was closed to civilian traffic -- it was reopened partially a few days later -- hotels received a stream of cancellation calls.
Centaur Lake View Hotel's bookings from around 240 came down to 100, and is falling. Another hotel saw its fall in numbers made up by the arrival of journalists. But the media is in dozens, while tourist expectations were in hundreds of thousands.
The media has been criticised for blowing things out of proportion and creating a war psychosis when none is needed. ''Tourists who had come all the way up to Jammu and Udhampur were scared off by exaggerated media reports. They either returned or went to Manali in Himachal Pradesh," said Khan.
"The media went overboard in building up a situation of a war; of attacks from Pakistan and what not...naturally the tourists were scared. After all, a tourist comes to Kashmir for a holiday and he wants peace and quiet," said Samar Chakraborty, manager of Hotel Shabnam. Chakraborty was at the receiving end when following scary reports in the Calcutta press, most of the tourists called in to cancel their trip.
"There were reports of bombs going off in Srinagar, all of which were complete lies. And bombs go off in Delhi every day, do you say the city is unfit for tourists," asked Khan.
Chakraborty pointed out how rumours spread like wildfire the day after the strikes began. "One old lady who was staying at my hotel told me that she 'saw' three people killed at Lal Chowk. By evening, over the phone she raised the figure to 19. Yet, when I inquired, not one person had even been touched. She was just imagining things," he said.
"We had spent money in the months of January for package tours. Now all of them have been cancelled," said Chakraborty, adding, "I am from Calcutta. If there was trouble here, why would I stay behind. I would go back home. But the truth is that after 10 years of violence, today Srinagar is really peaceful."
And this is what really hurts the average Kashmiri. Just as he saw tourists come in and therefore a chance to make some earnings, the shelling along the Line of Control has blown it all away.
This report could be filed from the war front, courtesy Iridium Telecom. Iridium owns and operates a constellation of 66 satellites, which enable subscribers to receive and make calls from anywhere in the world using a hand-held telephone.
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