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June 22, 1999
'Safe' Kashmir cries for tourists
Mukhtar Ahmad in Sonamarg
The arrival of two tourist buses in Sonamarg on Monday was the only good news for the ponywallahs in a fortnight.
The tourist inflow had dried up after the Jammu and Kashmir government had banned the entry of civilian traffic into this world famous resort for security reasons.
"We had nothing to eat this evening. We have been suffering for the past 10 years as militancy had hit the tourism industry in Kashmir. For the first time this year tourists began arriving here in thousands bringing new hope for those in the industry.
"Till the ban was imposed, we did a roaring business as 10 to 15 packed buses used to arrive every morning," says Fayaz Ahmad.
However, the good times ended soon, thanks to the Kargil operations.
As the battle raged, thousands of soldiers started reaching Sonamarg, the base camp where they get acclimatised before their deployment in the Kargil and Drass sectors.
That is why the ponywallahs were so happy to see the two tourist buses from Srinagar on Monday.
"I will talk to you later. I will first take these tourists to Thajiwas glacier where they will spend their day skiing on the glacier," says Fayaz as he helped a Bengali tourist ride his pony.
In Srinagar, those associated with the tourist trade recount the same story. The houseboats and hotels are empty. They blame the media for their reports on Kargil.
"You see the city of Srinagar is normal. There is no fighting here. Tourists including foreigners are roaming till late in the night," says Abdul Rashid, a boatman at Boulvard.
He says the closure of the Srinagar airport during the initial stages of the Kargil operations was the worst setback for the tourism industry. "That triggered panic among the tourists who later began to desert this place slowly," says Mohammad Iqbal.
Director General of Tourism Mohammad Ashraf who has been carrying out a campaign to attract domestic and foreign tourists is a sad man today.
"The tourist season had picked up very fast following our efforts early this year. But Kargil and the rumours that followed has been a worst setback.''
He says that the closure of the Srinagar airport triggered alarm which is 'unfounded'.
He is hopeful that following the renewed efforts of his department and those associated with the trade, the arrivals may pick up yet again.
"Our effort is to stop the disinformation campaign and encourage tourists to visit the valley. And ponywallahs of Sonamarg are doing the same. We urge the tourists to tell their people that 'Kashmir is normal and that Kargil is 200 kilometres away from Srinagar','' he says.
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