There would be nothing better than a sign of normalcy returning to Kashmir than normal tourists thronging to remote secluded trekking routes. Its beginning to happen. Makes me remember my trek to Kolahai in 1988 – and the area was declared out of bounds next year, especially since the episode of kidnap of foreign tourists in the Aru area.
Anyhow, this is an interesting update on the status of trekking in Kashmir valley, from Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 22, Dated June 07, 2008:
TOUR OPERATOR Tahseen Ahmad Wani is glad he went with what, till recently, was only a marginal, almost unthinkable trend in Jammu and Kashmir. Following an increase in requests for trekking gear over the past few years, he decided to venture into renting out adventure sports gear to tourist groups, and set up shop in Srinagar, followed by a branch in Pahalgam. This year, with the state tourism department planning to throw open all J&K’s trekking routes, Wani is looking forward to seeing his acumen rewarded with an unprecedented surge of foreign and domestic visitors.
Tourism has been making a marked comeback to the state after an insurgency-beleaguered hiatus of over a decade and a half. Closed “unofficially” since the early 1990s, trails to such destinations as Kolahai, Tattakuti and Gangabal have been off-limits for 18 years. Once a staple of the state’s economy, the hospitality industry was among the first and worst casualties of militancy, whose outbreak caused tourist inflows to plummet virtually overnight. Where nearly 5 lakh domestic tourists visited J&K in 1989, their numbers had crashed to less than 7,000 a year later; foreign tourists also stayed away, with visitors decreasing from 67,762 in 1989 to 4,627 in 1990.
Hopes now are riding high, following two straight years of record tourist figures: 4,32,888 in 2006 (4,12,879 of them domestic and 20,009 foreign) rising to 4,41,840 in 2007 (with 4,17,264 Indians and 24,576 foreigners). Exults Wani, “If the tourism department manages to sell our trekking destinations properly, both within as well as outside the country, we’re sure to make a fortune in this business.” That the government is not blind to the advantages of reviving traditional trekking and mountaineering routes is evident from its busy organising of food festivals and conferences both domestically and internationally to hardsell Kashmir as a trekker’s paradise. “We have some of the most famous peaks in the world,” says Sarmad Hafeez, joint director, tourism, “and if we’re going to bring the tourists back, we have to keep experimenting to offer them something new”. Pointing to the trekking goods rental shops the department has set up en route to key peaks, he says the state is now ready to host any mountaineering event, with all facilities available at nominal charges. The state even has plans to develop new areas along the Line of Control at an estimated cost of Rs 3.5 crore; Gurais, Tulel and Bangus are said to be ready for tourists this year itself.
Further contributing to the diminished threat perception over the Valley was a visit in May from the Mountain Access and Conservation Commission of the International Union of Alpine Associations. Returning from a trek to Kolahai in Pahalgam, the six-member group was pleased to declare that the various travel advisories against Kashmir issued all over the world no longer hold good. Another validation of the state’s efforts to restore normalcy came from the Indian Mountaineering Federation (IMF), which held its Golden Jubilee celebrations in Srinagar. Well-known trekkers and mountaineers from across the country attended the function and visited Pahalgam and Gulmarg. Among them was ace mountaineer Rajeev Sharma, an Everest veteran who scaled the peak in 1993, and trekked in Kashmir several times in the 1980s. He says he’s excited by what he saw here this year. “The state has extensive adventure possibilities to offer. There are hundreds of unnamed and unclimbed peaks in the Pir Panjal range,” he told TEHELKA, adding, however, that he has his sights set on the East Karakoram range and Siachen. Both are among the places still under home ministry embargo, and need Army permission to access them, an authorisation often hard to come by.
WHILEUNION Sports Minister MS Gill promised to take the matter up with the home minister, security officials warn of the possibilities of cross-border infiltration and militant attacks, not to speak of tourist abductions. Of the last, Kashmir has had only a single instance, going back to July 1995 when five foreign tourists were kidnapped from Aru in Pahalgam by a little-known militant outfit, Al- Faran. One of those abducted was subsequently found beheaded near Anantnag; the fate of the others is still not known. Though the incident provoked an unofficial ban on the movement of tourists in rural areas and on trekking routes, with visitors required to limit their movements to Srinagar city, this incident was the only one of its kind and saw no repeats.
During the 1980s, J&K was foremost among the country’s trekking destinations. Famous treks like Lidderwat-Kolahai, Kishensar-Gangabal and the walk from Aharbal to Kounsarnag lake were frequented by mountain enthusiasts in hundreds. Apart from such favourite climbs as Haramukh and Kolahai, high-altitude lakes such as Gangabal, Nandakol, Sheshnag and Kounsarnag have also been great attractions for their trout-filled waters.