Srinagar — An Indian tourist stands on a fortified Kashmir street, triumphantly posing for her husband’s camera, flags in both hands, flanked by two soldiers with rifles.

India’s hottest new travel destination is also the site of some of the deadliest riots, with regular skirmishes between half a million separatist militants stationed in Kashmir and the Indian army.

A large-scale tourism campaign launched early last year has lured Indians to Kashmir, where stunning Himalayan vistas, snow-covered hill stations and secluded spots dot the Muslim-majority region. It promises a Hindu temple.

Over 1.6 million Indian tourists visited the disputed area in the first half of this year. This is a new record, according to local officials, and four times more than he did in the same period in 2019.

Many socialize with soldiers, take selfies, and downplay the regular firefights between military and rebel forces that take place out of sight of popular destinations.

“Everything is fine in Kashmir,” Dilip Bhai, a visitor from India’s Gujarat state, told AFP while standing in line outside a restaurant guarded by paramilitary forces.

“The news of violence we hear in the media is more rumor than reality,” he said, adding that he was not worried if clashes were happening “on the side.”

Security forces have seized control of Kashmir (also claimed and partially controlled by Pakistan) since the Indian government revoked the region’s limited constitutional autonomy in 2019. Strengthens hold.

Thousands of people were put into preventive detention that year to forestall expected protests against the abrupt decision, and authorities cut communication links, making it the world’s longest internet shutdown.

Since then, civil protests have become virtually impossible, local journalists have been regularly harassed by police, and the area has been barred from foreign journalists.

However, clashes erupted in the region on an almost weekly basis, with authorities reporting 130 suspected rebels and 19 security personnel killed in the first six months of the year. I’m here.

A constitutional amendment opened land purchases and local jobs to non-Kashmiri Indians. For residents, this year’s influx of tourists is the final insult.

A major Kashmir merchant told AFP on condition of anonymity for fear of government retaliation.

“It’s like war in another way,” they added. “The way the government is promoting tourism is telling Indians to ‘go there and make Kashmir your own’.

“We changed the perception of the past”

A 1989 uprising against Indian rule in Kashmir sparked protracted riots that killed thousands and sparked a panicked migration of Hindu residents from the Muslim-majority valley. .

Periodic attempts to revive the tourism market have failed, with three riots between 2008 and 2016 killing more than 300 civilians and terrifying potential tourists. I let

But after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government revoked Kashmir’s limited autonomy three years ago, authorities again began promoting the region to Indians as one of the country’s top holiday destinations.

This was followed by a promotional blitz with festivals, travel marts, roadshows and a summit attended by Indian travel operators, sponsored by local governments and 21 major cities across India.

The government has announced the opening of ski resorts among 75 new ‘undeveloped destinations’ for tourists, including one near the militarized de facto border that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Did.

Authorities are also calling on investors to build 20,000 hotel rooms in addition to the 50,000 already in the territory, and are easing homestay policies to encourage residents to host visitors. I’m here.

The local government’s tourism secretary, Sarmad Hafeez, told AFP that the official budget for promoting tourism had “quadrupled” in the past two years.

“We have changed our past perceptions about Kashmir,” he said. “The event sent a clear message that Kashmir is safe to travel.”

“The last nail in the coffin”

India’s move to open up Kashmir’s stunning landscape to tourism comes as the remnants of its established economy languish after the change in territorial status.

Significant curbs on civic life and an intensifying anti-riot campaign are putting pressure on local businesses.

The government has also removed tax barriers that helped protect local production from outside competition.

“This is the final nail in our manufacturing coffin,” Shahid Kamili, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FCIK), told AFP.

According to FCIK data, industrial production accounts for 15% of the local economy, three times the most optimistic figures for the tourism sector.

But Kamiri said 350,000 industrial workers have lost their jobs since the region’s autonomy was revoked.

The region’s growth potential as a tourist destination remains hampered by its violent history and unfortunate conditions under Indian rule, with some visitors uneasy about the presence of heavy security. .

“If Kashmir is part of India,” a tourist from West Bengal told AFP. AFPMore