Conflict tourism: Kashmir is the hottest new destination for Indians

SRINAGAR – Standing on a fortified Kashmir street, an Indian tourist poses triumphantly for her husband’s camera, clutching the national flag in each hand and flanked by two soldiers carrying rifles.

India’s hottest new travel destination is also the site of its deadliest insurgency, where regular skirmishes break out between separatist militants and Indian troops, half a million of whom are stationed in Kashmir.

A big-budget tourism campaign, inaugurated early 2021, is wooing Indians to Kashmir with the promise of stunning Himalayan scenery, snow-covered hill stations and the remote Hindu shrines dotting the Muslim-majority region.

More than 1.6 million Indian travellers visited the disputed territory in the first six months of 2022 – a new record, according to local officials, and four times the number that visited over the same period in 2019.

Many fraternise and take selfies with soldiers, and are dismissive of the regular firefights between troops and rebels taking place out of sight from popular destinations.

“Now everything is fine in Kashmir,” Mr Dilip Bhai, a visitor from India’s Gujarat state, told AFP while waiting in queue outside a restaurant guarded by paramilitary forces.

“The news of violence we hear in media is more rumour than reality,” he said, adding that whatever armed clashes were happening “on the side” did not worry him.

Security forces have tightened a chokehold on Kashmir – also claimed and partly controlled by Pakistan – since 2019, when India’s government revoked the limited autonomy constitutionally guaranteed to the region.

That year, thousands of people were taken into preventative detention to forestall expected protests against the sudden decision, while authorities severed communications links in what became the world’s longest-ever Internet shutdown.

Public protests have since been made virtually impossible, local journalists are regularly harassed by police and the region is shut off to foreign reporters.

But clashes still break out in the territory almost every week, with officials counting 130 suspected rebels and 19 members of the security forces killed over the first six months of 2022.

The constitutional change opened up land purchases and local jobs to Indians from outside Kashmir, and for residents, 2022’s influx of travellers is the final insult.

“Promotion of tourism is good, but it is done with a kind of nationalist triumphalism,” a leading Kashmiri trader told AFP, asking not to be named for fear of government reprisal.

“It’s like war by other means,” they added. “The way tourism is being promoted by the government is telling Indians: go spend time there and make Kashmir yours.”