'Kashmir is no longer unsafe'

In his traditional Kashmiri clothes, Ali Mohammed rowed his bright yellow shikara in the clear waters of the Dal Lake.  Suddenly he looked up at the sky and sighed deeply.

Not long ago, he remembered, hundreds of thousands of visitors would flock to Kashmir Valley in search of mental peace. And now, he rued, they are scared of visiting the place that was once a paradise for tourists.

The 20-year-old insurgency has earned the valley the name of "war zone" , but Ali Mohammed and many others, yearning for peace, think the description is a media hype.

Kashmir is no longer unsafe, is the common refrain of people here, disgusted with what they consider media sensationalism.

Notwithstanding the bloody conflict that erupted in 1989, peace is slowly returning to  Kashmir Valley. But the tourism business, one of the pillars of the state's economy, is yet to regain its lost glory. Domestic tourists visit the valley,but foreigners stay away owing to warnings from many Western governments.

"It is a perception that has been created over the years," Ali Mohammed, 45, told IANS, as he kept rowing his shikara, which could be a perfect lounge for lovers with full-length cushions to curl up on and side curtains to hide from prying eyes.

As the shikara glides with dozens of others around, Ali Mohammed's yearning for peace grows. "This myth has led to tourists avoiding Srinagar," he rues."I don't know when people will realise that Srinagar is not unsafe."

Shabina Khan, who works at a hotel here, wants to hardsell the return of peace. She wants to forget the insurgency, which she says is a thing of the past."The situation is different and tourists have nothing to fear," she said, inviting visitors from all over the world.

Tariq Ahmed, who sells dry fruits in a market close to Dal Lake, boasts of Kashmiri hospitality. "The violence has not changed the behaviour of Kashmiris and Kashmir is thus largely safe for tourists."

"Aren't there shootings and blasts in cities like Delhi and Mumbai" where vacationers never hesitate to visit, asked Abdur Rahman, a jeweller here, who also has a shop in Goa.

"For other cities it is crime and for Kashmir it is terrorism," he said.  "No one brands them unsafe. But for them Srinagar is a dangerous place. Ask people here and they will tell you how safe the place is."

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