Kashmir hopes luxury golf will boost tourism
Monday, 3 September 2007
The quiet, tree-lined fairways of exclusive Royal Springs Golf Course are in stark contrast to the turmoil that has engulfed the streets of Srinagar and outlying villages over the past two decades as Indian security forces have tried to quash armed separatists allegedly backed by Pakistan.
Undeterred, the government of Indian-controlled Kashmir has invested millions of dollars in Royal Springs and several other golf courses being built or spruced up.
The hope is to transform Kashmir into a golfing paradise, attracting big-spending visitors from around the world. The ultimate goal is to revive Kashmir's tourist industry to its heyday as a top Asian vacation spot, attracting the likes of George Harrison and Led Zeppelin.
"This is the finest course I have ever seen in my life," said Ashiq Hussain Masoodi, 43, who manages two preparatory schools in Kashmir and hopes to gain membership to the club.
During a recent round of golf, he shanked his ball into a thick patch of wildflowers on the sprawling $5 million, 18-hole course.
But not far beyond the rough is another side of Kashmir. Barracks and sandbagged bunkers protected by razor wire are spread across the city of Srinagar. As many as half a million Indian troops with assault rifles and flak jackets are fanned out across the region. Checkpoints and roadblocks are everywhere.
Kashmir has been called the Northern Ireland of Southern Asia. It has been a flashpoint between mostly Hindu Indian security forces and mostly Muslim armed Kashmiri separatists.
The United States and many other Western countries advise against travel to the region.
Militants often target hotels, tourist buses and crowded markets. Every year, dozens of tourists are killed or injured in grenade attacks and suicide bombings.
Since the fighting began in 1989, an estimated 40,000 people have been killed, and as many as 10,000 people, mostly young men, have disappeared after being arrested or detained by Indian security authorities.
The conflict shows signs of ebbing as peace talks between India and Pakistan have inched along in recent years.
Still, for women like Parveena Ahanger and thousands of other Kashmiri mothers and wives who have lost family members in the fighting, it is difficult to move on.
"I could hold my son's hand when he was young, but he's not there when my hands need to be held," lamented Ms. Ahanger, 47, whose 16-year-old son Javeid disappeared after Indian authorities arrested him in 1990. To this day, Ms. Ahanger does not know why her son was arrested or whether he is alive.
Amid such anguish and conflict between Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir, some wonder whether the region's tourism industry can ever rebound, particularly through golf.
"Golfers are not traditionally those people who are adventurous, who are willing to be less comfortable and take risks" in a place as militarized as Kashmir, said Lyn Robinson, a global tourism expert who advises aid agencies on emerging tourism markets that benefit local communities.
There is a different view from behind the gates of the well-manicured course.
"You only have to come here to see that there is no trouble," said Farooq Shah, the director at Royal Springs Golf Course. "We have planned good publicity for this course so that people from Japan and other countries should come here and play golf. Kashmir is really a paradise for the golfers."