Travel advisors against Kashmir by various countries must be revoked in a phased manner because the Valley is one of the safest tourist destinations, internationally-acclaimed adventurer and author Garry Weare has said.
Many countries including the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States have issued travel advisories to its citizens against visiting Kashmir. Most of these countries have barred their nationals from visiting the Valley, particularly Srinagar, and tourists destinations including Gulmarg, Sonamarg, and Pahalgam. However, these advisories have excluded travel to Ladakh by air.
"The travel advisories paint Kashmir as a war zone, but the situation on the ground in different. Kashmir is one of the safest destinations for tourists. Not a single tourist has been harmed in the Valley since 1995," Weare told Greater Kashmir.
"So there is no justification for travel advisories for Kashmir, but the state government has to work hard to get these restrictions revoked by respective countries," he said.
According to officials, foreign tourists have been giving Kashmir a miss with just under four lakh visits reported since 2000 owing to negative travel advisories by several western countries.
Once a favourite destination for many Western tourists, Kashmir received just 3.9 lakh foreign visitors between 2000 and 2017, according to J&K's statistics department.
Weare, who has led many travel groups to Kashmir since 1973, said several independent travellers ignore the advisories and travel throughout the Valley. "However they do so at their own risk as their insurance may not cover them in case of an unforetold incident. For most, it is a risk worth taking. However, professional travel companies such as World Expeditions, a company I have been associated with for the best part of 45 years, the risk cannot be taken. If a client is injured or worse and not covered by insurance, then they would have no option but to sue the company," he said.
Weare has trekked the best part of 25000 kilometers in the Himalayas since 1970. His experiences are included in the five editions of his definitive guide 'Trekking in the Indian Himalaya' published by the Lonely Planet.
In 2003, Weare embarked on a five-month trek from the source of the Ganges to Kashmir. The ensuing adventure formed the basis of his acclaimed travel narrative 'A Long Walk in the Himalaya' published by Transit Lounge.
"When my groups visit Srinagar, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive like 'we will tell our friends; we love Kashmir; we will be ambassadors for Kashmir.' While this type of feedback is heartening, I wish I could do more, but I am constrained by the government advisories particularly in Australia and UK," he said.
"The advisories need to be downgraded. If that happens, then I am confident that I could increase the group movement tenfold within a few years," he said.
Germany had in 2011 revoked travel advisory that had cautioned against trips to Kashmir. It has become the first European country since 1995 to allow its citizens to visit the Valley.
Weare said till date, the representatives of the J&K government have had "little success" visiting various ambassadors and high commissioners in Delhi.
"Any promise comes to nothing. Any request to have the advisory downgraded to the whole of the Kashmir valley, similar to Germany in 2011, has not been successful," he said.
He said in this situation, it might be opportune to adopt a new strategy requesting a phased downgrading," he said.
Elaborating, he said, in phase one, travel advisory can be downgraded for travel along the road between Srinagar and Sonamarg which will then link up with Ladakh (which currently is on a lower advisory level).
"This needs to be monitored and reviewed for a couple of years and if all is found well, then advisories can go permanently," he said.
He said in phase two, the advisories can be downgraded for travel to Gulmarg and Pahalgam and in phase three, trekking can be allowed in Pahalgam and Sonamarg.
"In this way, there is a better chance that the requests will appeal to the representatives of various foreign countries. When that happens, there will be an increase in foreign tourists which will surely benefit so many people throughout Kashmir," Weare said.
A senior tourism department officer said efforts are on to revoke the travel advisories to Kashmir.
"We have been organising familiarization tours for foreign tour operators in Kashmir and participating in tourism conventions in various foreign countries to change negative perception about Kashmir. We hope that travel advisories against Kashmir will gradually be revoked," he said.