For decades, the Kashmir border has been the flashpoint for tension between nuclear rivals Pakistan and India, but it has also become an unlikely hot spot for tourists.
In the past three years, there has been a fivefold spike in visitors to Neelum Valley, a Swiss-like idyll of snow-capped mountains and a glacial lake where Pakistanis can take refuge from violence in their own cities and gawk at this de facto border zone. And locals are gambling that major skirmishes, such as this week’s killing of five Indian soldiers – and a Pakistani soldier 10 days ago – will not dissuade visitors from coming to this bucolic corner of the state.
There are benefits to sitting atop one of the world’s most notorious powder kegs: other countries are interested in your stability. Following a ceasefire in 2003, the Chinese helped construct a critical road that leads here. The U.S. chipped in $250,000 to help the hospitality infrastructure. In the meantime, many Pakistanis have been sweating through 10 to 12 hour blackouts during the summer, and dreading the mounting frequency of Taliban attacks. So perhaps the cool climes of Kashmir – and its relatively controlled tension – don’t sound so bad.
“I’m spending hundreds of thousands of rupees and taking a big risk,” said Rehmat Khan, who spent nearly $40,000 to build a six-room, double-storey guest house painted bright orange in Upper Neelum village. “It’s like sitting on a powder keg. One day, if the firing starts up again, the business will be finished.”
Sitting at over 1,500 metres, Upper Neelum village – which, along with nearby Keran village offers a view that stretches across the valley to the steep hills and mountains of Indian-controlled Kashmir on the other side of the roaring Neelum river. There are now four private guest houses in the village along with six refurbished government-owned tourist lodges.
In Keran village, a public-private partnership company, Valley Trackers, operates a basic 20-room hotel next to the river – charging the equivalent of $30 a night – and running guided jeep and trekking tours.
Other activities include fishing, rafting, horse riding and paintball. And naturally, checking out the Line of Control, the military-controlled line – also known as Asia’s Berlin Wall – that divides disputed Kashmir.
“Tourists, when they come here, we serve them dinner right beside the [Neelum] river. They tell us they want to see the Indian side. We say: ‘You’re sitting right beside Indian-controlled Kashmir,’” said hotel manager Sajjad Akhtar, pointing to the opposite side of the river, about 50 metres away. “And they look really shocked.”
The area is still fraught. Earlier this week, five Indian soldiers were killed in an ambush when militants crossed into Indian-controlled Kashmir near Poonch, according to Indian officials. But incidents such as these are not unusual and the tourist numbers keep climbing.
Last year, 600,000 Pakistani tourists visited the Neelum valley compared with 250,000 in 2011 and 130,000 in 2010, according to Shehla Waqar, secretary of tourism for Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Foreigners require government permission to travel to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir – which remains a sensitive area.
“For the last two years, our tourism is really booming and flourishing. In Neelum valley, we didn’t even have one private guest house till last year. But this season … we have now 115 private guest houses over there in the span of a year,” she said.
Ms. Waqar said that Kashmir offers relative calm – an absence of suicide bomb-blasts and terrorist activity that punctuate life in violence-prone cities, such as Karachi, where a bomb at a soccer match killed 11 on Wednesday, or Peshawar, where the army has been deployed to look after its central jail for fear of a Taliban-abetted jailbreak.
Despite Kashmir’s allure to visitors, Pakistan and India are no closer to a resolution.
The two countries have fought two wars over Kashmir in the past 66 years – in 1947-1948 and 1965. A third of the disputed territory is administered by Pakistan while the rest is administered by India. A small section is controlled by China.
Furious over 1987 state elections in Indian-controlled Kashmir that they saw as rigged, Kashmiri Muslims began waging an armed struggle in 1989 against India. Militants trained and funded in Pakistan crossed the Line of Control to join the fight.
Indian forces pushed back against the incursions – aiming to strike militants, their camps and Pakistani military posts.
Neelum residents still recall a valley of fear that was virtually shut off from the world during the 1990s. They say Indian shelling hit their homes, schools and hospitals leading to thousands of deaths and injuries. Artillery guns thundered during duelling exchanges between India and Pakistan.
“It was a terrifying time,” said Neelum valley resident Rehmat Khan. “We would sit in the day and count how many shells have hit – how many had been fired. The road would be closed, you couldn’t even walk on foot.”
A 2003 ceasefire helped transform life in the valley. A Chinese-built paved road that is carved into the side of steep hills lined with pine and fir trees was the first welcome signal.
What was once a bumpy seven-hour journey from Muzaffarabad, the administrative capital of the region, to Neelum valley, now takes less than three hours.
A grant from the aid agency USAID has helped develop 70 guest houses and train hundreds in hotel management in the valley.
In Upper Neelum village in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, a handful of workers are busy constructing tourist guest houses. There are buzzing riverside bazaars, fields of corn swaying in the wind, 50-year-old Bedford trucks plying the road with loads of lumber and cement, and teenagers swimming in the fast-moving Neelum river perilously close to the Indian side.
Along another section of the Line of Control, Indian soldiers pace the grounds of their compound – the Indian flag hoisted above – as uniformed children walk along dirt roads carrying backpacks.
“The dream is very big,” said Mohammad Awais, who runs the Valley Trackers company. “But, inshallah, if there is no flareup between India and Pakistan, Neelum valley has a big future in terms of tourism. There are so many options.”