Gazing from a hilltop lawn, I watch small boats inch silently across the glassy lake. Dusk tints the sky pale amber as flocks of swifts dart for their roosts. Behind, the steep Zabarwan hills loom dark and silent. It is a magnificent view of a beautiful place.
This is fabled Kashmir (or, to adopt the diplomatic nomenclature of the United Nations, “Indian-administered Kashmir”), long celebrated for its Himalayan scenery, British-inspired houseboats and beloved by Bollywood as a dramatic backdrop to escapist song-and-dance sequences. Yet by 1990, with the onset of militancy – violent and sometimes terrorist-backed protests against Indian forces – “paradise on earth”, as tourism posters still boast, had soured spectacularly.
According to long-standing travel advice issued by Britain’s Foreign Office, one should visit Kashmir only if the journey is “essential” and rural areas should be avoided altogether. Officially, there’s a risk of terrorist attacks and civil disturbances set against the long-running dispute between India and Pakistan. However, in a profound disconnect, anecdotal evidence backed by statistics from the Jammu and Kashmir state government confirm that 2011 was the region’s best year in terms of tourist numbers.
Riding the crest of this wave is Srinagar’s first five-star hotel since 1957. Indian luxury hotel group Taj opened Dal View Srinagar (pictured) in late spring. Occupancy levels of 80-90 per cent have exceeded expectations and, as long as peace continues to break out, you may struggle to find a room this summer. “Taj had a long-standing interest in Srinagar,” says Deepa Harris, a senior vice-president, “but when things deteriorated over 20 years back it wasn’t the time to go in.” She fondly recalls her own family holidays in Kashmir, likening them to Britons making for the Lake District. Centred on Srinagar and Dal Lake, the Vale of Kashmir – often simply called the Valley – was the most distinctive, sought-after and exotic destination. “More recently, as [security] improved,” says Harris, “we felt if Taj doesn’t support Kashmir now, then who will?”
Perched atop Kralsangri, or Potters’ Hill, yet still close to Dal Lake, Taj has acquired a unique site. Despite the ravishing views, externally this is not a particularly handsome property. The principal elongated building is spacious yet box-like while rows of terraced cottages containing most of its accommodation cluster at both ends. There’s a fine terrace adjoining one of two restaurants, a modest infinity pool, broad lawns and a fitness centre.
A handful of swanky retro-patterned pod chairs cheers a lobby of creamy marble tinged with ethnic accents. While nothing here breaks the style barrier, it’s all very comfortable, friendly and efficient.
This hotel’s arrival couples the synergy of India’s emerging middle class with a steady resurgence of tourism to this troubled state. Official visitor figures suggest Taj’s venture is opportune. The onset of militancy saw tourism collapse from an annual peak of 722,000 visitors in 1988 to just over 6,000 in 1991. By the mid-1990s it was clawing its way back in fits and starts. From 2006 the trend has continued upwards, topping a million last year.
Nawang Rigzin Jora, Jammu and Kashmir’s minister for tourism and culture, says most of 2011’s 32,000 foreign visitors were from Asian countries, such as Japan, Korea and Malaysia. Now there are hopes that the German government’s recent easing of its travel advice could spur European visitors to return. Yet he also notes that historically, in terms of numbers, foreign tourists are always “the icing on the cake”. For at least a millennium, thousands of Hindu pilgrims have journeyed through the valley each summer to the sacred Amarnath cave temple in mountains north of Srinagar. In today’s rising India, the distinction between humble pilgrims and high-spending tourists is becoming increasingly blurred. In Kashmir, it seems, foreign tourists are as welcome as ever but the reality now is it can do quite well without them.