Monday, November 29, 1999

Golf, another reason to fall in love with Kashmir

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Srinagar, May 16 (IANS) Jammu and Kashmir is rolling out the best golf greens for tourists to come and call it 'a paradise on earth' once again. The state sees golf as the fastest way to boost the hospitality sector battered by 20 years of insurgency.Following in the footsteps of European nations, the tourism department is trying to make the state a mecca of the sport by developing a golf circuit - with six 18-hole courses - at a cost of some Rs.750 million (over $15 million).Golf can only add to its many attractions, from lofty mountains and lakes with houseboats to spicy wazwan and delicate hand embroidery.This is being done to lure high-spending tourists back to the Kashmir Valley, which has been battling a bloody separatist war but is slowly but steadily moving towards peace.'We have a bigger task of revitalising the tourism industry in Kashmir and our focus is high-spending visitors,' tourism director Farooq Ahmed Shah told IANS.And that is why investments to create infrastructure for golf is part of the strategy to re-position the valley on the world tourism map.Shah, the brain behind the strategy, said the Omar Abdullah government is following an ambitious plan to attract visitors to this once top holiday destination.The tourism industry, once the backbone of Kashmir's economy, suffered a severe setback as secessionist violence plagued the state from 1989. But with violence receding now - last year saw the least number of militant incidents - the industry is among the priorities of the government, Shah said.According to official figures, over 500,000 tourists, including 25,000 foreigners, visited the valley last year, and the officials aim to double the figure this year.The Kashmir Valley has five golf courses, including the 18-hole par-72 Royal Springs in the heart of summer capital Srinagar. Located on the eastern banks of Dal lake with Zabarwan hills serving as a backdrop, turfs in the 300-acre golf course are set with cool-weather grass of different shades and tall poplar trees bordering the fairways.'A dream course for any golfer. It is the best in India and among the best in the world,' Shah said proudly about the course whose creation had invited controversy because it was laid in a city forest.There are three more courses, which Shah boasted were 'equally world class'.The course at the Gulmarg hill resort, situated at an altitude of 2,650 metres, is said to be the highest green golf field in the world. More than a century old and having natural slopes, the course is undergoing a major renovation for being readied by June end.The story is ditto for the hilly course in Pahalgam, a tourists' paradise, 100 km from here.'Besides, there is one more coming up in Dodhpathri (some 40 km from Srinagar) in central Kashmir and Srinagar's heritage golf course is also being upgraded,' Shah said.And the sixth one is in Jammu, being laid at a cost of Rs. 440 million, that will be opened in September this year.But why target golfers only?'Golf tourism is the fastest way to boost lodging bookings. Hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and art galleries can all benefit dramatically by making Kashmir a perfect golfing destination.'In Western countries tourists spend billions of dollars to visit golf destinations for vacations,' Shah noted. 'Not only golf, we also want Kashmir to be a skiers' paradise and a hot heritage tourist spot.'Shah said heritage and sports tourism is the 'in thing and Insha Allah we will succeed and very soon. Kashmir has the natural resources and associated amenities that high spending golf tourists seek. We will provide them if they want more.'But aren't US and European travel advisories against visiting Kashmir still applicable?'Yes, they are. That is why we are planning the Commonwealth ambassadors golf tournament in June to show the world that Kashmir is as peaceful and more beautiful than any other place in the world,' said the tourism official, adding the national golf championship was also coming up.(Sarwar Kashani can be contacted at

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