Keen to shrug off its “war zone” tag, around 500 families in Kargil are looking to the Centre to pump funds and promote the region as a tourist destination internationally after the move to accord it Union Territory status.
During the tourism minister’s three day visit to Leh last week, tour operators and hoteliers from the region appealed to him to focus on Kargil, which they claimed is still living in the shadow of the 1999 Kargil war between India and Pakistan.
“Even 20 years after the war, if you type Kargil in a search engine, the first result that pops up is Kargil war. That is so unfair to the people of the region whose mainstay is tourism. Because of the war zone tag, we have never realised our potential of being a tourist destination despite the region having various places of interest,” said Ashraf Ali from the All Kargil Travel, Trade Association.
The Kargil war lasted for nearly three months, killed more than 500 Indian and nearly 400 Pakistani soldiers, and ended with India pushing back Pakistani fighters to the other side of the LoC successfully. While Pakistan called its operation to take over the control of Indian posts along the LoC as Operation Badr, India called its offensive Operation Vijay.
With the Narendra Modi government according Leh and Kargil Union Territory status on August 5, both these previous districts of Jammu and Kashmir hope to come out of the shadow of violence associated with the Valley.
However, for Kargil, the focus is now to ensure that it gets its share from the union government and is not overshadowed by Leh, which, they claimed was now the Centre’s darling.
“In all the discussions that are going on, it is Leh and not Kargil that is in focus. We have the Aryan Valley, the Suru Valley, Drass, Zanskar Valley which could be promoted as tourist destinations. Also, we have three Buddha rock carvings which are the last such carvings after the Bamyan statues were destroyed in Afghanistan by the Taliban. These statues have been left unprotected and unpreserved,” said Md Hasnen Rangyul, a hotelier who was part of the delegation from the region.
While Kargil gets around 1.25 lakh tourists every year, it is usually treated as a “transit camp”, they said.
Kargil is placed midway between Leh and Srinagar and thus used by tourists as a resting point before their onward journey.
“All we get are tourists who stay the night at our hotels and leave the next morning after breakfast. That’s not tourism, its like treating the region as a transit camp. Around 3000 foreigners from Japan, Korea come to Kargil to see the Buddha carvings and also enjoy the apricot blooming season. We want the government to promote us internationally and include us in its various circuits,” said Ali.
However, surprisingly, it is Bollywood that is giving them some solace, specially Karan Johar’s Dharma Productions. While parts of Johar’s earlier film, Kalank was shot here, it is ironically a film on Capt Vikram Batra who was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest and most prestigious award for valour, for his actions during the 1999 Kargil War, which is giving the region some succour.
“The entire team is shooting there for months. So, as this news comes, we want to tell the international community and the domestic tourists to come to Kargil and stay here. We have around 30 hotels, beautiful peaks which are covered with snow for 12 months and people who are immensely hospitable. Kargil’s area is 15000 sq km, bigger than Kashmir Valley and is as beautiful,” appealed Ali.
The government on its part has promised equal distribution of opportunities and funds for Leh and Kargil, assuring the stakeholders in both the regions that the focus is on boosting tourism.
Come November 1, when the PM is expected to announce the modalities for the two regions as UTs, Kargil will be hoping it gets enough to resurrect and reinvent itself as one of India’s prime tourist destinations.