Srinagar, May 19: The US Department of State has extended by one year the adverse travel advisory on Kashmir citing “militant incidents” and “violent public unrest” in the disputed Himalayan region.
As per its official website, the Department of State has strongly recommended the US citizens not to visit state of Jammu & Kashmir “because of the potential for terrorist incidents as well as violent public unrest.”
“The US government also prohibits its employees from traveling to Jammu & Kashmir without permission, which is only granted by the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi in exceptional circumstances,” a February 2014 warning in travel section of the Department’s website reads.
According to the State Department, “a number of terrorist groups operate in the state, targeting government forces in the region particularly along the Line of Control (LoC) separating Indian and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.”
“Primary tourist destinations in Kashmir – Srinagar, Gulmarg, and Pahalgam are also volatile,” the advisory reads.
“Since 1989, as many as 70,000 people including terrorists, government forces and civilians have been killed in the Kashmir conflict,” it reads, adding that foreigners are particularly “visible, vulnerable and at risk.”
Pertinently, the State Department has been consistently terming Kashmir as an “area of instability.”
The ‘informal ban’ for American citizens to travel to Kashmir has been there from 1995, Director Tourism, Kashmir, Talat Parvez, said.
On July 4, 1995, six Western tourists were kidnapped by a militant outfit Al-Faran at tourist destination Pahalgam in south Kashmir’s Islamabad (Anantnag) district.
The kidnapped tourists included two British citizens, Keith Mangan and Paul Wells; two Americans, John Childs and Donald Hutchings; a German, Dirk Hasert; and a Norwegian, Hans Christian Ostrø.
While one American citizen, John Childs, escaped, rest of the hostages were reportedly killed; one of them was beheaded.
The hostage killings evoked deep-rooted fear in the international community and foreign tourists began fearing visiting Kashmir.
“If America relaxes the advisory, other countries will follow the suit,” Parvez said. “But despite advisory, some Americans do visit Kashmir.”
Parvez said America’s continued advisory has hit Kashmir tourism sector badly. “However, we are hopeful it will be lifted,” he said.
“The advisory has a huge impact on state’s economy as high-spending American tourists desist from visiting Kashmir,” he explained.
“We are pitching for its revocation and are in touch with Foreign Office and US Embassy. And once the US travel advisory is melted, other countries who have issued adverse travel advisories on Kashmir shall follow the suit.”
Not only does the US government publicize travel advisories through its embassy, it has been warning its citizens to desist from travelling to Kashmir by daily press briefing in Washington, DC.
According to transcripts of a 2013 daily press briefing, Jen Psaki, a spokesperson, says in reply to a question, “We are aware of these unconfirmed reports and are concerned about any violence along the Line of Control.”
“The policy on Kashmir has not changed,” the spokespersons replies to a question which seeks to know the ground information on Kashmir.
“We still believe that the pace, scope, and character of India and Pakistan’s dialogue on Kashmir is for those two countries to determine.”
Trade bodies believe that the ‘informal ban’ has largely affected the Kashmir tourism industry and allied sectors.
Muhammad Yaseen Khan, chairman Kashmir Economic Alliance, a leading traders’ body, said the US advisory had deep impact on tourism industry beyond repair.
“It is unfortunate that the advisory is still in place,” he said.
“We strongly believe if the advisory is lifted, it is going to give some boost to Kashmir tourism industry.”
Sheikh Ashiq, President Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) said that revocation of the advisory would also give boost to associated segments of tourism sector.
“Few years ago, European countries including Germany lifted travel advisory which saw a substantial number of tourists visiting the place,” he said.
“It also sent a message throughout the world. Similarly, if America relaxes the advisory, it will definitely give an edge.”
In 2011, Germany relaxed its travel advisory on Kashmir which banned its citizens from visiting the Himalayan region.
An official at German Embassy in New Delhi had said in a statement, “The situation has now calmed down considerably and foreigners are generally not direct targets of clashes [in Kashmir].”
The State Department considers Jammu and Kashmir, where natural disaster threats loom large, a “high damage risk” for its citizens and ranks the region at 4th in the possibility of outbreak of a disaster.
“I think the advisory is not a new thing,” an official in the US Embassy, New Delhi, told Greater Kashmir over phone.
Successive governments in J&K have long been advocating for revocation of travel advisories on Kashmir, which it sees affects economy of the state.
On May 8, Tanvir Sadiq, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s Political Secretary, pitched for “relaxation” of “adverse travel advisory” by the American Government on J&K.
Sadiq “strongly pleaded” to the visiting US diplomats, First Secretary (Political), Chad A. Thornberry and Political Advisor to US Embassy, Dinesh Dubey, that the advisory be relaxed on Kashmir in view of “peace, progress and improved security situation in the Valley.”
The US diplomats, according to an official statement, assured to Sadiq that “all the issues raised with regard to the travel advisory will be looked into positively.”
Last year, Sarah A. Duffy, senior Consul Officer and head of American Citizen Services “assured” Sadiq that the United States would revisit the negative travel advisory on Kashmir.
“We promise to revisit the travel advisory in our six monthly meeting held, and I assure you that we will positively look into it,” Duffy told Sadiq in a meeting on October 22 in state’s summer capital, Srinagar.
In 2012, Ed Douglas, a writer and journalist, wrote in an article in London’s Guardian newspaper that tourism in Kashmir collapsed following the 1995 abduction of six western men.
“Although political tension remains high, with a reported half a million Indian troops garrisoned in the state, no foreign tourist has been killed in a militant attack in Kashmir since 1995,” Douglas, the former editor of the Alpine Journaland a traveler with a particular interest in the Himalaya, writes.
“If you can drag yourself away,” he writes, “there’s plenty to see in Srinagar, including the Khanqah of Shah-Hamdan, the prettiest mosque I’ve seen in India, with its colored glass and papier maché revealing Kashmir’s central Asian roots.”
(IMRAN MUZAFFAR for Greater Kashmir)