Expansive meadows and rolling hills, saffron plantation and tulips in blossom, still lakes and foamy rivers…who wouldn’t want to explore the land that’s earned itself the title of ‘heaven on Earth’. But the first question that comes to mind when considering a trip to this wonderland is – is it safe to visit Kashmir? Given the turbulent atmosphere in the state, these concerns are not unfounded. Yet, thousands of people land here, year after year, to grab a slice of this heaven. Since tourism is a primary source of revenue in this landlocked and disturbed region, the government and the locals do everything in their power to ensure the safety of tourists.
That said, there have been a few isolated incidents where tourists have been trapped due to an unforeseen spate in the tension between the forces and the separatists and even found themselves caught in the crosshairs of angry stone pelters. This is not to dissuade you from planning a trip to Kashmir but to reiterate the importance of being cautious during your vacation. Here are a few tips to ensure that you can answer the ‘is it safe to visit Kashmir’ question in the affirmative:
Do Your Research
If you have a trip to Kashmir planned, make sure you follow the news and stay updated on the current situation in the region in the days leading up to your departure. In case instances of escalated tensions are being reported, it is best to cancel your travel plans and revisit the idea another time. And by escalated tensions, we don’t mean encounters between the security and militants trying to cross over from the other side of the LoC. As unfortunate as it may be, these are routine here and take place in remote areas, far from any tourist attractions. Bandhs, curfews, stone pelting incidents are the red flags to watch out for, as these engulf all the major towns and can last for days.
Steer Clear of Events that Can Turn Volatile
It is hard to predict when the situation in Kashmir would turn volatile. However, elections, visits by any prominent political figures, public appearances by separatist leaders and encounters of terror outfit commanders are some surefire trigger. Remember the unrest following the death of Burhan Wani or execution of Afzal Guru? If any such event is on the cards, it may not be the best time to visit Kashmir.
Get a Postpaid Number
Prepaid mobile numbers from outside the state do not work in Kashmir. It is advisable to get a postpaid connection before you embark on your holiday so that you have connectivity in case you land yourself in any kind of untoward situation. While all major carriers are operational here, BSNL has the widest coverage.
Limit Yourself to Main Tourist Attractions
Srinagar, Sonmarg, Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Kargil and the entire Kashmir Valley flanked by Pir Panjal and Karakoram ranges are some of the main tourist attractions of the state. Since tourism is one of the primary sources of livelihood in these places, the natives do their best to ensure there are no disruptions by protests or shut-downs here.
It is best to stick to these main tourist places during your trip to Kashmir and avoid remote or more disturbed areas like Gurez, Shopian and Kupwara. People who truly love exploring nature, enjoy long treks and nature photography do venture into these parts as well but it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It is not just the questions of safety here but also a lack of basic amenities like electricity, running water, comfortable lodging that make the far-flung areas of Kashmir less suited for mainstream touristic explorations.
Stick to the Main Roads
No matter what part of Kashmir you are exploring, always stick to the highways and main roads for your commute. This is particularly important if you are travelling in a self-driven vehicle and navigating with the help of GPS, as it will always give the shortest route, which often involves driving through by-lanes, residential areas and villages. It may amount to nothing but it can also land you in some unpleasant situations you shouldn’t be witnessing, which, in turn, can have its consequences. So, the answer to ‘is it safe to visit Kashmir?’ often lies in not being in places you have no business visiting.
Look like a Tourist
Blending in with the crowd is a natural instinct to feel secure. But in Kashmir, it is nearly impossible to pull that off. The facial features, way of dressing up, language and diction of the natives here are too distinct to be imitated. Besides, pretending to be someone you are not can make people suspicious about you. So own up your identity as a tourist and play it up. Walk around with a camera hung around your neck, stop by to ask the locals for recommendations, snap all the beautiful sights you can…the idea is let people around you know that you are here for a vacation. As mentioned before, people in Kashmir are extremely cordial toward tourists and will do everything in their power to keep you safe.
Local Contacts Can Come in Handy
Having a local contact when visiting a new place is always a blessing, no matter the destination. Even more so in a destination like Kashmir. It is reassuring to know that you will have a local to rely on should something go wrong. So touch base with any old colleagues, friends from college, distant relatives or family friends who trace their roots back to Kashmir and keep any contacts you can find handy during your travel. If that’s not an option for you, try establishing a rapport with owners of the hotel or homestay you are staying in, your cab driver, guides during the course of your trip.
Stay Indoors If Things Get Turbulent
If things turn unexpectedly volatile during your trip (and they can in Kashmir), stay inside your hotel room for as long as the situation does not calm down. Do not fret over missed plans or your itinerary going for a toss, and definitely, do not risk venturing out thinking no one’s going to touch you since you are a tourist. While it is true that protestors or stone pelters won’t specifically look to target tourists, such situations can get pretty chaotic and being a tourist is not enough to ensure your safety if you walk right in the midst of turmoil.
Respect the Sentiments of the Locals
You do not offend someone when you are visiting their home and enjoying their hospitality. Right? Be mindful of this basic etiquette during your time in Kashmir. Do not bring up issues – territorial dispute, militancy, political allegiances, religious beliefs, to name a few –that can turn into heated arguments. And show respect to the culture of the land.
For instance, alcohol consumption in public can be a grey area you’d want to steer clear of since 90 per cent of the people here are Muslim and drinking does not go agree with their religious beliefs. While Kashmir is not a dry state, you may not find any liquor stores in places like Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Sonmarg. If you want to drink, carry your own liquor and restrict its consumption to private spaces.
The same goes for your attire. Dressing in shorts or ganjis (irrespective of your gender), for instance, in a place where just about everyone is covered in clothing from head to ankles can attract undue attention and may even lead to some unsavoury exchanges with the locals.
Is it Safe to Visit Kashmir – The Bottom Line
So, the answer to ‘is it safe to visit Kashmir’ is most definitely ‘yes’. As long as you stick to some basic rules of safety, nothing should come in the way of you exploring one of the most breathtakingly beautiful parts of our country without a glitch and return home safely.