Kashmir’s astounding beauty is capable of rendering anyone awestruck, justifying its identity of “Paradise on Earth“. It is blessed by nature in the form of gigantic snow-clad mountains, beautiful green meadows in summers, mesmerising alpine lakes and a twinkling night sky. Along with the enchanting beauty of nature, Kashmir also offers breath-taking experiences at places like Drass – the second coldest inhabited place on earth, Sonamarg referred to as the “meadow of gold” and Pahalgam – “the shepherd’s village”, holy pilgrimage sites like the Amarnath shrine and admiration-worthy gardens. For the sports and adventure enthusiasts, Gulmarg offers the world’s highest golf course in the summers and serves as a world-class ski resort during the winters. Adding to its natural beauty, Kashmir’s well-preserved culture, in the form of its poetry, music, handicrafts and food gives you an experience of the old world charm rarely found in today’s times. No doubt Kashmir is one of the most popular travel destinations of the world. As per the economic survey conducted by the government of J&K, the valley was visited by a total of 11.71 lakh tourists in the year 2013-2014.
Earlier, the traction of tourists to the valley was for its scenic beauty and culture. The trekking culture in Kashmir was almost non-existent with only a few trekkers, mostly foreign and without any organised adventure group, visiting the state for the same. Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh were the preferred destinations for trekking in the country. Ironically, the potential of the place most ideal for treks and hikes with its gigantic mountains complementing its picturesque beauty, was totally untapped and unexplored. Then about ten years ago a breakthrough came when a few adventure enthusiasts set out to unravel the unexplored trails and tracks of this pristine valley. What was discovered is what is today known as the “Kashmir Great Lakes” trek.
Initially, most tourists visited the lakes in proximity to Sonamarg, Vishnusar and Kishansar only, all led by different trails. In addition to these, there was a trail above Naranag, a relatively unknown village, that led to two other big lakes, the Gangabal and Nandkol. These were rarely visited. The Kashmir Great Lakes trek was stitched together connecting the seven lakes together through a single trail. “Well begun is half done”. With the Great Lakes trek offering such a great start, the trekking industry of Kashmir got the impetus it required. It was followed by the exploration of Tarsar Marsar trek in 2014, which goes through the interiors of Kashmir, from Aru to Homwas. In 2015, the Warwan Valley trek was explored. It connected the deserts of Kargil to the greenery of Kashmir. It was a valley not frequented even by the locals. Apart from these there are other treks like the Narang Mahlish trek, Narang Gangabal trek, Kolahoi glacier trek and Sonmarg-Vishansar-Narang trek.
These treks revealed Kashmir to the world as a destination that could match up with the European countryside. Kashmir became more than just a tourism spot. It evolved as an abode for the adventure lovers. The summer treks offered a pleasant sojourn in the lap of the mountains and the winter treks became an adventurous outing option for thrill enthusiasts who want to test their mettle. Both, tourists and trekkers began growing in the state exponentially by 2014. Kashmir is a very popular trekking destination as tourists get a chance to discover the beautiful meadows of Gulmarg, Sonamarg and Pahalgam, which have been developed as the base camps for major treks in Kashmir.Recently, a trekker called Namratha Nandish from Bangalore is being called the ‘Alpine Girl’, as she visited 50 lakes of Kashmir over a span of four months. Many government and non-government agencies are also organising treks for the youth of Kashmir to imbibe a spirit of adventure amongst them and also promote adventure tourism. Very recently, on 14 Nov 2021 in Shopian, a trek consisting of a group of 189 trekkers from different educational institutes was flagged off by District Youth Services and Sports Officer, in the presence of the Chief Education Officer, for a week-long trekking expedition to Pahalgam.
Trekking in Kashmir may always be hindered by unforeseen events. In 2014, the flood wiped off the entire trekking season. In 2016, terrorism and violence rose in the valley leading to no trekking in that season. In 2017 and 2018, normalcy began to set in but the apprehension and uncertainty among the tourists inhibited the trekking taking place with full swing. With the Article 370 being scrapped in 2019, the valley was abruptly shut down. Many tourists had to be evacuated. The COVID pandemic of 2020 left no hopes for the trekking to resume in the following year. Kashmir was known for strife and militancy. For a state that relies so heavily on tourism, the concern about the safety of visitors is of utmost importance. The state tourism department put in all efforts to give the necessary boost to the industry. In addition to promoting it at their own level, the tourism department is joining hands with private firms to get the treks of Kashmir the recognition they deserve.
The trekking industry acts as a blessing to Kashmir. The trekkers spread a good word about the state and share their experiences over social media platforms and blogs. This encourages other tourists to visit the valley, gives them confidence about their security and acquaints them to destinations that are lesser known in the valley. The trekkers usually spend more time in the valley than a regular tourist, adding to the revenue of the state. It has also been observed that they are usually more environment conscious. This helps in preserving the cleanliness of the state. Trekkers may undoubtedly be touted as the ideal tourist a state can host.