14th March 2019
It’s been nearly three weeks since hostilities broke out between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and a more than a week since they thankfully abated. As this is something we at Wild Frontiers have seen on a few occasions over our 20-year history, I thought I’d put my thoughts down in a blog, to hopefully help those wishing to travel there see the situation in a greater context.
While it’s a fool’s game trying to foresee the future when it comes to this issue, the good news is that as things currently stand, cooler heads seem to have prevailed on both sides and the situation has definitely calmed significantly.
Pakistan’s decision to hand back to India the captured pilot was certainly viewed as an attempt to de-escalate the situation, while cynically perhaps, still allowing the leaders of both countries to claim some sort of victory.
Politics… it was ever thus.
When WF got going properly in 2002 after running tours in Pakistan for 4 years, it was to Kashmir we initially looked. I had originally travelled to this stunning region of India at the end of the 80s and thought it would make a perfect foil for Pakistan - a place at the time we could no longer visit. Organising a tour into Buddhist eastern Kashmir from Delhi to Ladakh – a very popular tour we still run, called Journey to Ladakh – we had a group of 10 ready to go. Then, just as now, general elections were soon to be held and politicians on both sides of the border had much to gain and lose.
Action along the Line of Control flared up and the two sides, both having recently become nuclear powers, squared up to each other as the world held its breath. In an unprecedented move, feeling the situation was so serious, the FCO advised against travel across the whole of both countries. As a result, we cancelled that tour to India and went to Kyrgyzstan instead.
Ever since partition, and the messy division of the region it caused, both sides have used Kashmir as a cause célèbre, to rabble rouse the masses for political gain. In general, the more hard-line a politician is on this fundamental issue, the better they’ll do in the polls. They all know this and deal with the situation accordingly.
As what seems to be the case recently, in 2002 the politicians got what they needed from the tension and so allowed things to calm down. It wasn’t long before ‘Friendship Buses’ were speeding across the border again between Lahore and Amritsar – I know I was on the first – international cricket matches were being played and peace, albeit a rather shaky one, was restored along the Line of Control.
We ran the Ladakh tour for the first time in 2003 and our first trip to Srinagar a year later. Indeed, following this situation, a mini ‘golden age’ for tourism in Kashmir occurred and in 2012 the FCO actually lifted their advice against travel to much of this region.
Of course, while things have undoubtedly taken a backwards step, from our experience, these flare-ups over the disputed border do unfortunately happen from time to time. But for all the bravado, and unfortunate casualties that are the inevitable result, there seems to be no real appetite for any prolonged armed conflict, especially given the nuclear capability of both countries.
Needless to say, the overriding basis for the tension is undoubtedly political and now, as then, it has enabled both leaders to showcase their strength and bolster support from key demographics within their electorate. Indeed, only yesterday in another show of concessions, announcements were made in Delhi and Islamabad that a second land border will be opened between the two nuclear rivals. Nicknamed 'The Corridor of Peace' it is ostensibly for Sikh pilgrims from India to visit one of their holiest shines in Pakistan's Punjab Provence, but it still represents a positive move. Will, after this mini-conflict, another golden era for travel to Kashmir now transpire?
While it is of course too early to say - for that will depend not on borders in the Punjab but on what happens on the ground in and around Srinagar. But from a practical perspective what I can tell you is, after a few days of imposed airspace restrictions, things seem to have calmed down, flights are back to normal, as is the general situation on the ground, as reported to us by our partners in Delhi, Islamabad, Srinagar and Gilgit.
As such, while we will obviously continue to monitor the situation carefully over the coming weeks and months, we are happy to confirm that we do not envisage needing to make any changes to our upcoming season of trips and all our tours to Pakistan and India, will for now at least be running as per normal.
In the region that Wild Frontiers was born, we very much hope that these calmer days continue to enable like-minded travellers to experience what is truly one of the world’s most breathtakingly beautiful regions where foreign visitors continue to be treated as welcomed guests.