After spending long months in Kashmiri homes and witnessing their lifestyles, I sometimes wondered if others found the same Kashmir as I did. I knew that most of the outside world holds a totally different perception on Kashmir.

From years, it has been known as a place darkened with conflict, and brutality, despite its mesmerizing natural beauty, landscapes and rich traditions. Kashmiris are made victims of stereotyping who are mostly taken for aggressive or violent people who disturb the peaceful existence of the nation.

Disagreement between Kashmir and the Indian government on independence and sovereignty of once a princely state has pulled a black curtain over the entire region.

As a result of these discoveries, I realized the importance of not using Kashmir as merely a tourist destination but a learning episode for travellers. In this article, I only hope to raise a new approach to closely understand the values of humans and regions overlooking the impact of media and political parties to one’s judgement.

Tagging, judging and stereotyping

Coming from a country which underwent 30 years of civil war, and seeing civilians killed in daylight and having been labelled as a citizen of a terrorist country, I remember how the rest of the world looked down on me.

Travel and tourism played a bleak role in the country’s economy, cutting down a large portion of foreign currency inflow. But the immense damage was caused to the good name of Sri Lanka; a scary, unsafe place to visit.

It was only after 2009, when the internal conflict came to a conclusion and peace was brought upon, that everyone reconsidered their plans of traveling to Sri Lanka. Ever since, tourism has raised Sri Lanka into an amazing holiday destination giving a new perception to the world of its hospitality and warm hearts of the people. At this situation, I realized that self-learning, through traveling overpowers the ability of media and political parties or racism to brainwash the people.

Traveling as a perceptional tool

In my view, there are two groups of travellers. One who needs to tick off bucket lists, and the other who really wants to learn the real culture, living among its people. As for a place such as Kashmir, which appears as a cornered region geographically and psychologically, a learning journey could be more effective to show what Kashmir really is.

I had never had the luck (or misfortune one might call it), to book hotels or tour guides for my stay in Kashmir. My Kashmiri friends had always pulled me into their homes and accepted me as family. The only worry they would have is if I had plans to go back soon. Not to mention the continuous calls I get wherever I am, them asking me when I am coming again.

When my old photos of Kashmir are newly posted on Facebook it triggers them to know whether I am back again without informing them! I was a part of family tours, picnics and evening tea in the kitchens. My traveling had been equal to going home for a vacation rather than a Kashmir tour.

The tourism curve of Kashmir is definitely unpredictable. The safety situation can change overnight. Out of curiosity, I spoke to people who have been to Kashmir with a Rs 12,000-per-person holiday packages. I was keen on knowing what they found out about Kashmir that they did not know before arriving in Kashmir.

How many people knew that Kashmiris are self-sufficient, pick their vegetables from their own gardens, store their rice for six months and can still survive for long months of shutdowns? All that they told me was that it was beautiful, and that they had fun camping and riding the Gondola. They had many photographs of themselves in Shikara boats wearing traditional Kashmir clothes. But none of them told me if it changed their perception on Kashmiris who are mostly taken as rebels.

I was pushed into more confusion of how my results of traveling were different from that of theirs. What factors have we both used differently? This further proved my conception of “inspirational traveling”, which focuses more on spending time among people, in homestays, including a bit of public transport in the agenda.

It is natural that one buys a travel package out of convenience, to save the hassle of researching themselves. This will obviously bring one out of the comfort zone, but the eternal impact it creates in one’s mind is important for both parties to gradually make a change in the way a lot of people think.

Traveling as an interactive tool

Traveling is a lot more than taking pictures and updating social media. Traveling for me, is learning. Changing one’s grounds is to discover or live something new.

To be able to return with a message for others. In the case of Kashmir there can be a few reasons why people would not want to bother to know. Being open minded in the journey, regardless of what was fed to the brain about Kashmir and Kashmiris can totally change the picture.

They are very open people once you are open to them. The fear of what to share and what not to share has made itself a huge barrier between Kashmiris and others over the past few years. My first trip to Kashmir was with a blank mind. Many told me that it was only because I was a foreigner that I was treated well and if it was an Indian, the story could have been different.

After a few trips, I realized that this was false. During my experience, Kashmiris never raise the topic of conflict unless you ask them to talk about it. You are a guest and your comfort is taken as a priority while you are there. It is just the fear created by the outside world that prevents travellers from being comfortable with Kashmiris inside their homes. Here I will again mention that I have never felt safer anywhere else in India than I did in Kashmir.

The home-stay concept is an upcoming feature of Kashmir tourism. Homestays are quite common elsewhere and easy to locate on platforms such as Airbnb, Booking.com. But with Kashmir it was not the same as until recent times they were still using the “book-hotel” tagline.

It is a progressive attempt to see that travellers now demand for a genuine holiday experience that includes proper Kashmiri architecture, eat homemade delicacies off traditional tableware.

I see this more as a warm communication and bonding than of a business motive. Kashmiris take pride in sharing their culture, hospitality and Kashmiriyat with outsiders. It is such that they hold onto their values and conserve them which makes Kashmir a unique destination to explore.

Taking tour groups on a village tour, to experience how cottage industries are conducted rather than showing them the final product will be an amazing experience to anyone who visits this heaven on earth.

Inviting travel journalists, reviewers, creating more opportunities for documentaries, write ups or photo assignments are few other modes of expression on this beautiful location and its people. It will definitely give a boost to the current tourism of the region and attract more local and foreign travelers to explore.

Mainstream travel packages have reached its time now.

Traveling is an effective tool to create a change in the minds of people. When paired with interaction, it gives a whole lesson that one may not gain elsewhere. This is not a practice to merely create positive impact on Kashmir, but also to change the stereotype thinking on everything. Books may inspire, travel enlightens.

The post is originally published on The Travellore

Published in Asia, Destination
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