Dal Lake is enjoying an extraordinary, if fragile, renaissance. Houseboats are being repaired, their nostalgic English style – shingled roofs, Tudor timbering, steep gables – reconstructed. The boats are decorated with painted balustrades and potted geraniums, and are positioned cheek by jowl, each with a more unlikely name than the next: the Queen Elizabeth, Helen of Troy, Honolulu and Acropolis. Many of them are getting new bathrooms and hot-water showers. Furnishings are simple: Kashmiri vases, chain-stitch-embroidered curtains, 1950s cedarwood beds and tables. Some road-facing boats carry ad hoardings for electronic goods.
The lake-shore hotels are also showing signs of recovery. At The Lalit Grand Palace Srinagar, one of the few upmarket hotels in Srinagar, the cottages, which cost 25,000 rupees (about £330) a night, reached 95 per cent occupancy in June 2008. The Royal Springs Golf Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones II, is immaculately maintained. And Bollywood is once again using Kashmir as a film location, which will inevitably attract even more of the domestic visitors who now make up the vast majority of tourists.
‘Up until 1990, our guests were almost 100 per cent foreign. Now they are 97 per cent domestic,’ says Gulam Hassan Karnai, owner of the high-end Royal Palace Group of Houseboats. This remarkable swing has taken place in spite of the fact that, since 1995, it has been domestic visitors, not foreign, who have been killed or injured by the troubles. At the time of going to press, the most recent incident involving tourists was in July 2007, when an explosion on a bus in Shalimar Gardens killed six domestic visitors. ‘For 15 years, this hasn’t been our war,’ says Jonny Bealby, founder of Wild Frontiers, one of only three British tour operators currently organising tours to Kashmir. ‘Srinagar is incredibly exciting. We’ve started trekking there again, and taking skiers in winter. Kashmir is unique, and so appealing that I think it’s worth the relatively small risk.’