The conflict-ridden state of Jammu and Kashmir, often referred to as heaven on earth, has recorded the highest number of tourist arrivals this year ever since armed rebellion broke out in 1989.
As dusk falls, there is a bustle of tourists on the Boulevard Road along the banks of the pristine Dal Lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains on its three sides.
The eateries overflow as tourists, both Indian and foreign, enjoy the delicacies comprising a wide array of south Indian, Punjabi and Gujarati food, along with Wazwan, the multi-course meal in Kashmiri cuisine.
The Victorian-era wooden houseboats on the lake are also buzzing with activity with some playing loud music.
"Could you ever imagine this scenario even ten years back? All we saw were gun-toting security personnel and everyone confined indoors by sundown," exclaims Maqbool Bhatt, a restaurant owner, who recently has seen a great increase in business.
The Kashmir Valley has been witnessing an unprecedented rush of tourists this summer with hotels booked to the full and resorts across the picturesque state chock-a-block. Even the famed ski resort of Gulmarg has had to turn down prospective tourists because there is simply no space.
The biggest beneficiaries from this development are the people of the valley - a whole generation of people who have grown up in an atmosphere of strife and turmoil.
"This is simply unbelievable. I am refusing bookings because I have no rooms. Inshallah, (God willing) I hope this lasts for long," says Izhar Wani, a budget hotel owner.
More than 1.35 million tourists are estimated to have visited the state last year - almost four times more than the figure the beginning of the armed insurgency in 1989.
This year the government has set its eye on the 1.5 million mark as violence subsides appreciably in the strife-torn region.
"My priority will be to motivate tourists to come. It was a challenge for the government to attract tourists in the past. We have been successful to get record number of tourists to the valley and the number is still increasing," said Talat Parvez, who recently took over as Director Tourism Kashmir.
Peace initiatives paying off
The recent peace initiatives between the two warring neighbors, India and Pakistan, over the conflict in Kashmir have had a positive effect on the ground and the people of the region are finally starting to smile again.
For an economy that is heavily dependent on tourism, much needed foreign currency is adding to the state's coffers every time a foreign tourist ventures its way.
"I am happy both sides have returned to the negotiating table to sort out their various differences in the only way that really has some promise - peace talks," says Tariq Geelani, a local politician.
In the midst of these unparalleled footfalls in the valley comes even better news after the state was voted the best emerging destination (India) for 2012 by the prestigious international travel magazine Lonely Planet Magazine India.
The vote has encouraged new hope among those in the tourism industry that Western countries will now revisit the advisories cautioning its people over visiting Kashmir.
"These adverse advisories are affecting us a lot. We hope that Western countries will now revisit the advisories and allow its people to visit the valley," said G M Dag, chairman J&K Tourism Alliance, an apex body of the tourism players.
The only spoilsport in this present setting could be the volatile and unpredictable political situation. In 2010, tourists left in droves after student protests rocked the valley following a wave of bloodshed and civil unrest that lasted weeks. But for now, that thought seems to be far from the tourists' minds.
Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Sarah Berning