It is not the Alps, but Gulmarg for mountain lovers this year -- and most likely, the footfall will be higher than the last two years. However, the usual international tourists who flock here for skiing, would be missing.
Gulmarg is a town nestled in the Pir Panjal range of the Western Himalayas, literally translated means 'Meadow of Flowers' and is enclosed by snow peaked mountains and green pastures and pine covered slopes.
The temperatures are low, but not the zest in the tourism community.
Well-known trekker and tour operator, Rouf Tramboo from the Valley says that hotels in Gulmarg are sold out up to March 2022 as a large number of luxury travellers are expected to land up at the holiday destination.
“Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Gulmarg would see a substantial number of foreign ski enthusiasts in spite of the travel advisory. They would go for backcountry skiing, but that will not be possible this year,” he adds.
Till December 12, officials said, over 5.7 lakh tourists visited the Valley since January this year. The months of August, September, October, and November received the highest footfall. In November alone, over 1.2 lakh tourists visited Kashmir – clearly indicating tourism is bouncing back – following a travel advisory from the government in 2019.
On August 2, 2019, the government issued an order asking tourists and pilgrims to leave the Valley as soon as possible which inflicted a severe blow to Kashmir’s tourism sector. Three days later on August 5, 2019, amid communication blockade, siege and arrest of thousands of people including three former chief ministers, the government revoked Article 370, Article 35A of the Indian constitution, bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir and reduced it into two Union Territories: Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
Soon after the government’s advisory in 2019, UK, Australia, the US and Canada put Kashmir under their travel advisories. The governments of UK, Germany, Australia, in fact, issued travel advisories on August 4, 2019 -- a day ahead of the revocation of Article 370.
Germany, which had lifted the advisory on Kashmir partially with the former German ambassador to India Michael Steiner himself trekking in Kashmir, issued a fresh advisory post revocation of Article 370 and asked its citizens to stay away from Kashmir region including Srinagar.
Since then not a single country has lifted or modified the travel advisory to Kashmir imposed by them in the wake of the August 5, 2019 decision. In August 2019, when this correspondent visited the tourist destination, almost all hotels were shut and the streets were full of mongrels searching for food.
In 2020, after the government lifted restrictions on travel to the Valley despite the Covid-19 lockdown, over 41 thousand tourists, including 3,897 foreigners, visited Kashmir—the lowest number since 1990. The numbers have seen a spurt in December 2021 and the number of tourists has witnessed an uptick.
“After Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, upper and upper-middle-class Indians from different states who were aspiring to visit Switzerland, Austria or other European skiing destinations visited Gulmarg last year and found the place enchanting,” Tramboo says. The government also started the Khelo India programme in Gulmarg, exposing it to a large number of players and prospective tourists.
“Europe is still closed and Omicron is spreading. So luxury travelers in India have again chosen Gulmarg this year. All hotels seem booked at decent rates up to March 2022,” he says. Farhat Naik, a local snowboarding instructor also says domestic tourism holds key this year as the Omicron threat has again posed a huge challenge to the international footfall.
“The administration has already announced a certain quarantine period for international visitors while various countries seem hugely concerned about the new Covid-19 variant. Skiers and tourists from Europe, in particular, have been keeping their date with Kashmir but given the emerging Omicron threat, it is highly uncertain this year that they will come to the Valley,” he added.
While the government has given instructions to open other tourist resorts of Kashmir like Doodpathri, Yousmarg in Budgam and the Sonmarg tourist resort in Ganderbal district for skiing, Tramboo says only basic courses day-long courses can be started at these places. “There is no infrastructure at these places and it will be difficult to accommodate the players,” says Tramboo.
He says if the government supports with electricity and water supply, they can start day-skiing courses. Naik explains that despite the fact that we have the best snow conditions as well as world-class skiing slopes and the backcountry, skiing would be predominantly a domestic affair this year.
"But the issue is domestic tourists come here more for the sightseeing and not skiing. Skiing is still not a famous sport in India and only very rarely do people tend to explore this dominion,” he adds. Sajad Kralyari, who owns a travel agency, Kashmir tourism is always bouncing back given the brand image of this region which attracts travellers for scenic beauty.
“Owing to the international travel restrictions, many travellers planned their holidays to Kashmir especially after autumn are not likely to visit but domestic tourism rush will continue,” he adds. “Most of the hotels are sold out at prime resorts like Gulmarg and Pahalgam. Ski resorts at Gulmarg will witness over 90 per cent booking till March end especially for ski lovers,” he says.
However, frequent power outages often play spoilsport. “Many hotels especially budget ones are not able to provide proper heating arrangements due to erratic power supply,” he adds.
Naik, however, says that tourism has increased but it is also a matter of concern that the hotels in Gulmarg are offering rates that are of their own choosing. The rates have gone up five-fold since Covid-19 and hotel stay is becoming next to impossible here for domestic tourists.
“With the result, tourists often choose to come down to the city for night stays and this is definitely a concern since tourists enjoy Gulmarg more than any other place during winter. Moreover, Gulmarg is the only place that has slopes, lifts and gondola. The exorbitant rates are a deterrent,” he adds.