By : M.L.Dhar :The arrival of tourists including foreigners in the Kashmir valley particularly at Gulmarg after the recent snow fall augurs well for the tourism sector in Jammu and Kashmir. The tourist arrivals have brought smiles on the faces of the residents of villages around Gulmarg like Tangmarg, Kunzer, Chandiloora, Ferozpora and Baba Reshi.
Tourism is one of the mainstays of the state’s economy as hundreds of thousands of people directly or indirectly earn their livelihood form it. The large-scale participation by the people in the recent assembly elections is an endorsement for peace and development on which the state government needs to work upon in right earnest.
Winter tourism could be one of the priorities of the state government to begin with immediately. According to a senior state tourism official the “winter season in Kashmir and Ladakh has remained understated” and needs to be projected as the preferred global winter tourist destinations across the globe.
Gulmarg, located as a bowl-shaped small valley at 8,500 feet (2730 meters) in Pir Panchal basin is a preferred destination of matchless beauty. Also known as the meadow of flowers, Gulmarg’s lush green grasses with cool breezes coming from surrounding dense forests of tall conifers on mountains with snowy peaks creates a fabulous experience that no tourist visiting Kashmir can afford to miss. And as winter approaches, the entire landscape changes from the bright green slopes of summers into the shinning white skiing track area beckoning winter sports lovers and adventurers to its gentle snow covered slopes. In fact, it is skiing that defines Gulmarg now-a-days.
Gulmarg is said to have been discovered as a leisure spot by one of the rulers of Kashmir, Yusuf Shah Chak, who along with his poetess Queen Habba Khatoon would visit the place. Mughal Emperor Jehangir with great aesthetic sense too well liked the place.
British were so fascinated by Gulmarg that it became their favourite sports jaunt on this side of Suez both during summer and winter. Besides setting up the world’s highest golf course at Gulmarg, they also made it an important ski resort with the introduction of Skiing almost at the same time as it had started in the Alps. The Ski Club of India was set up in 1927 and ski competitions were held at the nearby Khilanmarg with its pony track from Gulmarg kept open throughout the winter. The Christmas and Easter competitions evolved as the two major events.
Winter sports activities including skiing, which vanished from the area with the departure of British from India in 1947, were revived by the high Altitude Warfare School of Indian Army set up at Gulmarg. And after 1965 with the union Tourism Ministry’s intervention, Gulmarg started evolving into a Ski Resort of international standards. The Gulmarg Winter Sports Project was launched with UNDP’s assistance. Soon a large number of skiers mostly from abroad started thronging mountain slopes in the area especially to enjoy a white Christmas in the Himalayas in this region. Many of the winter sports lovers would make a four-hour climb to top of the mountain, “Apharwat” for a ski run that facilitates a fascinating view of the Himalayas and also far away Karakorum ranges including the peaks of Nanga Parbat and K-2.
A National Ski School was set up which started turning out qualified national ski instructors and in turn improved job opportunities in the area. Work also began for putting in place a Gondola from Gulmarg to Apharwat at an elevation of 3980 meters to coincide its completion with the proposed 1990 Asian Winter Games here. But unfortunately, all projections went haywire with the outbreak of militancy in Kashmir valley at the beginning of 1990 and the dream Gondola cable car project could be completed only in 2005-06 making it the highest ski resort served by lift in the entire world.
Designed by Poma of France, Gulmarg’s Gondola offers skiers and snowboarders a bigger lift-serviced vertical rise than any ski resort in the United States. As an idea of its scale, the vertical rise of Gulmarg’s Gondola is on par with any comparable single lift at Whistler-Blackcomb, which is famed for having the biggest vertical rise of any ski resort in North America.
With already a part of required infrastructure on stream, Gulmarg and its adjoining areas have the potential of emerging as the world’s most preferred destination in the near future. Its advantages are that unlike many European winter resorts Gulmarg has better snow line, is not overcrowded and is easily approachable with a little more than an hour’s drive from the nearest city Srinagar which has good board and lodging facilities and an airport of almost international standards.
However, there are certain mandatory requirements for operating a safe world-class ski resort in which Gulmarg and other winter ski sports arenas in the valley still lack. These include machinery for grooming the slopes, avalanche controllers and ski patrollers for rescue. In Europe several private institutions and voluntary organizations specialize in meeting these mandatory requirements but in absence of such facilities in the valley, the government needs to fill in the vacuum as it requires capital and expertise in a big way.
In the meantime, ski-mountaineering, cross country skiing, and open air ice-skating, which need the least infrastructure, can be promoted. Kashmir valley abounds in virgin and mostly unexplored cross-country stretches that include the trails from Gulmarg to Yusmarg via Tos Maidan, valley behind Kungwattan-Ahrabal range and Lidder valley to Sindh valley. They are fairly vast cross-country areas and a number of groups can simultaneously operate in them. The slopes in Gulmarg varying between 8,700 and 10,500 feet make the ski runs the highest in India. It is noteworthy that heli-skiing is another winter sport that is quite popular at Gulmarg, which boasts of being the only heli-skiing resort in Asia.
Ever since the hosting of the first National Winter Games in 1998, Gulmarg has been the venue for winter sport festivals. In fact, winter sports in Kashmir are not just games of adventure. They are part of the festivals organized during winter to add to the fun offered by snowfall. These include races, contests and fests that are widely observed across the state and involve the participation of locals and tourists in large numbers.
Locals say that the arrival of tourists means livelihood for them. Acting as guides or ski instructors to the tourists, each of them can earn anything between Rs. 200 to Rs. 500 per day.
The villagers operating as ponnywallas during summer turn into sledge pullers during winter and do good business as they charge around Rs. 130 per hour from the tourists to show them around the Gulmarg valley. Their only demand is that the government should ensure that the tourists keep thronging the area and that would make their livelihood safe.
The hotel owners also agree that Gulmarg has the potential to develop as an all year tourist destination but the state government needs to promote it more aggressively within and outside the country.
Gulmarg also boasts of a gorgeous green golf course that happens to be the world’s highest too. Its 18-hole golf course has long been famous for golfing. Being a course of Par 72, the Gulmarg golf course is good enough to hold any professional level events. The records of almost a century-old historic Gulmarg Golf Club make a fascinating reading. The first Golf championship was held here in 1922.The Clubhouse itself, reminiscent of a Swiss chalet with its quaintly sloping roof, has a rare old character.
Development of winter tourism would extend the tourism activity from the present 90 days in summer to almost entire year. As most of the activities connected with winter tourism are service oriented, it has appreciable scope for employment at various levels.
It would also help in making the winter sports popular among the locals that could eventually produce international class winter sportspersons from the region as is the case with the Europe’s skiing nations Austria and Switzerland who produce World’s best skiers and mountaineers. Prior to the outbreak of turmoil in nineties, local students and youth from the nearby villages came to Gulmarg for training in different winter sports events. Some of them excelled as sportspersons in their own right and participated in Asian Winter games and Olympics. Many of them eventually got employed in different jobs at the hill resorts.
India boasts of a huge young population and they, including the youth from the state, would make the best clients for winter tourism if the habit of holidaying both for leisure, fun and adventure were cultivated among them. The local youth has also got to be made partners in this progress with easy assistance to set up infrastructure ventures. All this will need a major national effort.