Kashmir tourism: In paradise on earth, few earthy matters cause trouble
If policymakers would keep pace with tourist arrivals, Kashmir truly would be paradise on earth and Rs 950 cr tourist destination would move up one notch.
And the Rs 950 crore Kashmir tourist destination would move up one notch. The last few years have seen Maharashtra and Gujarat emerge as the two main tourist belts with West Bengal emerging as the leader during the Pooja holidays. But as more virgin areas are opened up and private players join forces, Kashmir is witnessing a surge in winter sports with Gulmarg becoming a big attraction.
“We created a new milestone in skiing this winter,” says a happy Director Tourism, Talat Ahmad. “For the first time, we successfully introduced free style skiing with euro copters from 5000 ft and believe me, we had 200 foreign participants.”
With its powder snow and expensive winter sports, this time Gulmarg was too busy hosting high spending domestic tourist and foreigners to complain about the long-drawn out winter. Last month, Tina and Anil Ambani took off for Gulmarg to ski with their kids.
Right now, says Umer Tramboo of Khyber Resorts, the Rs 150 crore luxury hotel in Gulmarg, the occupancy is 80 percent. “Earlier, Gulmarg in winter was all about foreigners but as we marketed our resort, we had more high spending domestic tourists in Gulmarg than foreigners.” Then there are the honeymooners. From the mandap to Gulmarg, tourist arrival in this category has shown a 40 % increase in the first three months of this year.
Bollywood can’t be far behind. Last summer saw eight Bollywood crews, and this summer, eight film crews have already approached for mandatory permission and facilitation with five finalising their plans. Then commercialising white water rafting is paying rich dividends.
“In 2004, we started with two inflatable rubber boats and now there are more than 130 in operation,” beamed Rouf Tramboo, a pioneer in soft adventure tourism. He is trying to get hold of skilled manpower locally as professionals from Nepal devour almost 60% of his earnings.
But two areas are causing concern: costs of tickets have gone through the roof and part of the infrastructure is caught in a mess as ecological concerns have reached the judiciary’s doors. Eight flights land in Srinagar airport daily and the number is expected to reach 32 within a month.
Ticket costs have gone up phenomenally. Booking a ticket a week in advance means coughing up between Rs 13,000 and Rs 30,000. “We have started feeling the heat as there are cancellations,” admits Rouf Tramboo. Considering backpackers make up a sizeable chunk of the traffic, ticket costs have made packages non viable for a major segment.
Trade is willing but is there anybody from the government who will come forward, he asks. This year hotel occupancy problem is raising a stink. It started when the pollution control authorities asked economy hotels to install sewage treatment plants (STPs). As the court-orderedsealing of hotels started, an effort was made to comply. One section of hotels decided to invest in STPs.
Another section asked the government to set up the sewage treatment plants and charge users for the service on the pattern of power and water supply. The government agreed to set up three in Srinagar but the initiative is yet to take off. Those who invested failed to impress the bench because the results of their STPs were sub-standard. “Right now, we have 7800 bed capacity locked on the directions of the high court,” says GM Dug, president of Kashmir Hotel and Restaurants Association.
After a series of hearings, the court has agreed it will allow hotels lacking STPs to work provided they limit their operation to 19 rooms. This, says Dug, has made operations of most hotels, almost 150 in Srinagar alone, commercially unviable. Houseboats too have not escaped the neglect. The tourism department de-recognises a houseboat that needs repairs.
Mohammad Yousuf Chapri, the head of the houseboat owners association has been pleading for a change in rules. “Houseboats are floating wooden houses which will decay with the passage of time,” Chapri said. Srinagar is left with less than a 1000 houseboats. There are too experts in houseboat making and repairs as some have switched over to other trades.