High-end Flight

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In a move to woo high-end tourists to Kashmir, the state government recently flagged off an air service aimed to bypass the traffic snarls of Srinagar. Shakir Mir reports the prospects of valley’s first high-end tourist flight

State-Helicopter

Two years after Mumbai magnate Anil Ambani left Kashmir in a huff, the state government woke up to set off a high-end flight. The airlift flagged off last month is aimed to spare high-end tourists from chronic traffic jams of Srinagar city besides ferrying them to known exotic destinations in a minute’s time.

The initiative touted as the brainchild of Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed will airdrop high-end tourists to famed hill stations of Gulmarg, Pahalgam. The first helicopter sortie won’t only save time of spendthrift visitors but will offer a breathtaking view of Kashmir capital.

The initiative coming in the backdrop of Mufti’s Mumbai sojourns is a joint venture between the tourism department and a private player running Heevan Travels and Tour (HT&T). “Basically we have taken it on a lease froma licensee authorized to carry out commercial flights who has lend its chopper to JKTDC,” says Asif Burza, owner HT&T, who co-runs the program.

But the idea, tourism players speculate, could have been spurred by an “embarrassing” incident that took place some two years ago when Anil Ambani visited Kashmir. The corporate heavyweight landed his charter plane at Srinagar airport and headed directly to Pahalgam where he intended to stay for two days. On reaching Pantha Chowk, Ambani got stuck in a tiresome snarl. Enraged at the ordeal, he cut short his Pahalgam trip in a huff and flew back to Mumbai.

Now, the government seems to have pulled up socks. To correct the image, it has given a fillip to air-tourism in Kashmir. The maiden service is likely to woo more tourists, believes Mehmood A Shah, Director Tourism (Kashmir). “It will save the time of high-end tourists who want to travel most sought-after destinations in a limited time.”

But the service, kick-started on November 22, 2015, shortly ran into the rough weather. The department got negative feedback in a short order complaining that the service would only cater to the elite people, reveals a tourism official. “Common people who too wanted to have their share of delight lamented that the rates were very exorbitant.” Besides negative feedback, the official says, the “discouraging response” from private players and preferred sales agents forced the department to cut down the rates.

Initially a single trip to Gulmarg per person would cost Rs 11,000, while a similar trip to Pahalgam would cost Rs 13,000. “But we had to slash the price by about 50%,” the official says. Now, visitors can enjoy roundtrips to Gulmarg, Pahalgam at Rs 10,000 and 12,000 respectively. The revised rates were applied from December 01, triggering a “better public response”.

The service came just weeks after a tragic incident in Katra where a young couple died in a helicopter crash while traveling to Mata Vaishno Devi shrine. The plane crash caused by the bird-hit had raised questions about the standards of air-safety followed by the flight-operators in Kashmir. But the tourism department sounded assuring about the safety of the high-end flight. “In fact, we refuse to fly choppers if visibility is too low,” they say. “If the visibility is below  1.5 kilometers, the sortie won’t take off, which is why not so many trips were conducted this month.”

Another specialty adorning the much-anticipated air-service is the Local Safari involving a 15-minute air tour of some selected destinations across Srinagar city. The Safari would tour visitors through Mughal Gardens, Dal Lake and parts of historic Old City. “The tourists will luxuriate the breathtaking scenes of the city from the bird-eye view,” Shah says.

The Safari costs Rs 3,000, a paltry sum compared to costs involved in materializing the air-tour. “The maximum person to accommodate the sortie is four and it would have normally cost Rs 50,000 but we are earning just Rs 12,000 from one sortie,” an official says.

Presently only one helicopter is employed with the department. But the tourism department is likely to swell its fleet. “We conducted only 5-6 trips so far,” the official say. “That is because weather has been mostly inclement ever since the service was launched otherwise we would have conducted 10-12 trips.” The department is banking on the peak season beginning from March-April.

The officials exude hope that given the recent 12.6 percent sales tax levied on J&K’s chopper services, the project would indeed contribute to the state exchequer. However Burza, the co-runner, believes it isn’t necessary that every service that government launches should invariably ensure profit.

“This is a promotional program,” Burza says. “It is a first of its kind service which would change the perception about tourism in Kashmir.” Hundreds of appreciative responses from tourism players are pouring in, he says, making the state “very upbeat” about the program.

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