With winters extending up to May, Indian budget tourists find Kashmir a perfect getaway from scorching heat of the plains. But the skyrocketing airfare has spoiled the festive mood of people associated with Kashmir’s tourism sector. Faisal Shabir Bhat reports
For the recently married couple of Kunal Arora and Priyanka from Pune, Maharashtra, Kashmir was the ultimate choice for their honeymoon trip. The duo preferred Kashmir over destinations like Shimla and Mussorie. The couple is fascinated by the beautiful landscape of the valley “I always wanted to come to Kashmir and am enjoying every moment of my stay here,” says Kunal.
Director Tourism, Talat Parvaiz says that there has been 40 per cent increase in tourist arrivals in the first three months of this year with about 85,000 tourists visiting Kashmir in these months. According to him the snowfall in March gave a major impetus to the tourist arrivals in the valley. He expects around 13 lakh (1.3 million) tourist arrivals this year excluding the religious pilgrims visiting the Amarnath cave.
Kashmir is also witnessing increase in winter sports with Gulmarg emerging as a premier attraction. In February this year around 200 skiers from countries like United States, Russia, Australia and Canada turned up for the first International heli-skiing challenge. Heli-Skiing is off trail, downhill skiing that is accessed by a helicopter.
With its snow and winter sports Gulmarg is emerging as the preferred destination for high spending domestic tourists and foreigners. Last month Indian business tycoon Anil Ambani along with his family spent some days skiing at Gulmarg.
Umer Tramboo of Khyber Resorts, the Rs 150 crore luxury hotel in Gulmarg, says that presently the occupancy is 80 per cent. “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.”
Bollywood too isn’t far behind. In the last two years a number of films have been shot in Kashmir including the Yash Raj Banner film titled Jab Tak Hai Jaan featuring superstar Shahrukh Khan.
Vishal Bharadwaj’s upcoming movie Haider was entirely shot in Kashmir and a part of the Saif Ali Khan starrer Phantom was also shot here. This summer, eight film crews have already approached for mandatory permission and facilitation from the government with five finalising their plans.
Following Bollywood, India’s multi-million ad industry, found Kashmir as a premier destination to shoot ad- films with the Visa Debit Card ad- campaign and Idea Cellular shot in Kashmir.
But two things are a cause of concern for the tourism players in the valley. Ticket costs have increased phenomenally and the infrastructure is caught in a mess as ecological concerns have reached the doors of the judiciary.
Booking a ticket a week in advance means spending between Rs 15,000-30,000. Interestingly, the airfare from Delhi to several tourist destinations in India is quite low as compared to that of Kashmir as is the case with some foreign destinations. The airfare on Mumbai-Jeddah sector is just Rs 9,000 and Delhi-Dubai is Rs 8,000.
Tourism players in Kashmir allege that the air carriers in connivance with tourism traders of some other states are deliberately making Kashmir a costly destination.
President, Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Owners Federation (KHAROF), G M Dug says that there are some unscrupulous elements trying to affect tourism in the state. “This is the time for selling packages to prospective tourists and woos them to Kashmir. But how can you expect them to come to Kashmir when airfares will cost more than Rs 20,000 per head which is way ahead of their budget,” says Dug adding that most of the tourists coming to Kashmir are people belonging to middle income group. He believes other states have many advantages as compared to Kashmir in terms of connectivity due to alternatives modes of travelling like railways.
General Secretary, Travel Agents Society of Kashmir (TASK), Athar Yameen says that tour operators are worst affected by unprecedented airfare hike. “We are not able to sell packages as the price of air tickets have skyrocketed. People in India prefer to visit European countries as they are cheaper than Kashmir,” claims Yameen.
Another cause of concern for the tourism players in Kashmir is the construction of sewerage treatment plants (STPs) in the hotels. The state Pollution Control Board asked the hotel owners to construct STPs in their hotels following directions by the High Court to seal the hotels without proper sewerage treatment plants (STPs).
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. G M Dug says that this has made operations of most hotels, almost 150 in Srinagar alone, commercially unviable.