Though modest post-Chilai Kalan snowfall has hidden the brown bare slopes in Gulmarg, Kashmir’s famous winter sports destination witnessed a 70 per cent drop in arrivals owing to the protracted dry spell. Sajid Raina met the professionals associated with skiing and hospitality, some of whom are desperately looking for alternative livelihoods
For Javid Ahmad, 32, a ski trainer in Gulmarg, fate took a turn when a viral video at the beginning of 2024 showed the famed ski resort grappling with a shortage of snow due to unseasonably dry weather. This led to the disappointment of travellers, especially the skiers, resulting in booking cancellations for him.
Though not very unusual, the Met Station in Srinagar said Kashmir is grappling with a prolonged dry spell, marked by a 79 per cent decline in rainfall and minimal snowfall as of December 2023. Once in five years, Kashmir does experience a protracted dry spell but even in those extreme weather conditions, Gulmarg has never seen its slopes dry.
This winter, however, the absence of snow disappointed tourists and ski enthusiasts, both domestic and international, who frequent the town nestled at an altitude of 8694 feet for skiing pleasures. It marked the fall in the footfall curve in a season that would routinely see people desperate for a room. Gulmarg recorded 16.50 lakh tourist arrivals in 2023, surpassing the previous year’s 15.4 lakhs. With the cable car offering rides to more than a million tourists, it netted revenue of Rs 108 crore for the first time in history, surpassing the Rs 91 crore revenue of 2022.
The best crowd that the meadow witnessed was on December 31, when too many people – mostly locals – went to celebrate the yearend.
“There is no snow, and there are not any promising forecasts. We have seen videos showing the hills are dry, so can you please cancel our booking?” were the routine calls Ahmad received from tourists during the beginning of Chillai Kalan, the harshest 40 days patch of Kashmir winter when snowfall is heaviest and the period lasts till January 29. The messages remained unchanged even after the Western Disturbance (WD) led to modest snowfall by the end of the severe chill period.
Relying entirely on snow, tour operators, guides, and skiers in Gulmarg lament over the dry weather shattering their livelihoods. Some have reluctantly taken up other jobs to sustain their families, while others cling to hope in the barren surroundings, waiting for a snowfall.
Hotels apart, a few thousand families in Tangmarg surroundings solely rely on Gulmarg. They are souvenir vendors, craft sellers, sledge masters, horsemen, guides and ATV drivers. The fall in income after many years was felt too seriously by them.
In a way, Gulmarg was caught in the web of its projection. Though a round-the-year, all-season destination, Gulmarg, almost an hour-long drive from Srinagar, has the identity of being Kashmir’s ‘winter-wonderland’. Summers apart, winter visitors look at Gulmarg only in the backdrop of snow. Though snow eluded other destinations too, they did not report the sharp fall in arrivals, unlike Gulmarg.
“We were even trying to convey to them that snowfall in Gulmarg is not everything. There is more beyond snow, but unfortunately, no one understands, and the booking cancellations continued,” Ahmad said. “But all we can say is that the snow-clad mountains here are truly oddly brown and barren, which we have not seen before.”
Ahmad’s other associates said Gulmarg witnessed a 70 per cent drop in arrivals in 2024.
Not the Mainstay
Tourism is not the mainstay of Kashmir as its contribution to SGDP is yet to cross eight per cent. Over the years, however, it has emerged as the key barometer of the return of peace. Arrival data helped politicians to explain their interventions, an idea promoted by the local politicians and now used at a grand scale by the central government. Tourism earnings, unlike other sectors, have a quick cascading effect.
Thousands of families owning and running hotels and houseboats or linked to allied sectors like transport and guiding draw their livelihoods from tourism.
Gulmarg is a day destination but some of the best hotels operate there. There are 32 hotels and guest houses with more than 800 rooms in addition to other accommodations around.
“There are empty hotels and silent streets in, what is, usually a buzzing tourist season at this point,” lamented Mushtaq Ahmad, who works in Gulmarg. In anticipation of the climate change impacting Kashmir this year, Mushtaq contemplated seeking work outside. His family insisted he stay back in the hope of a flourishing tourist. “They urged me to work as a ski guide, unaware of the severe impact of climate change, leaving us jobless.” Sole breadwinner of the family, Mushtaq said he is killing time playing cricket in the meadows on the foothills housing ski slopes.
The destination is the only place in Kashmir where skiing and winter sport is an economy in itself. There are guides, instructors, sports tool shops where skiers take these tools on rent, an elaborate cable car and chair lift system with adequate protection gear. “Ski lifts are closed, rental shops are shut, and a newly constructed ice rink is now a pool of dank water,” Hamid Masoodi, a hotel manager, said.
The region is the only place outside the Alps which is famed for the powder snow, the best quality snow required for superior skiing. Even though a marginal snowfall hid the barking brown Gulmarg, the sector is still under lock and key.
Staff Gone Home
Suhail Ahmad, a tour operator, said the season has been “a devastating blow” to the trade. “We understand that Kashmir is not the only place experiencing a lack of snow,” Suhail said. “The reality is that we are sitting idle and my team members have gone home, and are looking for alternative engagements.”
“Our livelihood is intricately tied to snow. A season without snow brings us misery,” lamented Shahzad Ahmad, another ski trainer. “Last year, we were engrossed in our work. Our teams were bustling from dawn to dusk. Now, we are yearning for any source of livelihood here.”
Unlike the rest of the year, the winter arrivals to Gulmarg are mainly skiers, winter sports persons and newly-wed couples carrying selfie sticks to shoot for their wedding albums.
Majeed Bakshi, who runs a heli-skiing service for high-spending tourists, stands idle. “Most foreigners who primarily come for skiing on the deep powder slopes have cancelled their trips,” Bakshi said. “I have lost about 70 per cent of bookings so far, and it is heartbreaking for us.”
National Conference leader Omar Abdullah has been habitual of spending some quality time skiing on the Gulmarg slopes. “I’ve never seen Gulmarg so dry in the winter,” he wrote on X, sharing his last year photograph for quick comparison. “To put this into perspective, here are a couple of photographs from previous years, both taken on the 6th of Jan. If we don’t get snow soon the summer is going to be miserable. Not to mention skiers like me who can’t wait to get on the slopes but there’s nothing to ski on.”
Heartbroken, Omar later accompanied his father, Dr Farooq Abdullah, to Umrah. His small video clips of emotionally touching the gilaaf of Kaaba went viral.
Skiing is a leisure sport. People keen to ski in Gulmarg do not finish the session in a day or two. The routine stay starts from a week. Once the skiers finish their sessions over slopes, they move around and it is routine that skiers spend almost a fortnight in Kashmir.
After booking their tickets in advance many sports persons had landed in Gulmarg. “Skiers who would typically stay for a month are now cancelling after just a day,” said Tariq Ahmad, a hotel employee, with a sense of disappointment and helplessness. “Our occupancy has plummeted to zero per cent. This is supposed to be our peak season, but it seems fate has other plans.”
Even tourists are frustrated. “We had dreamily booked a 10-day package from January 6 to January 16, yearning for the magical snow in Gulmarg,” said Mankshi, a Delhi resident. “Our dreams melted away as there was no snow to paint the landscape in the anticipated white wonder. It’s a poignant letdown; even the tour operators shared our dismay.”
Another group of tourists from Mumbai said they cancelled their Gulmarg booking from January 18 to 22, due to the dry weather. “We were closely monitoring Kashmir weather on the Internet, and seeing no positive signs, we decided to cancel our booking,” said Shamila. “It was heartbreaking but snow was the priority.”
Firdous Ahmad, a famous ski instructor, stated that more than 500 people affiliated with Skiing were rendered jobless. “Those who opted to stay are now involved in alternative activities, such as guiding tourists. However, the number of available jobs is scarce, and the remuneration is meagre,” he said.
The drastic nose-diving footfalls have impacted the vendors and shopkeepers. Abdul Samad making his living by selling tea, “I used to earn Rs 2000 a day, but now it’s hard to make ends meet here,” he said. “Last year, travellers from different areas of Kashmir and outside used to spend time with me and have tea here, but the situation is grim now. No one comes to me these days, and I’m struggling to make ends meet for my family.”
The market is the lone investor in Gulmarg. The government has also a major contribution in filling the meadows with sports persons. The Khelo India Winter Games were not only a source of income but also a huge crowd-puller. This year, the games are in the doldrums.
After the post-Chilai Kalan snowfall, the authorities worked overtime so that the gaming event would not be hampered. A senior tourism department official admitted the games were impossible. Now, he said, exploration is on how to manage the show with a modest snowfall.
The snowfall has started triggering a trickle and a lot of interest. “Snowfall always proves a good omen for the tourism sector of Kashmir,” Rauf Tramboo, president of the Travel Agents Association of Kashmir, said.
“We are now getting queries from tourists who want to visit Kashmir in the coming weeks to witness snow.”
Hope that January’s loss might be compensated by February, Tramboo said the snowfall becoming a piece of major news in the media has a huge positive impact on the sector. He said they are receiving a good number of confirmations for March, April, and May as well. “Kashmir is likely to witness a packed spring season also,” he said. Despite no snow, Gulmarg saw one lakh arrivals in January, officials said.