As the new policy makers in tourism sector are planning importing snow manufacturing cannons to produce artificial snow for the ski tracks, R S Gull says Gulmarg needs prayers and not purchases to keep nature snowing the slides.
Barely an hour long drive from Srinagar, Gulmarg is not an all-weather hill station alone. It is Kashmir’s only spot where winter sports has evolved as a proper economic activity, especially the skiing. And that is what the policymakers have aimed at. They want to import expensive snow making cannons to “extend” the skiing season!
This, people who have managed Gulmarg in different regimes, is the third major threat to the very existence of the sport in the wonderland. First ‘threat’, they claimed came at the peak of militancy when Ford Motor Company approached the state government to adopt Gulmarg as a ski village. Aimed at offering Western skiers an alternative to Alps where the snow line has been gradually receding, the project entailed nearly Rs 1600 crore investment, staggered over a long timeline. A top IAS officer, now serving central government, discouraged the promoters at the stage of ideation citing security reasons. It forced Alfred Ford’s company to approach Himachal Pardesh. By the way that ski village in yet to take off.
Second threat was when the PDP led coalition government decided it will engage top consultants and get the best tourism planners to lay a tourist town that is modern and complete. The idea was to get the best designers and project implementing agency to build, own, operate and eventually return it to the state government. It was one top KAS officer who broke the news in good faith. Hell broke loose. Kashmir went on strike against the plan and the idea was shelved.
Now when Gulmarg is somehow stabilized as a major tourist destination, it is getting adequate local investment and impressive footfalls, the policy makers seem to have decided to import snow guns in the name of extending the skiing season! The announcement was made by G A Mir, the tourism minister, suggesting the machines might be operational by the Christmas 2013. But his Director Talat Parvez has told reporters, the government has only initiated the process, got the required information and details about the manufacturers. He said no orders have been placed, so far. He even had no idea of how much it could cost eventually if the state picks up half a dozen snow cannons.
Born out of a crisis of fading snowlines in Europe, snow manufacturing machines are now abundantly used in and around Alps to create a make-believe world. Fed from huge water reservoirs located at a high altitude, these machines produce snow crystals by forcing water and pressurized air through a gun or a cannon. These would cost the government anything between Rs 10 to Rs 50 crore, strictly on basis of what the planners would have in their cart. In most of snow deficient Europe, these are used either to supplement natural snow or to extend the ski seasons. In climate control conditions, these machine can create round the year indoor ski slopes as has started in parts of Middle East.
As the media reported the landslide development that was in the pipeline, people who know what mechanical interventions in the skiing means have started reacting. It was not the costs that the project envisages or the huge energy that would get in keeping this system operational. They are opposing it for the simple reason that the machines are used at places where there is no snow. Almost everywhere in Europe, around Alps, all the ski resorts are dependent on the snow making machines for a variety of reasons.
Firstly, Alps is witnessing a receding snowline. Asserting that the mountain range has become the easy target of the climatic change, scientists suggest the snow line in European Alps that has reduced by 150 meters in last one decade may have a situation that most of the low lying ski resorts will have to close down for want of snow.
These are areas where a huge population resorts to skiing in winter. It is a huge commerce. The skiing is a major money spinner during Christmas holidays and most of the resorts lacking adequate snow use the snow cannons to lace the tracks with artificial snow. These machines are used to advance skiing or to extend the season. But in both the cases, they use artificial snow.
Locals who have handled Gulmarg and skiing say the bowl does not require any machines. “We needed snowbeaters and we had five in Gulmarg owned by different agencies, we need snow mobiles and there are plenty,” one former official said. “But we do not need this machine at all because it is a bad investment.” He said it will spoil the tracks and force people to opt for other destinations. It is quite dangerous to ski on snow that is artificial. “Only highly experienced people can ski on it and not amateurs.”
Gulmarg is pretty famous for its powder snow and it has one of world’s longest ski runs, some of them 18 kms long and in certain cases in which skiers use choppers, they prolong it to 35 kms up to Drung in Tangmarg. By an average, Gulmarg must be getting around 2000 to 2500 foreign skiers and nearly 4000 domestic ski lovers. It has gradually emerged as a virgin ski spot which has the least biotic intervention. Gulmarg gets its average snowfall without much of climatic change visible. Even the quality of snow, that is key to the sport, is unchanged.
In skiing what is most important is the security and safety. Unfortunately, the policy makers at different levels have started intervening on this front.
In the last few years, the local tourist administration in Gulmarg had engaged an experienced American ski manager to head the ski patrol. He would get some fee, lodging and boarding for the season and would run the show for the state government. A hard task master, officials who know him, assert that he knew his job well. “In the last five years, there were no accidents which are key to the safety of a resort,” one officer who is no more associated with Gulmarg said. “He closed the resort one day saying weather is bad and blizzards are striking the belt. But the managers of the army’s High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) did not close down the slopes and they lost 18 men.”
This year, the new masters of the place have changed the system. They have sought tenders and a New Zealander has bagged the job. Nobody knows how better he performs. A section of the skiing mob is the same every year and they know the manager personally. A change may take some more time to help the new man to understand his sportspersons.
People aware of the happenings in Gulmarg assert the policy makers must offer attention to certain key areas that require attention. These interventions would help the spot grow in a better international address.
Firstly, while the spot has a capacity to mange around 6000 skiers a day, there is no capacity to hold anybody beyond 1800 – the cumulative bed capacity in the bowl. This year, a section of them are locked under court orders because they have not set up Sewage Treatment Plants (STP) which means the capacity is much less. While it may not be possible to add to the capacity within the main bowl, for obvious ecological reasons, there is absolute chance of adding to the bed capacity in the immediate surroundings of the spot, mostly around Tangmarg.
Secondly, the foreign skiers have their own schedules. They usually want the systems in place at the break of the dawn so that they start early. But a general problem with the support staff within and outside the cable car is that the day starts quite late, at around 8 am. This means a net loss of two hours of skiing. Improving work culture does not require additional investment. Just an administrative intervention would improve the efficiency.
Thirdly, a major crisis that impacts the tourist management scene in Gulmarg is the army. The area being at a stone’s throw from the LoC, the problems will remain but a better engagement with the defence forces will make things improve, especially the HAWS. The managers at HAWS have occupied a much more area than is actually required. They have been routinely discouraging using certain ski slopes that would help attract better and high spending skiers. It has become a major impediment in proper marketing of the resort. If the policy makers somehow negotiate with HAWS and certain key slopes on the ridge separating Gulmarg from Poonch are permitted to be used, this will change the future of skiing in Gulmarg. Let there be no riders in areas that are not very close to the LoC. Even But Pathri is facing restrictions both for infrastructure development and skiing.
Gulmarg is Kashmir’s all weather destination. Its success can be gauged by the earnings that the Cable Car Corporation is making. While it was a local tourist who was sustaining this bowl, now the mainland India tourist is helping the show go on much better. Let the gains be consolidated before the policy makers start fighting the nature. Pray for snow over the peaks but stop thinking of producing it!