Author: Saadut
•8:46 PM

It took just a sneeze of nature to scare away tourists from Kashmir and to shutdown basic life support systems in the valley. Not so long ago (in June 2011) the Minister of Tourism of J&K had claimed “In the last four years, this time around it is the best tourism season in Kashmir”. Was tourism in Kashmir envisaged to be only a spring – summer event? What happened to the ‘winter wonders’ of this tourist paradise? A government that every year flees to warmer plains much before the onset of winter, following the monarchial ‘Durbar Move’, could hardly have been expected to plan and execute for the continuity of civic amenities during the harsh winter of Kashmir. By the onset of December there were reports of Kashmir hotels being almost booked for the winter season, but the first three inches of snowfall in January buried all hopes of a good tourist winter in Kashmir. 

As the valley plunged into darkness, electricity supplies snapped and communication severely disrupted, tourists suddenly found themselves trapped in medieval times. The road connectivity to Kashmir that habitually goes into an inaccessible mode, took to slumber and essential supplies started vanishing from the valley. And this ‘dead act’ of the national highway to Kashmir continued for more than a week, severely affecting normal life in Kashmir. A government that had earlier claimed to have enough stocks of essentials for impending winters was exposed with no trace of essentials on the ground. As with the locals, so with the tourists, mere survival had become a situation now. 

Up in the winter resort of Gulmarg where hotels had backup electrical supplies, water systems and approaches gave away. At -15 to -16 Deg as water supplies froze in many places and communication systems were down, many tourists were forced to cancel their bookings. Instead of generating an increase in the number of tourist arrivals post the snowfall, tourist bookings were reportedly down 15 – 20 % due to breakdown of civic services and accessibility. Notwithstanding the fact that Gulmarg was named among the top 10 ski-resorts in the Asia recently, the government had failed to plan and built on this natural asset, a tourism opportunity had been already squandered. Gulmarg has been on the Ski circuit for so long that skiing as a sport was introduced in Gulmarg almost at the same time as it was started in Alps (ski competitions then were held at Khilanmarg). It was in 1927 that two British Officers, Major Metcarp and Major Headow who established the Ski Club of India at Gulmarg. Post India’s Independence while the ski resorts of the Alps grew multifold, Gulmarg could not match in terms of development, infrastructure or utilized potential. Except for the unplanned and haphazard mushrooming jungles of concrete (most of which came via political affiliations and patronage) not much planned infrastructure came up at this resort. The only silver lining in Gulmarg being the Gulmarg Gondola, one of the highest ropeways in Asia covering an approximate aerial distance of 5 kms.

After the issue of illegal construction in Gulmarg had been highlighted by the media, the state government in 2010 promised to ‘probe the issue of illegal constructions thoroughly’. The Gulmarg Development Authority (GDA) Chief Executive went on record “We will demolish the illegal structures, if any. There is no question of saving anyone, howsoever influential he is. We will certainly bring the violators to book,” (08th November 2010). Till date these statements have been awaiting much action on ground.  Earlier in 2009 a legislator in the state legislative assembly also raised the issue of Army holding 1360 kanals of land illegally in Gulmarg. In response the leader of house and cabinet minister R.S Chib had accepted “1360 kanals of land is under the unauthorized occupation of army at Gulmarg and on some portion of it army has raised some constructions which are not in conformity with the master plan of Gulmarg Development Authority” (GK 09th Nov 2010). Follow-up action for recovery of occupied land and action against such illegal structures is sadly still not visible. How long will nature sustain when pristine forests and green meadows fall to encroachment, overlapping concrete and greed with the government acting as a mute spectator?

The lack of tourism sector planning and economic foresight in Kashmir has ensured that for decades Gulmarg has been the only primary winter sports destination promoted out of Kashmir, other places like Yusmarg, Sonamarg, Dodhpathri and the Lidder valley at Pahalgam,  which have equal winter sports potential have been left undeveloped and unexplored. Kashmir is considered one the most lost cost winter sports destinations, with word class slopes and this reason would have been enough for tourists to flock to these places in droves, but the failing infrastructure and lack of administrative planning ensures otherwise. In terms of distances from the nearest airport (Srinagar airport is claimed to be an International airport) these winter sport resorts in Kashmir would be easily drive-able from the main city, but for want of better approach roads. With places like Gulmarg and Dodhpathri a mere one hour drive, Pahalgam and Sonamarg are a two hour drive from Srinagar airport, it would have been easy for tourists to drive to these places from the main city. This would minimize the clutter of concrete in these places and retain virgin slopes for world class winter sports facilities. But in contrasting reality not only have these places, with the exception of Gulmarg, been left undeveloped for winter sports by the government, but approaches to these places are enduring at best in summers and virtually nonexistent in winters. 

An earlier survey conducted by the state government had identified at least 6 new sites in the Pir Panchal range for winter sports, but no development activity has been since undertaken in these areas. Even if any plan was put in place for execution, it would take more than a decade for development of these areas under ‘normal work pace’ conditions; and government implementations are never known to be subservient to ‘normal work pace’ in this state. Although adventure sports like Heli Sking (introduced by Sylvain Sudan in late 70’s in Kashmir) has started to make a comeback in Kashmir lately but such sport is still at the high end of the tourist bracket. The arrival numbers generated in the high-end segment being low, business opportunities are not spread evenly at these places. In addition to the high end sports, a major thrust is required to rope in the entry and middle level tourists to these winter spots so that business and opportunity consistency is maintained.

Since most of the economic activity related to tourism is service oriented, there is a huge potential for employment generations and local sustenance avenues. But all tourism related activities demand infrastructure and consistency in availability of support services. With citizen facilities failing majorly in the valley during winters and support services even failing in ‘winter tourism touted’ places like Gulmarg, expecting the state to plan and implement plans for other winter tourism resorts in Kashmir is a farfetched dream. Unfortunately tourism activities and capacity development in Kashmir have followed the ‘sheep herd’ mentality where concrete growth invades nature and the fine balance between is often tilted towards the wrong side. Pahalgam, like Gulmarg is one more example which has grown in hotel concrete capacities, invading forest land and meadows without much service support infrastructure. And here too the political – official nexus has been actively involved in land grab and illegal constructions. All this in the name of development.

Rather than restricting its availability to Kashmir in the pleasant summer months of ‘durbar move’ the government should ensure sustained attention to the valley is available in the winter too, when employment avenues have shrunk to minimal and local economic turnover is dismal. It is in these lean months that planners need to devise and implement business continuity plans along with adequate service delivery mechanisms. What Kashmir needs is planned and sustained infrastructure development with post implementation self sustenance model in place. Not only do these tourist places have immense potential for revenue and opportunity generation, but they could also be used to nurture local sports and entrepreneur skills. A balanced approach needs to be adopted where each location is developed keeping in mind its carrying capacity, ensuring natural resources in these locations are not vandalized by human greed and lack of planning foresight. Such an approach will surely generate equal development and sustenance opportunities across Kashmir.

Neither did this snow come unanticipated, nor was it the first time that Kashmir winters had a snow fall; but it was the failure of the state that turned this winter bounty, the snow blessings in to a winter curse for Kashmir. Till the government gets serious into planning and executing infrastructure development and support services systems in Kashmir, winter tourism and local economic opportunities will continue to be frozen by state apathy.

1st February, 2012

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