THE revival of the tourism industry in the Valley has created hundreds of direct and indirect employment avenues. The local economy has got a much-needed boost this year. With more than 1.27 crore tourists visiting Jammu and Kashmir in the first seven months of 2023, the figure is expected to cross 2.25 crore by the end of the year. Houseboats, hotels, guesthouses and restaurants – deserted for three decades – are abuzz with guests. Taxi drivers, shikara owners, pony wallas, tourist guides, cooks, travel agents and others associated with the tourism sector are busy earning their livelihood even with the onset of winter season.
- Winter tourism: The prospects
Winter tourism in Kashmir has been enjoying a boost post 2019 since the UT administration took over. As compared to the previous years when winters in Kashmir would be gloomy & dull, the last few years have witnessed a drastic change, particularly with respect to tourism industry.
Last year, the Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Department had organised several winter tourism related activities to attract foreign as well as national tourists especially on the occasions of Christmas & new year’s eve. Special arrangements, including a winter carnival, were being made to accommodate the rush of tourists along with multiple roadshows as well as the Travel and Tourism Fair (TTF).
There has been more than a 700 per cent increase in foreign tourist arrival in Kashmir this year as compared to 2022. Against 4028 foreign guests in 2022, the first eight months of this year witnessed 30,647 arrivals. Most of the foreign tourists who visited Kashmir this year were from Europe, Thailand, Malaysia, report J&K tourism official figures.
“Last year we had an amazing response from both foreign, national as well as local tourists on the occasions of Christmas and new year. We are planning to introduce more activities this year too including various winter sports & games for adventure lovers like skiing , ice skating, snowboarding etc across various tourist destinations of the Valley,” says an official.
- Tourist destinations:
Gulmarg, the meadow of flowers, is one of Asia’s premier hill resorts known for its legendary beauty, prime location and the range of choices it offers to the visitors. Famous for its exquisite valleys, gorgeous streams, fascinating slopes for skiing and hiking, Gulmarg is also home to one of the highest golf courses in the world. Gulmarg is equally sought after in summers as well, for it offers myriad choices during summers like greenery and flower beds all around, with beautiful lakes, sublime valleys and Gulmarg gandola. During winters, the place is thronged by tourists for its snowy slopes where skiing, ice skating & snowboarding are done along with other adventurous winter activities.
Also, Gulmarg, Pahalgam & Sonamarg offer a variety of scope for winter tourism to Nature lovers. Pahalgam being one of the best places to visit in summers also offers a great deal of mesmerising beauty in winters. With snow-clad places like Betab Valley, Chandanwari & Aru valley, a tourist can really be promised heavenly joy.
Sonamarg also takes its attractiveness to another level in the winters. With road connectivity available all 12 months of the year, Sonamarg is expected to witness high inflow of tourists this winter.
“We were demanding a full-year road connectivity along with other basic facilities like water supply, electricity, health, road, fire service, snow clearing operation, traffic management etc from the administration. We were operating on discounts in our hotels last year too. Now they are planning to open the Z-Morh tunnel from December 1.. let’s hope for even better results,” says a hotelier.
It would be pertinent to mention that Deputy Commissioner Ganderbal, along with Director Tourism, Kashmir, Raja Yakoob visited Sonamarg last week only where they co-chaired a joint meeting of officers and stakeholders to review winter preparedness and allied facilities for keeping Sonamarg open during the winter.
- Options galore
Besides the above mentioned places, Kashmir offers a number of unexplored virgin landscapes ideal for the winter season. These include Yousmarg, Tosamaidan, Bungus Valley, Keran, Warwan and Lolab Valley respectively. These hill destinations offer large playgrounds for winter sports at a national level. There are incredibly entertaining playfields for games like alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, snowboarding, etc., and snow-related games (though subject to the availability of infrastructure) like curling, figure skating, freestyle skiing, ice hockey, and ski jumping to add to the pull of these places.
With the J&K government introducing border tourism across all border areas, starting this year, these places await to get really ready since they still suffer from poor connectivity and unavailability of basic amenities.
“The government did a good job by opening border tourism & supporting us through home stays, and tourist facility centres. But these initiatives should also be carried forward during the winter season as there is a huge potential in these areas,” Mohammad Arif, an eco-tourism entrepreneur from Keran says.
Though the Tourism department along with the J&K administration is mulling over expanding more destinations for winter tourism including Yusmarg, Aharbal, Mughal Gardens etc, a lot more needs to be done to woo tourists from across the world to experience the winters in Kashmir. Alongwith infrastructural developments, more needs to be done to uplift the small scale local tourism and their manpower including pony wallas, skating/skiing experts, hoteliers, restaurant owners to boost their economy.
“We always cooperate with the administration whenever they ask; in return, we get very less response from them. We also want to earn our living across the year and we would be more than thankful to the government if they were to provide us with the necessary support during winters,” says Shakeel Ahmad Chopan, a local pony-walla said.
Meanwhile, the Jammu and Kashmir government is hopeful about witnessing a record-breaking arrival of both international as well as national tourists by the end of this year and requisite efforts are being made to harness the winter tourism potential of Kashmir, especially during the Christmas and new year.