The Gulmarg Conclave: Putting Tourism First

What is it that Kashmir wants for tourism? There are three distinct products, each a statement on the three distinct regions of the state – Kashmir for romance, beauty, nature; Jammu essentially for pilgrimage; and Ladakh for rugged terrain great for adventure tourism and also Buddhist traffic. Some months ago, we had a new state government in power, a first time coming together of the BJP and the PDP, two political parties that were seen as being at the opposite ends of the system. That the two have forged together a government could well work for tourism. J&K Chief Minister, Mufti Sayeed is a known activist for tourism. PM Modi has been known to be favouring tourism as one of his five Ts that will change the face of India. If there was ever any minimum common programme between the two, tourism must be the focus point on it, without doubt. In the last few weeks, the J&K Tourism department has convened various stakeholder meetings across the state, to enable the government to understand what the industry says and recommends, and to find the fast way forward. Typically, these have been chaired at the highest levels in the state.

Gulmarg-ConclaveFirst there was one in Jammu, chaired by the CM and the deputy CM. The second was in Gulmarg, chaired by the Chief Minister and presided over by the Union Minister of state (IC) for tourism and culture, Mahesh Sharma, and also secretary tourism Lalit Panwar. Stakeholders have been both from within the state – the hoteliers both big and small, travel agents, chambers of commerce, government officials, and also from outside – investors, brand developers, airlines, media and also leading tour operators from across the country.

What is needed at this hour? Some key observations that were shared and included are the following:

  • Connectivity, and with affordable price points. During the season, the cost of air fare goes too high. We would rather see more flights and more tourists. Therefore, we need to find ways to keep air fares down.
  • More flights from more points within India. The state needs more city pairs, to get tourists on direct flights. This is not happening, yet!
  • Srinagar was declared an international airport, some years back, but regular flights from overseas are yet to start. It was suggested that least a flight to Jeddah could begin, for the locals to go on pilgrimage. But for looking inbound, the state needed regular commercial flights from generating markets, even if these be charters.
  • Another suggestion was the need to integrate the state, with flights within the state. Could there be a shuttle service connecting Jammu with Srinagar, and even Leh in season months.
  • The state needs a big infusion of investment and capital for upgrading infrastructure. We need a wide range of hotels, especially the luxury class, with both local and foreign brands operating. State laws need to be tweaked to allow for outside investments. Or, if any state agency can be made a nodal agency to attract investments. Land bank must be made available to fast track investments.
  • The state government has promised to create a single window for clearances of hotel and tourism related projects in the state.
  • Event based tourism needs to be looked into. There was a Zubin Mehta recital some years back, and events are always a huge draw for attracting tourists. Sports events and golf tournaments are another.
  • Seasonality is one big concern as the window when the valley gets tourists is just a few months.
  • The big concern was normalcy and the perception, created often through media reports, that tourists are not safe. Perception was an issue and needed some quick fix solutions.
  • Cinema could become an effective means of promoting tourism. There were nostalgic references and hope for the return of Kashmir ki Kali, a 2.0 version if possible.
  • MICE was a big potential force for the state – smaller conferences can easily come through if promoted systematically.

Attending the Gulmarg conclave were Rajan Jetley, investment banker and former MD, ITDC and a most profound hotelier and tourism professional; K B Kachru, Chairman, Carlson Rezidor-India, a company that is thinking big with investments in the state; Dipak Haksar, CEO, ITC Hotels and also chairman of the Assocham Tourism Committee, with their commitment to promote the state through the industry chamber on priority basis; Binod Chaudhury, chairman of Cinnamon Innovations and CG Hospitality, a company that is looking at big ticket investments in India; and leading tour operators and media from across the country.

Addressing the conclave, the central tourism ministry assured the state of its fullest assistance. The ITDC project in Gulmarg, lying stuck for several years, would be revived and a plan for bringing it back will unfold within three months. A central government advertising programme will feature J&K prominently with three minute films. Full assistance would be given to creating a sound and light programme in the state.

Concluding the conclave, and speaking on behalf of his state government, Mufti reaffirmed that tourism would be his priority concern, he will endeavour to fast track projects and understood the need for upgrading of infrastructure.

A word on the venue

The Khyber Resort in Gulmarg. It must definitely rank among the finest in the country. With its 100 rooms and suites, it is exceptionally well furnished, with most modern amenities and with a local architectural touch. There is plenty of local wood and local design, giving it that special and unique feel, with a most modern spa and fitness centre. The resort has efficient service to offer, with ample spaces both indoors and outdoors. It had snowed in the second half of March, so there was plenty of it in early April, when we met. Locals opined it will last till the end of the month, when it would melt to expose the greens of the golf course. It was the onset of the traditional busy season, and everybody was hoping to see an influx of tourists. Tourism is a mainline economic activity and brings livelihood to its people. Keeping fingers crossed, that no untoward incident would mar the prospects of a busy season.

What was my take of the tour, and of the destination? Given that the state had lost so many years and that its people had been deprived of their rightful share of the country’s tourism, time was ripe for beginning the rebuilding process. It was tourism that will bring some joy back to the lives of the local people. But what do we do with the time lost? Use it to the advantage of the state? Almost 100% of the valley and places like Gulmarg had remained untouched. Virtually there, as they were twenty years ago! Control the future planning, do not let the building mafia take over, as they have in the rest of the country. Devise local architectural norms that must be monitored and followed – nothing should be allowed that will pollute the sanctity of this pristine destination.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *