Winter Tourism in Kashmir
Published: 14th January 2007
(Kashmir's unlimited "White Gold", the last frontier of skiing)
The recent efforts of the State Tourism Department in promoting Skiing at Gulmarg and other resorts are a very welcome step in tapping the extensive potential we have for the development of Winter Tourism in Kashmir. In mid eighties I had the opportunity of flying in a helicopter with a European ski expert over the snow areas of entire Kashmir valley. He had remarked that Kashmir has unlimited "White Gold". The oil reserves of the Arabs are termed as "Black Gold". Similarly, the huge easily accessible ski able snow areas of Kashmir can be termed as the "White Gold". We have the possibility to set up over a dozen world class ski resorts in our mountain areas. The terrain, snow conditions, and the climate are ideal and in some respects better than the Alps. Gulmarg is probably the nearest resort of its type and size to a jet airport which is soon going to be operational as an International Airport. No other resort in this part of the world is so easily accessible to the International tourist traffic. Even in the last century Gulmarg was considered by the British an important ski resort this side of Suez. In fact, the Ski Club of India was established by Major Metcarp and Major Headow, two British Army Officers, in 1927 at Gulmarg. Mr.B.N.Pestonji was its first Secretary. Skiing had been introduced as a sport in Gulmarg area almost at the same time as it had started in Alps. Those days all ski competitions were held at Khilanmarg and the pony track was kept open throughout the winter. There were two major events, the Christmas and Easter Competitions. The famous British Sports Equipment Firm, the "Lilywhites" had introduced some trophies for various ski competitions. In fact one of the ski slopes above Khilanmarg is still called the "Lilywhite Slope". The attendance in the open competition held at Christmas in 1938 was over 500. Gulmarg had two 100 room hotels and hundreds of chalets. There was a Cinema and a Golf Club House with two eighteen hole courses. One could get everything aristocratic and fashionable in the "Bazaar" of Gulmarg directly imported from all parts of Europe. Families of some of the British Army Officers would come to Gulmarg simply to buy these goodies. Marion Doughty in her travelogue, "Afoot through Kashmir Valley" makes a special mention of the "Gulmarg Tea Dance" and the preparations she had to undergo at the British Residency in Srinagar for participating in the event. Gulmarg was discovered by Yusuf Shah Chak, the last Kashmiri ruler who used to camp here for days with his poetess Queen Habba Khatoon. The Mughal Emperor Jehangir and his Queen Noor Jehan too were very fond of Gulmarg.
The departure of British in 1947 threw the resort into total oblivion. Skiing completely vanished from Gulmarg. The establishment of the high Altitude Warfare School of Indian Army revived the activities of winter sports again. However, it was only after 1965 that the Government of India, Ministry of Tourism, made out a plan for converting Gulmarg into a Ski Resort of International Standards. A National Ski School was set up and "Gulmarg Winter Sports Project" was launched. Even UNDP had got interested and had donated ski lifts, equipment and assigned an Austrian Expert, Otto Santner, to render advice in the setting up of the resort. Dr.Jens Krause, an Austrian ski teacher was appointed the first Principal of the Ski School who trained the first batch of National Instructors in Gulmarg. I was very fortunate to spend ten continuous winters (from 1976 to 1986) at Gulmarg and saw Gulmarg develop into a wonderful winter resort in the Himalayas. A large number of skiers from Hong Kong (the British ex-pats) and Australia used to visit Gulmarg those days. There would always be few hundred foreigners on the slopes. The greatest attraction for them was to have a white Christmas and ski in the Himalayas. We used to dream of going to the top of the mountain, "Apharwat" for a fantastic ski run. It would take us 4 hours to climb to the top and then half an hour to ski down back into Gulmarg. The view of the Himalayas and even Karakorum Range including peaks of Nanga Parbat and K-2 while skiing down is unmatched anywhere in the world. The project about the installation of a Gondola from Gulmarg to Apharwat was expected to be completed in 1990 when the Asian Winter Games were proposed to be held there. Unfortunately, the upheaval and turmoil in the beginning of that very year threw everything out of gear and Gulmarg got a second set back. It was only last year that the Gondola finally got to the top of the mountain and the dream slopes became accessible. The possibilities for winter sports in Gulmarg are immense. Apart from the normal piste skiing, the off piste domain for Ski-mountaineering, Cross Country skiing, and Biathlon is exhaustive. One can easily hold international level championships in a number of disciplines. However, the infrastructure has to be upgraded from the technical angle. At the present moment the emphasis seems to be more on accommodation, which can be easily supplemented by putting up the prospective skiers in Srinagar itself. With an up coming four lane highway, Gulmarg would be less than an hour's drive which by any standards is not a long distance to go for skiing. During my visit to over two dozen ski resorts in France, Austria, and Switzerland in 1986, I did not find a five star hotel in any resort. There were only a few four star hotels. Most of the mountain resorts have two to three star hotels mostly constructed in local traditional style. There were some resorts with bigger structures but these were not very much liked by the tourists. In most of these resorts there are hundreds of two to five room chalets, nicely tucked in forests in keeping with local environment. Over the years now there has been a tremendous growth in skiing as a sport and most of the European resorts are getting over crowded. The Alps of the good old days are missing as the Ski Stations have turned in many places into "ski factories" with mile long queues on ski lifts. The snowline has also considerably receded forcing these people to go higher up to glaciers for skiing. This makes Kashmir the future ski area of the world and in many ways better than the European resorts. Fortunately we still get a good amount of snow on our mountains. Apart from good accommodation or proximity to a town with good accommodation and other après-ski facilities, the most important infrastructure for a potential ski area is the infrastructure related to actual skiing. These would comprise long and good ski slopes of basic, intermediate, and advanced category; machinery for grooming the slopes; mechanical lifts enabling skiers to go to the top of the slopes, and avalanche controllers as well as ski patrollers for rescue. These are mandatory requirements for operating a safe world class ski resort. For organising standard ski competitions the slopes have to be homologated by the World Ski Federation (FIS). In view of the absence of any voluntary organisations in our area specialising in various mandatory requirements, it would be advisable to have these functions under the regulation and direct control of the Government. However, all commercial activities such as accommodation in hotels, and chalets, restaurants, entertainment facilities, transportation, ski-hire shops, instructors, and guides could be entrusted to private sector. Development of world class resorts involves both expertise as well as sizeable investments. This can come slowly with the active participation of the local entrepreneurs. In the meantime, one can promote those activities which need the least infrastructure. This includes Ski-Mountaineering, Cross Country Skiing, and open air ice-skating. Most of the mountain valleys in winter become excellent destinations for Ski-Mountaineering and Cross Country Skiing. In fact in mid eighties we were getting a number of groups from Australia for Lidder Valley to Sindh Valley Expeditions. Wardhwan Valley of Kishtwar approachable from Margan pass and the trails from Gulmarg to Yusmarg via Tos Maidan, Valley behind Kungwattan-Ahrabal range are the most beautiful stretches for this sport. The area is so vast that one can easily accommodate a few dozen groups without any over crowding. The entire area is completely virgin and mostly unexplored. Most of the activities connected with winter tourism are service oriented and have appreciable scope for employment at various levels. The two important sectors of economy in Austria, which in many ways resembles Kashmir, are the winter tourism and manufacture of equipment related to these activities. On a long term basis we could also plan a similar approach. It would help us doubly as we are already known as one of the best destinations for summer tourism. Such an approach would enable us to make an optimum year round use of our basic tourist infrastructure which is otherwise limited to 90 days of summer. In most of the European resorts it was observed that almost half the clientele is from the local areas. The cities and towns adjacent to these resorts constitute a sort of permanent market. The tourists from distant places as well as abroad also come on a selective basis. They usually patronise resorts on a regular basis for their winter holidays. For this it is essential to inculcate this sport among the locals. Prior to the turmoil of nineties, Gulmarg did have a regular flow of local students and youth. In fact a large number of young children from the nearby villages were trained who eventually got employed here in different jobs. These people also excelled as sportsmen and some of them participated in Asian Winter games and Olympics. The State Sports Authorities need to pay more attention in this regard and provide sufficient budget for these activities. If Austria and Switzerland can produce World's best skiers and mountaineers, why not Kashmir? This approach needs to be taken up on a much larger scale. Kashmir has a large number of youth who can afford to go for skiing holidays if they get bitten by this bug. In fact this approach needs to be adopted for all tourism related activities. We need not helplessly wait for outside tourists. Our own people can be the best clients if they develop the habit of taking holidays, both leisure as well as adventure type. Similarly, most of the facilities and infrastructure should normally be owned and operated by the locals from the adjacent areas as well as from within the State. They can get partners for joint venture for expertise and investment from within the country or even abroad. In a number of European resorts most of the earlier farmers and shepherds are now the owners of major facilities operated there. Thus Winter Tourism in Kashmir is a mine of "White Gold", provided it is exploited in a planned manner in a very professional but an apolitical way.
The author is the former Director General Tourism, J & K, and can be mailed at: