Indo-Pak Thaw Is Icing On Valley's White Xmas Cake
25 December 2003
The Indian Express
Gulmarg: As the rest of the country shivers through a cold wave, Kashmir is having its warmest winter in 14 years. And it doesn't have anything to do with the weather. Peace, coupled with discount packages, have got tourists flocking to the Valley in unprecedented numbers. Hotels are packed in Gulmarg, its slopes choc-a-bloc with domestic tourists from Maharashtra, Gujarat, West Bengal, as well as foreigners. The J- K Tourism Minister's conservative estimate is that at least 300 visitors are coming per day to the Valley for the past few weeks, 200 to Gulmarg alone. Locals here say the numbers have been hovering around that mark for the past 15 days. Hoteliers say bookings in the bowl-shaped ski resort of Gulmarg are at an all-time high of 100 per cent. Till recently, even in summers, occupancy never crossed 10-15 per cent mark. And the flow is likely to get a further boost with Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed flying in from Jammu (the winter capital) today to inaugurate the Gulmarg Winter Sports Festival. Tourists packed the lone church here, praying for the return of peace and prosperity to Kashmir. 'It's a special moment for me as I hadn't experienced a white Christmas for a long time,' said a tourist, Micheal Yang, from Singapore. 'I have been here for five days now and don't want to leave, it really looks like a paradise.' Yang is part of a 12-member group from various South East Asian countries. 'My hotel is 100 per cent full and booked for the new year too,' says General Manager, Pine Palace, Muddasir Nazir. Usually this time of the year tourists flow in dribs and drabs into Gulmarg. 'This has the potential to revive our business as tourists have been flowing in huge numbers after the government did its bit to promote winter tourism vigorously. However more can be done to sustain it by bringing in the private sector too,' adds Nazir. The CM is trying to do his best, hoping tourism will be one of the balms of his healing touch policy. With eyes set on the next summer, he says: 'We are trying to bring in tourists this winter so that they send a message of goodwill to people around the country and that would ensure next summer would be full of tourists.' Encouraged by the 1.83 lakh holidaymakers that trooped into the Valley in summer, again a 14-year- old high, Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation (JKTDC) has worked out various packages to lure more for New Year festivities. A 10-day Kashmir package, priced at Rs 7,000 per person, targeted at mid-level income group, would take a tourist to various locales with free pony and shikara rides. 'Our strategy is based on short- and long-term objectives to keep the tourist inflow constant,' says J-K Tourism Minister Ghulam Hassan Mir. 'We are also offering packages targeted at the elite educational institutions of the country whose students would want to ski on the slopes of Gulmarg.' For seven days, including five days of skiing in Gulmarg, students have to pay just Rs 4,999, with added discounts by way of a meal in a houseboat in Dal Lake and shikara rides. 'We are expecting a group of 75 students from various parts of the country on December 27, which would be followed up by more students,' says JKTDC Managing Director Abdul Aziz Wani. A week-long package for freshly married couples with stay in top-notch hotels comes at Rs 10,000 per head, and has already paid off with many couples trooping into Kashmir at a steady pace. Fear, though, still lurks in the minds. Vedica Kan, a Delhiite studying economics in Singapore, flew in to celebrate Christmas here but doesn't feel too comfortable. 'It's very pretty here but a little bit of fear is there. I just wanted to come and enjoy the skiing here as you don't get to visit this place often.'