Tourists complain about jacked-up fares and rates but return home with wonderful experiences from this beautiful place.
When Deepak Kumar planned to visit Kashmir Valley in November and made the bookings a few months back, his then would-be wife Deepali was reluctant to come here during this part of the season. Kumar, an IT professional from Mumbai, who got married a fortnight ago, had planned to honeymoon in Kashmir.
“It was my wish to honeymoon in Kashmir. After coming here, I’m convinced that my decision was right. Honeymoon destination must be special to celebrate the memorable occasion of being together and there is no better place in the world than Kashmir in winter,” Kumar told Deccan Herald.
He said that his wife, despite advance planning, was initially not too keen to come here to spend time in sub-zero temperatures. “However, now she is also fascinated by the beauty of Kashmir. We spent a couple of nights in world famous ski resort of Gulmarg amid bone-chilling winds. The experience was marvellous. Witnessing snowfall with my eyes in Gulmarg was a fabulous experience for both of us,” he added.
Kumar and Deepali aren’t the only ones visiting Kashmir these days despite biting cold. For Seema, a tourist from Gujarat, shikara (boat) ride in Dal Lake in this season was dream come true. “I had come here in 2007 but that was during summer. Kashmir looks more beautiful in winter,” she said.
Asked if militancy-related violence like the shooting at a liquor shop on Boulevard near Dal Lake last week had any effect on her visit, Seema said: “After hearing about the attack, my family was forcing me to cancel the trip. However, those who think that there is fear of terrorism here, they are wrong. If you want to visit Kashmir, please do not think again, just pack up your bags and come.”
“Kashmir is the best place to visit on earth. Not only is the place beautiful, but also people here are very nice and helpful,” she added.
Despite off-season, official records say 64,000 tourists visited Kashmir in September and 69,000 in October. “The number could be somewhere 60,000-70,000 in November. We are expecting the figure to pick up during December and January when there will be good snowfall,” an official of the Tourism Department said.
And it is not just domestic tourists, even foreigners are visiting the Valley. The number of foreign tourists to Kashmir in September, according to Tourism Department records, is 2,950 while the figure was 2,864 in October. People associated with tourism said that last two years of peace in the Valley have contributed to the more tourist arrivals.“There is a huge rush and we have bookings till January.
Tourists are undeterred by the prevalent chill. What tourists want is peace and I’m thankful to Allah that peace has returned to Valley after a long time,” Basharat Ahmad, a boathouse owner, said. He termed the recent lifting of two-decade-old travel advisory by the United Kingdom for its nationals as a good omen for the tourism industry in Kashmir.
To attract tourists in winters, the Tourism Department has been organising winter tourism promotional programmes in Gulmarg for the last couple of years. These events start from mid- December and continue till late February.
The tourism industry people want the government to organise these events early to attract more tourists during winter season.“The Tourism Department should organise snow festivals not only in Gulmarg but also in Srinagar and other tourist destinations to ensure tourist inflow to the valley during the winter months,” said Mohammad Abbas, a hotelier in Gulmarg.
He said such events have been highly beneficial to them. “A lot of tourists who are interested in winter sports visited Gulmarg last year. The number is increasing and we hope a bumper winter tourist season in Gulmarg this year,” he said.
However, some tourists complained of arbitrary price rise at most of the tourist places.“Cab drivers have jacked up the fares. It is almost twice the amount of what they were charging just a couple of years ago. Even the accommodation has become expensive. It is no more a half season in Kashmir,” said Mohan Dass, a tourist from Chandigarh.
“I was chargedRs 3,400by a cab owner for Srinagar-Gulmarg-Srinagar journey. The return journey distance is just 130 km but I had no option but to pay higher fares. The same happened with the hotel accommodation. I was overcharged,” he complained.
Many tourists are enjoying the cold weather but are disappointed as it is still not snowing in many places. A tourist from Bangalore said that the accommodation in hotels is good and in many places food was nice.
He felt that a package trip works out cheaper than being adventurous of trying for accommodation on reaching Srinagar. But he complained that the charges for pony ride is prohibitive. Some safety measures need to be taken as he saw a couple of old people falling as the animals had tripped. “This can prove costly as many of them will be riding the pony for the first time .”
He hoped that the authorities concerned will look into the issue. More than a million tourists have already visited Kashmir this year with popular destinations like Pahalgam, Gulmarg and Sonamarg attracting tourists in large numbers even during the lean season.
With the forecast of a further dip in temperatures and more snowfall in the next two months, Kashmir is gearing to host thousands of tourists in December and January. Gulmarg is the main skiing resort for adventure lovers. Some of the best slopes in the country for beginners and intermediate skiers are available at Gulmarg. The slopes in Gulmarg vary between 8,700 and 10,500 feet and are the highest in India.