In mid-eighties, one 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 skiable 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 now an International Airport in every respect except for the missing international flights. 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.
Europe has millions of skiers who are now looking for newer and less crowded places with equal facilities. In the recent years we have had regular Australian groups as it is summer in Australia when we have winter here. Also sizeable numbers of Russians have been coming to Gulmarg. Recently, the Chinese Ski Association had approached for training their teams in Gulmarg. Kashmir could be the ultimate winter destination for them if the potential is intelligently exploited. To tap this potential the first essential is international accessibility to this area. That can be achieved only after Srinagar’s so called international airport gets international air connectivity enabling direct international flights to touch down here. In the alternative, like Goa it could get charter flights from a number of potential markets including Malaysia. At the moment it may seem a utopian dream but in the long run it may be one of the most important economic activities.
Interestingly, the Adventure Tourism of which the Winter Tourism like Alpine Skiing, Cross Country Skiing, and Ski Mountaineering are part has maximum potential in Kashmir. In fact, it is the unique type of Tourism suitable for present times. Most of the adventure activities are outside the populated areas. The state should have been encouraging this type of tourism which in overall context is high end tourism especially when it is organised in group form. In mid-nineties skiing at Gulmarg and Heli-Skiing in Sonamarg area continued without any problems. In fact, Gulmarg is presently underutilised when one considers the potential of winter tourism. It has become a resort to see snow, have a gondola ride or so. The real adventure tourism involving various winter sports such as international level ski competitions, training of various ski teams and general skiing for pleasure seeking people has not grown much. The gondola which was installed to give access to skiers to higher slopes has remained an attraction for a joy ride for thousands of day tourists. The ski slopes which are some of the best in the world have not been got homologated by the International Ski Federation which is a must for holding international events.Apart from various ski events, Gulmarg can easily hold the fastest kilometre race like the French. There is an urgent need for reviewing not only winter sports in Gulmarg but the entire field of adventure tourism. Let us hope someone gets serious and the potential of all adventure tourism including the winter tourism in Gulmarg gets fully revived!
The author is an I.A.S. (Retired) & Former Director General Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org