Snowless slopes of Kashmir send tourism downhill

Setback for tourism industry as peak winter season evaporates


January 27, 2024

/ By / Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir

Snowless slopes of Kashmir send tourism downhill

Close to 100,000 tourists visited Kashmir last January, but this year that number has reduced by more than half (Photo: Umar Farooq)

Gulmarg, Asia's highest ski resort in Kashmir, grapples with devastation as a dry winter robs its iconic landscapes of snow. As a result, after a couple of years of boom in domestic tourists, the union territory suffers its first serious setback.

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Gulmarg is one of Kashmir’s main winter tourism attractions, but this season, the valley has received very little snowfall, which has led to the flow of tourists reducing to just a trickle.

Close to 100,000 tourists visited Kashmir last January, but this year that number has reduced by more than half, the lack of snowfall during winter is a significant concern as it potentially impacts tourist arrivals.

“Gulmarg, renowned as the sole destination in Kashmir offering pristine powder snow and a training ground for international skiers, is witnessing a significant decline in footfall from many countries this year,’’ Aziz Ahmed, a local ski shop owner, tells Media India Group.

“This marks the first time in my 20-year skiing career that I find myself without work in January. It truly breaks my heart to witness these majestic mountains devoid of their snowy embrace,” he adds.

Jammu Kashmir Tourism

The impact of low or no snow this year will be felt far beyond the winter months, warn meteorologists (Photo: Umar Farooq)

Tourism industry stakeholders complain that many tourists are leaving from Kashmir without experiencing any snowfall. This winter’s lack of snowfall in the valley has negatively impacted tourism.

Aqib Chaya

Aqib Chaya

“This season was expected to bring substantial earnings for us, but the prolonged dry spell in Gulmarg has deterred visitors, resulting in a complete absence of new bookings,” Irshad Ahmed, an hotelier tells Media India Group. It is disheartening to witness a shift in tourist behaviour as those who once spent days in Gulmarg now choose to leave within hours,. Every hotelier is facing a similar challenge, with more tourists cancelling their bookings every day. About 50 pc of cancellations are being done by foreign tourists; that is where most of our revenue comes from,” Aqib Chaya, President of the Kashmir Hotelier Association, tells Media India Group.

It is not just the hoteliers, ski shop owners or travel agents whose livelihood has been hit by the collapse in tourism. “The economic repercussions are not confined to businesses alone but are affecting the livelihoods of those directly involved in the tourism sector; there is a ripple effect across the entire tourism ecosystem. The current situation in Gulmarg is worrisome. The lack of snow has significantly reduced the number of visiting tourists, impacting both revenue and the operational capacity of hotels adjusting to accommodate reduced guest numbers,” Chaya adds.

Livelihoods at stake

People associated with the tourism industry are worried that no snowfall in Kashmir would adversely affect the livelihood of thousands of people in the valley.

Manzoor Pakhtoo

Manzoor Pakhtoo

“This winter has been particularly harsh for us. While it is true that Kashmir is not the only place grappling with a lack of snow, our winter tourism is predominantly reliant on the enchanting beauty of snowfall. Our livelihoods are intricately tied to this natural phenomenon, and as we navigate through these challenging times, we can only hope for Allah’s mercy upon us,” Muzaffar Ahmad, a tour operator tells Media India Group.

As the region grapples with the absence of snowfall, the adverse effects extend beyond the snow-covered landscapes, touching the serene waters of Dal and Nigeen lakes. Houseboat owners find themselves in the throes of uncertainty as bookings witness a notable decline, with a growing number of visitors opting to cancel their reservations.

“The dry spell in Kashmir has dealt a severe blow to the tourism sector, particularly impacting houseboat occupancy in Srinagar. With a mere 30 pc occupancy, a historic low for winter tourism, the region faces a significant downturn as foreign and domestic tourists have either postponed or cancelled their visits,” Manzoor Pakhtoo, President of the Houseboat Owner’s Association (HBOA), Kashmir, tells Media India Group.

Expressing concern over the prolonged dry spell, Pakhtoo emphasises  the unprecedented challenges faced by the adventure tourism sector. ‘‘The tourists who typically visit in January are adventure lovers, and for adventure tourism, snow is the first requirement. The absence of snow puts adventure tourism at risk,’’ he adds.

Rafiq Bhat

Rafiq Bhat

“The houseboat owners are already grappling with challenges due to a ban on new construction and technical issues in the repair process, the current count of houseboats has dwindled from 1200 in 2013 to 750,” Pakhtoo adds.

The once-vibrant houseboat industry, now stands at a crossroads, navigating the challenges posed by the uncharacteristic dry spell.

“This season, our houseboats are empty as people cancel their bookings. Our livelihood is intricately tied to this, and each passing day is spent witnessing the unfortunate trend of guests retracting their reservations,” Rafiq Bhat, Manager of Naaz Houseboat tells Media India Group.

This past Friday, thousands of Muslims across various regions come together to participate in special congregational prayers, fervently seeking divine intervention to bring an end to the prolonged dry spell in the area.

Cloud over Khelo India National Games

It is not just the tourism industry that is impacted by the absence of snow. The fourth edition of Khelo India is slated to be held in Gulmarg and other sites in Kashmir from February 2. With the dates approaching fast, there is increasing anxiety in the valley about the fate of the National Games as well.

“Kashmir, our host, is alarmingly brown and barren this year. The absence of snow raises concerns not only for us athletes, but also for everyone involved in the event. The pressing question on everyone’s mind is what will happen to the event if there is no snowfall?” Wasim Bhatt, an athlete, tells Media India Group.

Nuzhat Gull

Nuzhat Gull

“The decision on Khelo India will be taken at an appropriate time. I would not like to speculate prior on any of the happenings. We don’t know how the weather is going to behave. We are watching the weather reports,” Nuzhat Gull, Secretary of Jammu & Kashmir Sports Council, tells Media India Group.

“Hotels have been booked and other mandatory arrangements are made to ensure the event is successful and all eyes are now on the snowfall,” says Gull.

Shakil Romshoo

Shakil Romshoo

The impact of low or no snow this year will be felt far beyond the winter months, warn meteorologists. Shakil Romshoo issues a stark warning, underscoring the potential repercussions of the current dearth of snow in the region. “The less-than-normal snowfall, coupled with abnormally high day temperatures, may result in water shortages later in the year. This could prove detrimental, particularly in meeting the demands of water-intensive paddy cultivation in Kashmir,” Ramshoo tells Media India Group.

“The low snowfall has already dealt a blow to winter tourism in Gulmarg and other hill stations in the valley. If this trend persists, the outlook for the future appears even more ominous,” he adds.

However, the weather gods may yet smile on Kashmir. After the long unbroken dry spell, there is some good news around the corner. The Meteorological Department has forecast snow/rain in plains as well as in the higher reaches between January 26 to February 1.

It is evident that practically everyone from Chhaya and Pakhtoo to Gull is keeping fingers crossed, in hope that Kashmir is again draped in white with a generous amount of snowfall, even if it comes towards the of the normal tourist season.



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