New winter destinations in J&K

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
The popular hill station of Murree in Pakistan was in the news last month when a calamity hit this area between the intervening night of 8th and 9th January.
Around 21 people, including nine children, froze to death in their stranded vehicles as the area witnessed unprecedented snowfall. Murree witnessed a huge rush of tourists as there was snow forecast in the entire Pir Panjaal region and other areas of Jammu &Kashmir , northern areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan from 7th to 9th January. Murree which is part of Pir Panjaal mountain range witnessed such a huge rush of tourists that all the roads got blocked with vehicles. The continuous snowfall on the 8th evening was like adding fuel to the fire as the roads got completely jammed. As per newspaper reports more than 1000 small vehicles got stuck in and around Murree and people due to hypothermia (froze to death). It is said that some died of suffocation in their cars. This type of suffocation is caused usually when the heating system of a vehicle is on and it depletes the surrounding oxygen and people die even during sleep.
When I came to know about the Murree tragedy, the picture of Gulmarg came into my mind. I started thinking similar tragedies can take place in Gulmarg, especially when there is a huge rush of people in this area during winters, especially on the eve of new year or when there is fresh snowfall in the area. We have a limited capacity to accommodate tourists at Gulmarg and when a large number of people throng this place it creates chaos and confusion. We must learn lessons from the Murree tragedy and try to decongest Gulmarg during winters. To make that happen Government needs to create facilities like winter sports , cable cars at other tourist destinations which witness a good amount of snowfall in winters. Authorities must explore places like Doodhpathri ,Yusmarg , Sonamarg , Aharbal , Kokernag and other places as well. This will not only decrease the tourist rush in Gulmarg but it will also boost winter tourism in other parts of Kashmir valley which remain cut off otherwise from October to April.
With an aim of promoting winter tourism at Doodhpathri the Director Tourism Kashmir Dr G N Itoo and Deputy Commissioner Budgam, Shahbaz Ahmed Mirza inaugurated a first of its kind of ‘All Terrain Vehicle’ (ATV) rally from TRC building Tangnad to ParhaizMaidaan at Doodhpathri in Budgam last month. Snow Ski show was also held in the area wherein trained skiers from different places of Kashmir demonstrated their skiing skills which enthralled the people who witnessed this event. The winter sports festival in the area for another week I have been told. Director Tourism Kashmir said that Doodhpathri would be developed as one of the best Winter Tourism destinations where snow skiing, snow- boarding, snow cycling and allied activities can be taken up. To make this happen Directorate of Tourism is already taking expert advice from adventure sports experts and the organizations like J&K Skiing & Mountaineering Association (JKSMA) which has trained thousands of Kashmiris right from mid 1975 till date. President of JKSMA Rauf Tramboo says that Doodhpathri, Yusmarg or even Tosamaidan have a huge potential for winter sports especially for advanced skiers as these areas have vast slopes.
In Spite of the fact that Yusmarg has been on the tourist map from the late 1960s , the successive Govt’s could not promote this area as a potential tourism destination. Ironically there is not even a mobile phone tower or ATM facility in this hill station which is mere 40 kms from Srinagar city center. In winters Yusmarg is totally cut off as the tourist bungalows and huts neither have drinking water facility nor there is proper electricity supply in the area. Had a security force camp not been in the area from 1966 onwards , the snow clearance from the road leading to Yusmarg via Nagbal would also not have been a priority for the Govt. Yusmarg has very beautiful slopes but due to haphazard and unplanned constructions in the area by various Govt agencies, the slopes lost their sheen and landscape. By constructing inspection bungalows , huts here and there without a proper plan or erecting iron fencing our authorities have themselves created hurdles for facilitating snow sports activities in Yusmarg. I wish our planners and past CEOs of Yusmarg Development Authority (YDA) had a vision to see the area as a future winter sports destination and I am sure they would not have allowed construction on east , west , north and south of Yusmarg bowl ? Still we have plenty of sloped areas in Yusmarg which can be explored to be used for basic or intermediate skiing courses.
Tosmaidan which has been brought on the tourism map of Jammu & Kashmir has beautiful slopes. It can definitely compete with Gulmarg once this meadow located at 3100 meters above sea level is developed for the winter sports activities. We have a separate tourism development authority for Tosmaidan and I am sure the authority would explore starting winter sports activities at Tosmaidan. Experts say that slopes of Tosmaidan are far better. From a beginner to intermediate or even advanced skier ,Tosmaidan has a tremendous potential which needs to be explored and surveyed.
The Government must make sure Gulmarg is not jam packed with tourists as this can cause any kind of misadventure especially in winters. At a time when we are having a pandemic situation amid COVID 19 , it is the duty of the Govt to see that our tourist places are not congested. Let other places like Tosmaidan ,Yusmarg , Doodhpathri , Sonamarg , Aharbal , Kokernag etc be also developed as winter tourist destinations in Kashmir. Similarly many places in Poonch , Rajouri , Doda and Kishtwar which receive good amount of snowfall in winters should also be explored as new winter tourism destinations.
Tourism department and respective district administrations must involve the local population when they launch any kind of winter sports activities.
(The author is Founder & Chairman of JK RTI Movement)