Not long ago Gulmarg would have been chock-a-block with tourists of every kind during this time of the year. Today one of the finest tourist resorts in Jammu and Kashmir is in a sorry state of affairs with only local Kashmiri tourists and a handful of domestic tourists frequenting it.
Not that Gulmarg has lost its charm, but if one listens to local hotel owners, the tourist resort has been deliberately neglected by the Jammu and Kashmir tourism department in favour of Pahalgam from where Mehbooba Mufti, daughter of Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and vice-president of the People's Democratic Party, hails from.
A senior official of Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation, however, was quick to deny the charge. "I do not who have been talking to you. Why should we neglect Gulmarg when it can bring us much needed cash?" he asked.
"With the change in government in Jammu and Kashmir and Mufti Mohammed Sayeed in the saddle we are convinced that things might take a turn for good," A Hafeez Shah, who has been working as a manager with a private hotel in Gulmarg since 1984, said.
Asked why the tourists do not come to Gulmarg despite the fact that it has been by and large free of terrorist violence, Shah pointed his finger at 'vested interests' who scare away tourists by telling them that it is not safe. "This place has been free of terrorist violence even during the peak of terrorist violence between 1990 and 1996," Shah added.
Another hotel owner alleged that these 'vested interests' included top officials of the Jammu and Kashmir tourism department, some taxi drivers from Katra in Jammu and a handful of house boat owners who 'hijack' the tourists and 'force' them to stay in house boats to carry on their business.
"The houseboat owners in particular become gang leaders and misinform the tourists about potential dangers in certain areas. And invariably Gulmarg is mentioned as one of the major trouble spots. The fact is that this is a calm place as you can see for yourself," said another hotelier, who did not wish to be named.
Mohammad Ibrahim, a houseboat owner, said that the hotel owners of Gulmarg were 'telling lies' and were trying to defame the houseboat owners. "We get groups of tourists from various places. In most cases these groups are brought by taxi operators of Katra. These taxi drivers know which routes are troublesome and which are not. Once the tourists are in Srinagar and they come to stay with us in our houseboats then we take charge of them. Some of them want to go to Sonmarg, Pahalgam while others want to go to peaceful places like Ladakh and Leh its capital. We have no choice. We go by what they tell us. Why should I prevent a group from going to Gulmarg if they want to go there. I am interested in money and the safety of the tourists."
Javed Jeelani, owner of Downhill Hotel in Tanmarg, 13 kilometers from Gulmarg, said that over 80,000 people of Tanmarg depended solely on the tourist traffic to Gulmarg. "Whether they be pony owners, labourers, sledge pullers, shopkeepers, roadside restaurant owners, they all depend upon tourist traffic. We have a limited season of four months of tourism in Gulmarg. Two months of winters in January and February and then May and June. Earlier we used to have closed to 100,000 people visiting Gulmarg in a month. Now this has come down to mere trickle."
But ironically in face of all the allegations it is the Jammu and Kashmir State Tourism Corporation, which is doing brisk business through its cable cars.
"Though the season is not good but we are getting close to 300 visitors everyday who want to take a ride in cable cars. We transport them from 8500 feet to 10,500 feet in matter of five minutes by our cable cars. Though we have seventy-two cars, we are currently using only thirty due to the small inflow of tourists. We charge Rs 100 per adult and students and Rs 50 per children. When business is good we earn up to Rs 400,000. Even now things are not that bad," said a cable car operator.
Gulam Qadir (55), who has been working in JKTDC cafe in Tanmarg feels sad that Gulmarg which was favourite spot for film producers in 1950s-1988 is now being neglected. "I hope the film producers who came to see things for themselves in Gulmarg last week would return to this place soon and help us in restoring its past glory."