Jammu and Kashmir looks to lure GCC tourists with Dubai direct flights

Tourism drive in area that has suffered its problems over the years but has much to offer visitors.

Tourists at Namgyal Tsemo Gompa monastery in Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The region is famous among foreign visitors for its monasteries, landscapes, mountains and rich cultural heritage. Fayaz Kabli / Reuters
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The Jammu and Kashmir tourism board is looking to add direct flights from Dubai to increase international visitors from the region.

The Indian agency has approached the Dubai government and the low-cost carrier flydubai to introduce the flights to Srinagar, the capital of the northernmost Indian state, pending clearance from the New Delhi government, said Muzammil Yaseen, an international strategist with the Jammu and Kashmir tourism board, based in New Delhi.

Dubai is within a four-hour flight radius from Srinagar. “This year at [Arabian Travel Market] we saw more Arab travel agents and expatriates show interest in us than the previous year,” Mr Yaseen said. “We need a direct flight to Kashmir and [the Arabian Gulf region] could be our top international market.”

Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Europe provide the largest numbers of international visitors to the state.

It reported 1.5 million tourists last year, including those from the rest of India and overseas, up 13 per cent from the previous year. Of those, about 50,000 were international guests, which is barely 1 per cent of India’s total foreign tourist arrivals.

Flydubai introduced three routes to India at the Arabian Travel Market to add to its existing three destinations in the country.

“There are no discussions about flying to Srinagar, although it is of interest,” said Sudhir Sreedharan, the airline’s senior vice president commercial for Gulf, Indian subcontinent and Africa. “Flydubai’s rapid expansion plans continue to focus on destinations within a five-hour flying radius from Dubai.”

The state comprises the Muslim-majority Kashmir, Hindu-majority Jammu and Buddhist-majority Ladakh. It is home to the world’s highest ski slope at Gulmarg, Kashmir, with ski runs at an altitude of more than 13,000 feet, and the highest motorable roads in Ladakh.

Once a hot spot in the 1970s and 1980s, the state’s tourism industry was shut down by a wave of militant attacks in the 1990s.

Kashmir is at the heart of the conflict between India and Pakistan. After the independence of the two countries in 1947, Kashmir was free to join either of the two. It eventually decided to join Indiaseeking military aid and a referendum in exchange. Since then, it has gone through three wars – in 1947, 1965 and in 1999. During the first war, Pakistan occupied parts of the state that is now known as “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir” in India.

Travel warnings have hindered the development of the tourism sector. The UK foreign office advises against travel outside Srinagar, Jammu and Ladakh, and to the tourist destinations Phalgam, Gulmarg and Sonamarg. The US state department recommends restricting travels to Ladakh.

But buoyed by the steady rise in domestic tourism, the state is investing in the infrastructure and looks to regain some of the lost revenues.

In its summer capital, Srinagar, the tourism board has brought all its 1,800 houseboats – floating guesthouses made famous by George Harrison – on Dal Lake under a regulated organisation over the past year. During the previous tourism boom, unregistered houseboats had triggered a gradual deterioration of the Dal Lake through rampant pollution.

It is also seeking foreign investment for tourism projects, such as upscale hotels.

“We are in talks with three investors from the UAE,” Mr Yaseen said. “We have a capacity problem and we are looking for investors to put in more rooms.”

The state has about 50,000 hotel rooms, including at the luxury Vivanta by Taj resort and independent Khyber Hotel, but a majority are small and mid-range hotels. It expects to add 500 hotel rooms this year across homestays and guesthouses. A 120-room Radisson Jammu is expected to open next year.

About 30 per cent of the total investment of all tourism projects would come from the Jammu and Kashmir government, and any project in the state has to be majority owned by a resident of the state. That applies to both foreign investors and those from elsewhere in the country.

And security in Jammu and Kashmir, which is often in the news because of ceasefire violations across the border with Pakistan, is not a problem, according to Mr Yaseen.

“For the past few years there have been no disturbances for tourists,” he said.

Air India Express started a direct flight between Dubai and Srinagar in February 2009. It was grounded the following January due to low demand.


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