To boost the appetite for Kashmir's exotic locales amongst affluent clientele, Chief Minister Mufti Muhammad Sayeed Sunday afternoon flagged off the first-ever helicopter service to health resorts of Pahalgam and Gulmarg from Srinagar Airport.
The Chief Minister interacted with the first group of tourists before the chopper took its maiden sortie to signal a new phase in tourism promotion of the state.
"Even though only a small fraction of travellers will take chopper rides initially, it is a big step towards positioning Kashmir as a high-end destination," he stated.
He was flanked by the Minister for Agriculture Production, Ghulam Nabi Lone, Minister for Finance and Culture Dr Haseeb A Drabu, Minister for Public Works, Floriculture, Gardens & Parks, Syed Muhammad Altaf Bukhari, Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, Asgar Hassan Samoon and Secretary Tourism, Farooq Ahmad Shah when the first flight took off.
Describing the launch of chopper service and air safaris as a big initiative, Mufti Sayeed hoped that the service will have a multiplier effect with more and more upmarket travellers preferring chopper travel directly from the airport to Valley's premier tourist destinations like Gulmarg and Pahalgam to save time. "After de-boarding aircraft, visitors can hop on to a fleet of choppers and reach their destinations in less than 15 minutes," he said.
Referring to the fillip helicopter service will provide to golf, conference and adventure tourism in the state, the Chief Minister said "our hope with this unique opportunity is to create an exclusive and luxurious offer that will allure guests to experience the thrill of helicopter ride over captivating destinations like Pahalgam, Sonamarg and Gulmarg."
"It will also promote heli-skiing, which has a huge potential in Kashmir valley," he added.
Placing high priority on the need to enhance intake capacity in both high and middle-rung segments, Mufti Sayeed said stakes in tourism sector run high as majority of people directly or indirectly depend upon it for their livelihood. He urged the private stakeholders in the hospitality sector to invest in a big way to improve the tourist footfall so that it has a cascading effect on related sectors like handicraft and hospitality. "Our intake capacity is fairly low at present. We have to develop a model of public-private partnership to improve our holding capacity," he said, referring to the possibilities of developing 300 rooms of Centaur Lake View Hotel as an ideal destination for high-end visitors.
Even as efforts to project Kashmir as an upmarket destination will continue, Mufti Sayeed said the government has to remain focused on creating conditions to promote arrivals of middle-rung tourists, who actually are the cog-in-the-wheel of state's tourism industry. "The livelihood of most of the people depends on tourism. The high-end visitors stay in luxury houseboats or five-star hotels, on the contrary it is the middle-rung tourist who provide avenues of livelihood to a large number of people like shikarawalas, ponywallas and artisans," he added.
The Chief Minister referred to the several measures taken by the government in Kashmir's resurgence as mainstream travel destination, in particular the one related to the serious challenge posed by negative perception about travelling to Kashmir. He said the industry has suffered a lot in the turmoil over the past 25 years. "I recently met country's top broadcasters who were in the summer capital as part of Indian Broadcasting Foundation delegation and sought their support in changing the perception about Kashmir," he said, while promising to take several steps to promote tourism in the state.
Urging the tour and travel operators to extend cooperation in the government's mission to delight our guests beyond their expectations, the Chief Minister made a pointed reference to the realignment of the houseboats in the famed Dal Lake to ensure scientific disposal of sewage generated by houseboats and decongest significant water expanse covered by them. "Dal Lake is our rich heritage and we will take every possible step to ensure we save it for posterity," he assured.
The State Cabinet in its last meeting has sanctioned a project worth Rs.29.50 crore for scientific disposal of sewage generated. Some of the other important components of the project include water supply, arrangements, alignment of houseboats, development of walkways, landscaping, electric and lighting system.
On the issue of rehabilitation of Dal dwellers, Mufti Sayeed said the government is developing a model colony at Rakh-e-Arth at Bemina, which will be laced with all facilities like schools, parks and dispensaries.
The Chief Minister, during his earlier visit to Rakh-e-Arth had also asked VC LAWDA to work out a plan for generating avenues of sustained livelihood for those families which shift out of the Dal Lake, as their businesses directly depended on it.
Addressing the gathering, Minister for Agriculture said the chopper service and air safaris will provide impetus to the state's tourism industry.
Speaking on the occasion, Dr. Drabu said the government will facilitate private players who are ready to invest in creating niche facilities in the tourism sector. He urged the tour and travel operators present on the occasion to market the copter service as part of their package. "We would like local investors to come forward in creating high-end facilities in tourism sector which will bring in customer satisfaction," he added.
Altaf Bukhari, in his address, described launch of helicopter service as a historic step that will promote state's tourism industry. He credited the Chief Minister for taking several steps in making Kashmir an all-season destination.
Earlier, Secretary Tourism presented the welcome address in which he highlighted the measures taken by the department to attract tourists during the winter season.
Initially, one 'Euro Copter' will be pressed into service, which will operate sorties to Gulmarg and Pahalgam. The Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Corporation (JKTDC) will be the agency to operate the services.
Air safaris to Srinagar over the Dal Lake, old city and rich heritage sites have also be planned for the visitors who have predilection for taking an aerial detour.
Also present on the occasion were Deputy Commissioner Budgam, Mir Altaf, Director Tourism, Kashmir, Mahmood Ahmad Shah, and representatives from tour and travel fraternity KHARA, KHAROF, Hoteliers Club, TASK, TAAI, HBOA.