With international destinations shut, tourism is moving to Kashmir: Umar Tramboo, MD and CEO, Khyber Group
This winter we can turn around things if the tourism department starts marketing in the right way, says Tramboo.
The onset of winter and the ongoing festive season has brought back tourism to Kashmir. Since 2014, tourism and hospitality sectors in Kashmir have been through tough times and done business for barely 18 to 24 months.
With the tourism sector in unlock mode, we spoke to Umar Trumboo, MD and CEO, Khyber Group about the return of hope for the sector and more.
The last ten months have been tough for the tourism and hospitality industry, how have you dealt with this situation?
I would not start from the last ten months; I will take you back to the year 2014. Kashmir has had a bad spell of 5 years as far as tourism is concerned. 2014 was floods, 2015 was okay and we tried to revive, 2016 again there was unrest, 2018 was fine but 2019 again there was unrest. Then in 2020 as you know the Covid thing started. So out of past five years we have done business for just 18 or 24 months, which is very difficult for this industry to survive.
There are a lot of challenges on that front and we have not been able to yet cope with that. However, since the unlock started, there has been a little bit of movement across sectors.
Has the festive season brought new hope, now the winter is also here, what is the response like?
I think there is a positive side to it because international tourism is shut as of now and we are seeing many queries because of that now moving towards Kashmir. As long as the situation is fine, I am very hopeful that the next couple of months and in this winter particularly, we will see a good revival of tourism in Kashmir.
When we talk about the Khyber Group we have a great location but we have missed going on the world map in terms of curating experiences that are world-class.
If we talk about the MICE and Wedding sectors, Khyber group has lot to offer, are you looking at these segments with renewed enthusiasm?
We have had many queries as far as weddings and MICE is concerned, and we have done some big weddings in the past. However, when you have a wedding you need at least 300 to 400 rooms to make it a wedding destination and I have 85 keys and the supporting infrastructure. At the most, what we can do is ring ceremonies or small functions and get-togethers.
If we want big conferences and weddings to happen here, we need quality rooms here in Gulmarg. The total room strength of Gulmarg is 800, which is not much for a destination like this.
Khyber has become a brand that resonates with avid travellers who want to visit Kashmir, how have you managed to make it such a distinct brand?
We see it as a holistic approach. Unfortunately, we don't have the supporting infrastructure at the destination, for example when we talk about Gulmarg and skiing, we hardly have 4 or 5 ski lifts and probably 30 to 40 kms of ski run. But if you go towards any destination in the west, at least you would get 200 or 300 kms of skiing and lifts would be at least more than 40 or 50.
There are destinations in Europe that have lifts in excess of 100. So we have a long way to go on that side. Having said that, within the hotel we have created enough infrastructure and curated some unique experiences for the guests. In Kashmir, we are the only hotel having a full-fledged spa- we have tied up with a company called L’Occitane that is a French brand.
In your view, what are the big challenges facing the hospitality industry in Kashmir?
All the way it is the political situation, if we are able to sustain peace then definitely tourism will increase here, and I have seen that trend in the past as well.
Just to give an idea, the maximum number of tourists that Kashmir has received is still under a million. And the neighbouring states like Himachal and Uttrakhand have been getting in excess of 10 million. So we have a huge scope, and specifically, Gulmarg has a very unique place because we are probably the best ski destination in India.
The accessibility of Gulmarg is very good, adding to that we have seen that many Indians have started skiing in the last 10 years, which is a very positive thing. I remember when I was building this hotel, Gulmarg was 95 per cent foreigners and just 5 per cent domestic travellers. But today that percentage at least at my hotel is 99 per cent domestic, which is a very positive development. We have a huge population and I think we do not even need to look at international tourism, as domestic tourism is enough for us.
Do you think that this winter has a potential to unlock the tourism sector?
Yes, I am very positive and I think that this winter we can turn around things if the tourism department starts marketing in the right way. As I said that skiing is becoming very popular in India in the last 10 years and most of the people even today would make a trip to Europe for skiing and since this year is closed and there is no international travel, I see a lot of queries coming towards Kashmir for that. I would urge the government to focus on that as there is a big opportunity there. So, it is a positive thing but it is up to us now, how we capitalise on it.
How are you ensuring safety of customers and what is your message to the people who want to visit Gulmarg?
People are now willing to move out and they want to take the risk. But at the same time, there is a safety protocol followed right from the airport. Every tourist arriving at Srinagar Airport has to undergo a Covid test. I think that the government has done a brilliant job in that. At the same time, the hotel is also following proper SOPs.
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