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December 23, 2016

Gulmarg 2017 – Concerns and Considerations

by Chris Werren

«Kashmir has always been more than a mere place. It has the quality of an experience, or a state of mind, or perhaps an ideal” Jan Morris

The start of the 2017 ski season in Gulmarg is only a few weeks away, and many outdoor sports enthusiasts from all over the world are planning to visit this outstanding mountain sports resort in the Himalayas this winter.

It is rare that I take the time to write a blog about Gulmarg only a few weeks before the season starts but unfortunately a few things have happened during the summer and in recent weeks that need to be put into perspective and explained to future visitors.

However, before getting into details, I want to let all of you know that we will definitely run our programs in Gulmarg in 2017 and that a good number of guests have already booked with us.

Disturbing and dramatizing headlines about the internal unrests and the ceasefire violations by Pakistan during the past few weeks and the recent launch of the demonetization drive by the Indian government created doubts in the minds of potential visitors. Some are, therefore, reluctant to book their ski trip to Gulmarg and wait to see if the situation has changed.

In this blog, I would like to give an update on

  • The present situation in Kashmir;
  • About visitors’ safety and security in Kashmir, and
  • The impact of India’s demonetisation program on foreign exchange. and
  • Foreign visitors’ options to meet their cash requirements during their stay in Gulmarg.

Demonetisation – Impact and Restrictions

Let me start with the hard reality first. On November 8, 2016, the government of India decided to take all existing INR 500 and INR 1’000 bills out of circulation. People were given a 50-day period to either change the old bills against new ones or to deposit their cash reserves in bank accounts. At the same time the government fixed daily and weekly exchange limits, maximum INR 24’000 per week. Also, cash withdrawals from bank accounts have been restricted to INR 24’000 per week.

The good old times of cash based business transactions are apparently coming to an end in India! For visitors who organize their trip to Gulmarg on their own and plan to pay the needed services in Gulmarg in cash, life has just become a little bit more complicated.

Backcountry Skiing in Kashmir

Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir

To avoid inconveniences visitors should be aware of the presently existing restrictions and obstacles:

Limits for Changing Foreign Money

As per the rules of the Reserve Bank of India, foreigners can only exchange the counter value of INR 5’000 per week (approx. 70 USD, CHF or EUR). The date of the transaction and the amount changed are recorded in the visitors’ passport. See RBI Q&A https://www.rbi.org.in/Scripts/FAQView.aspx?Id=119

Limits for ATM Withdrawals

Since November 8, 2016, also ATM’s have been reprogrammed to allow only withdrawals of INR 2’000 to INR 2’500 per credit/debit/Maestro card per day. There are rumors that these limits may be increased once sufficient new INR 500 and INR 2’000 bills have been produced and distributed to the banks. Presently banks are unable to fully meet cash demands despite the small amounts people can withdraw!

Considering the cash shortage and the expected delays in reprogramming the ATMs to increase the daily withdrawal limits, I am not very optimistic that the situation will improve before the ski season starts. I even fear that the limits will remain at that level for quite a while if not forever.

Payments by Credit Cards as an Alternative

If you travel to Gulmarg on your own, you need to be aware that only a few hotels and shops are equipped with devices to process credit card transactions. Furthermore, power cuts and phone or data line interruptions are happening regularly which make card payments difficult or impossible. Ski tickets, jeep and taxi drivers and local guides can only be paid in cash.

20150309_091905

The FSH Lodge – Our Partner Hotel in Gulmarg at 2’720 m

The Indian government has introduced this demonetization plan for the following reasons:

  • To turn the cash-based informal economy into a transparent and tax contributing business sector;
  • To fight corruption which is still actively present in government services and many business entities;
  • To stop financing of terrorism which is another mostly cash based area;

The vision or the goal of the government is to turn India into a nearly cashless society. I, therefore, believe that the restrictions on cash withdrawals and on unaccounted cash deposits will remain in force for a long time. It will force businesses and service providers to invest in the structures to process card and phone payments, and the people to open bank accounts to get bank cards or to install e-wallet apps on their mobile phones.

Based on what we know today is that travelers to India can only get INR 5’000 a week by changing money and withdraw between INR 2’000 to INR 2’500 per day and card at an ATM, provided the ATM has cash and is working. Even in normal times the Gulmarg ATM runs empty or is out of operation because of power cuts or diesel shortage.

For a tourist it will, therefore, be difficult to meet the typical daily cash requirements, which are:

  • INR 2’000 for your ski tickets (often day passes are not sold, and you must buy single runs);
  • INR 100 to INR 300 for snacks or lunch on the mountain;
  • Cash for soft drinks, beers, etc. which can easily amount to INR 500 or more per day.

My cost estimate just for ski tickets and jeeps is INR 14’000 for 6 days of skiing. This includes a weekly ski pass and a limited number of Jeep runs for tree skiing and returns from the descents to Drang. Guests who book our programs are advised to add the amount for ski passes to their payment to our account.

For a full week of skiing tourists need, therefore, approx. INR 20’000 to INR 30’000 in cash to pay for services and tickets provided the hotel has already been paid in advance or can be paid by credit card.

Safety in Kashmir – An Update

I have written several blogs on this issue, the last time on August 11, 2016, about “Terror and the Fear to Travel” where I gave a brief status report on the situation in Kashmir then. In the meantime, things have changed, and it looks as if everything is back to normal!

 

Gulmarg Ski Terrain

Ascent to Mt. Apharwat 4,200 m – Background Nanga Parbat 8’126 m

 

It cannot be denied that recent events in our part of the world have increased the reluctance of tourists to travel to Muslim dominated areas. I would, therefore, like to point out that during all my many travels to countries in the Middle East and to Kashmir I have never observed or felt any hostile or violent acts against people with foreign backgrounds.

Naturally, we will also find sympathizers of Radical Islam in Kashmir. However, these are small minorities like in our parts of the world too. However, the risk awareness and the determination to act and to catch those trouble makers before bad things happen is in Kashmir and India much stronger and more efficient than what we could observe in Europe in the past months and right now in Germany.

Strikes and Public Unrest

The summer months were the period when the strikes were intensive and violent. During that time the security forces’ tactic was focussed on dispersing the crowd by using batons and pellet guns. In August, they moved from using pellet guns to tear gas and instead of trying to disperse the crowds they started arresting violent protestors. This approach had an impact and resulted in fewer demonstrations. However, the call for strikes was maintained, and people were still hindered in going to work or in opening their businesses. Since early October, however, people have started to ignore the strike calendar, and most businesses opened. Since then life has returned to normal. With the commencement of the demonetization process, the cash for paying the strike enforcers also disappeared so by now all is as it has always been.

Since early October, however, people have started to ignore the strike calendar, and most businesses opened. Since then life has returned to normal. With the start of the demonetization process, the cash for paying the strike enforcers also disappeared so by now all is as it has always been.

Of course, I can’t guarantee that no strikes will occur during the winter months but from experience, we know how to deal with them. They usually impact only the drives from and to the airport anyway.

Powder Skiing in the Himalayas

A Winter Morning in Gulmarg

Cease Fire Violations on the Line of Control and the International Border

These ceasefire violations have taken place regularly in the past few years, sometimes once a month, sometimes several times a week and occasionally several times a day. However, during the winter the situation has remained mostly calm, especially in the Kashmir part of the state due to terrain obstacles with a snow-covered ground and reduced visibility.

From the reports in local newspapers and on Indian TV channels, it appears that there were no ceasefire violations in the past 3 weeks. Therefore, the situation on the borders has normalized too.

Terror Attacks by Militants

During the past few weeks, we observed several confrontations between militants and the security forces. However, these were mostly gun fights either when the militants attacked army camps or when the army discovered them in their hideouts. This type of encounters is also a regular occurrence in Kashmir, but in most cases, the targets are the army or security installations. So far public structures have not become targets for attacks.

As explained in my previous blogs Gulmarg is too far away and too heavily militarized to become a primary target for these groups. Furthermore, entering the area undetected during winters would be quite difficult. Can such attacks be completely ruled out – no, not in Gulmarg and not at any other place we may visit in our life.

photo-4

FSH Guest Groups on Mt. Apharwat Peak at 4’200 m

In conclusion, I would like to reconfirm that we are running our programs in Gulmarg this winter for the 12th time. I will be in Gulmarg from January 20, 2017, till mid-March and I am confident that we will not encounter any unmanageable situation there.

Since 2006 we have built the structure to cope with all sort of challenges. We will be, therefore, capable of handling the demonetization issues and other potential difficulties. Our hotel is well guarded by a private security team and we all together, guides, drivers, and hotel staff have years of working experience as a team. We are all focussed on making our guests’ stay in Gulmarg a perfect and safe experience.

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