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PM’s first post-August 2019 visit to J&K likely during ‘Khelo India’ at the houseful Gulmarg

It will be Prime Minister Modi’s first ever visit to Jammu and Kashmir after the erstwhile State was divided into the two Union Territories of JK and Ladakh and its special constitutional status was withdrawn on August 5, 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to visit Jammu and Kashmir, for the first time after abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, on March 2 mainly to attend the closing ceremony of ‘Khelo India’ and the inauguration of Qazigund-Banihal tunnel on the Srinagar-Jammu part of the National Highway-44.

The twin-tube tunnel, 8.45 km long with four lanes in each tube, will reduce 16 kms of the road length and save 90 to 120 minutes of time for the travellers on this highway. Currently the valley of Kashmir remains cut-off from the rest of the country and the world quite often in the winter as its only lifeline remains frequently closed due to heavy snowfall and avalanches between Qazigund and Banihal which has a 3 km long Jawahar Tunnel. The new tunnel constructed 400 km below Jawahar Tunnel will bring remarkable relief to the people in Kashmir.

Even as the Prime Minister’s visit had not been finalised until the afternoon on Monday, authorities have begun to put in place all the necessary security arrangements and logistics both at Gulmarg and Qazigund-Banihal. Should it mature, it will be Prime Minister Modi’s first ever visit to Jammu and Kashmir after the erstwhile State was divided into the two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh and its special constitutional status was withdrawn on 5 August 2019.

The hill station, around 8,000 feet above the sea level and 52 Km from Srinagar, is already packed to its capacity as all huts and hotels stand sold out from 18 January to 18 April.

Close on the heels of a series of winter carnivals at Pahalgam and Sonmarg and, the Union Territory government in coordination with the Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports is all set to trigger off a winter sports festival at Kashmir’s world-famous hill station of Gulmarg.

As many as 1,200 national players and sports enthusiasts and 150 VIPs would be participating in the week-long festival under the ‘Khelo India’ programme, scheduled to start at the snow-capped Gulmarg on Friday, 26 February. Jammu and Kashmir Sports Council, which is the main organiser of the event, is expecting the Prime Minister to meet, honour and address the players at the closing ceremony on 2 March 2021.

The first ‘Khelo India’ winter sports event was organised in Jammu and Kashmir at Gulmarg in March 2020, days before the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic and a resultant lockdown that persisted for several months. With a remarkable decrease in infections and fatalities, all the businesses and political activities have resumed and all the educational institutions are now opening in Jammu and Kashmir.  Simultaneously, the high-speed 4-G mobile internet, which remained suspended for 18 months after abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, and the train services have also been restored.

For the first in over six years, Gulmarg is now packed to its capacity and sold out from January 18 to April 18. Bookings have been made by all hues of visitors—local, domestic Indian, foreigners—and no rooms are available for the next two months at any hut or hotel. Gulmarg’s extraordinary promotion and an unusual rush of bookings is, among other factors, attributed to the recent visits of high-profile celebrities like business magnate Anil Ambani.

While a troupe of filmmakers, producers and directors stayed here for a couple of days to enjoy and explore the possibility of reviving the shooting of the Bollywood movies, former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah was seen skiing on the picturesque alpine slopes. Some videos of Omar’s skiing went viral, provoking questions in social media over his complaints of ‘house arrest’.

Finding no rooms vacant for the Khelo India players, VIPs and guests, the authorities once ordered the hoteliers to cancel their private bookings. However, the order was immediately revoked in the wake of an uproar in the media. “We have made parallel and stand-by arrangements and we are sure that we will accommodate all the guests and players”, said an official.

According to the hoteliers, over 900 rooms are available at Gulmarg at the government-owned and the private hotels. “After several years, we now see this highly encouraging tourist footfall at Gulmarg.

Unfortunately, we witnessed the worst in the last few of years”, Mushtaq Ahmad Chaya, Chairman J&K Hoteliers Club and patron of the PHD Chamber of Commerce in Jammu and Kashmir, said. “We are highly grateful to the government for organizing the Khelo India winter games at Gulmarg in which players from all states across India will participate and will go back as our ambassadors”.

“Our travel industry which includes everybody involved in the tourism sector from government to travel agents, hoteliers worked tirelessly to promote Kashmir as well as Gulmarg as a safe tourism destination,” Chaya said. “Not only outsiders but locals are also visiting Gulmarg and enjoying the serene atmosphere of this beautiful place. We have 600 plus hotel rooms in the private sector and they are all occupied”.

Addressing the closing ceremony of the winter carnival of Pahalgam by video conference on Sunday, 21 February, Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha directed J&K Tourism department to work on broader frame-work and explore possibilities to conduct a program on lines of the Dekho Apna Desh program, besides imparting training to local tourist guides at the valley’s major tourist resorts. He greeted the authorities and all other stakeholders for successful conduct of the two-day long carnival and providing opportunities to the local artists to display their talent in various fields.

“I assure the tourists across the globe a safe, pleasant and memorable visit to J&K, the paradise on earth. Come and witness the scenic beauty, rich culture and heritage of J&K”, Sinha said.

Laying emphasis on taking innovative measures for promotion of the tourism sector and tapping its immense potential, Sinha directed the Tourism Department to put concerted efforts on promoting sustainable destinations and developing unexplored places of tourism potential while branding J&K in the international tourism circuit.

Underlining the significance of optimum utilization of new technologies and various modern tools of communication, Sinha called for regular updates in social media and websites of departments and agencies, besides promoting places of tourism, potential through small promotional videos.

Sinha observed that the UT administration was putting up committed efforts to make J&K the most favourite destination of filmmakers which would go a long way in giving a fillip to the socio-economic development of the region.