Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah did an unusual thing on Monday. He skied and rode a snowmobile at the famous resort of Gulmarg along with his son to promote it as a tourist destination. This was at an official function to inaugurate the three-day global derby being organised by the state's tourism directorate to promote Gulmarg as an international ski resort.
"I want to tell people out there, if the chief minister can ski without any fear about security, you can well imagine how things have improved here in Valley," Abdullah told mediapersons.
About 30 foreign skiers from countries such as the USA, France, UK, Switzerland, Russia, Bulgaria, Italy, Australia and Canada along with 25 local ski enthusiasts will be participating in the event.
Unlike previous occasions involving VIPs, security personnel held Monday's function without much fuss.
"There is no better place in the world than Gulmarg to ski. But the pity is that for the last 20 years only bad news has been going out from Kashmir. I am hopeful that with the situation easing between India and Pakistan and things improving in Kashmir, good stories will now go out," said Abdullah. This was also the first time that a corporate house (Essar Group) was sponsoring the tourism promotion event.
"Jammu and Kashmir is open for business," the chief minister said, adding that an "integrated plan" to improve the infrastructure, provide more slopes and complimentary facilities at the ski resort would be in place by the next skiing season.
Minister for Tourism Nawan Rigzin Jora promised bright prospects for skiers. "European skiing resorts will face a tough challenge when we upgrade and use it (Gulmarg) to the fullest," he said.
Participants were excited. "I have skied in the US, Canada and Australia but Gulmarg is special. Open spaces, great slopes, less people --everything needed for skiing," said Chiara of Italy.
For Tim Rees of the UK the upper slopes at Gulmarg are for advanced skiers like him. "I call it a back-country resort which is most apt for advanced gliders and skiers. I believe it is hard for starters to ski here on these slopes but then that is the charm of Gulmarg," he said.
But Kiril Stoynov of Bulgaria wants less intervention (by the government) here. "Places like Gulmarg are very rare. It is better to keep it wild and natural. The more gondolas (cable cabins carrying people over slopes) means more people and more intervention in this wonderland," he said.
For local skier Zahoor Ahmad poor training and poor equipment were matters of concern. "We are here just to participate. But the tourism department needs to invest more to bring local talent on par with international standards," he said.