The white hills of Gulmarg rock back to glory

After many years, this north Kashmir ski resort that also offers snow boarding and ice skating reverberated with hundreds of tourists.

Gulmarg: The party started in the last days of 2011 and continues in the new year with tourists flocking to the snows of Gulmarg for fun and games as people in the volatile valley celebrate the return of good times.

The resort town, about 60 km from Srinagar, is buzzing as visitors crowd its streets and shops and hotels do brisk business.

After many years, this north Kashmir ski resort that also offers snow boarding and ice skating reverberated with hundreds of tourists and locals welcoming 2012 with fireworks, music and mirth.

The two dozen-odd hotels, with 1,200 beds, as well as the state tourism department huts were booked to capacity this New Year. And though some visitors left after the festive weekend, many are still streaming in, said a tourism department official.

With school holidays still on, hordes of tourists from the national capital and other cities are still making the winding way up to Gulmarg to enjoy the freezing temperatures and picturesque locales.

Learning how to ski, said one father, who has brought his two children to Gulmarg, was just one excuse to get far from the madding crowds of the city.

And local businesspersons, who have borne the brunt of successive years of strife when tourists stayed away, just can`t stop smiling.

"All the hotels at the resort and most of the tourism department huts had been booked by the tourists and locals this year.

"Most of the lodgers here had come to celebrate the New Year and we run full occupancy for almost three days. Today our occupancy has come down to 50 percent and still, given the figures of last many years, this season has been a record," said Tahir Ahmad, manager of the Hilltop Hotel.

For the first time since the armed violence started here in the early 1990s, the state tourism department did not intervene to sponsor any free lunches for those who went to celebrate the New Year at Gulmarg.

"We did not organise any special event in Gulmarg this year because the tourism has found its own momentum there and we decided to allow things to go about at their own pace without any sponsorship. After all, tourism is a self-supporting industry as it has been in Kashmir for centuries," said an official of the state tourism department.

Scores of youths danced on the snow till early morning welcoming the New Year.

"We had come here from Delhi for the first time this year to welcome 2012. We have been to many places in Europe for the same celebrations, but our Gulmarg visit will always stand out because of the amazing beauty of the place," said Prakash Kumar, 27, who belongs to Greater Noida.

A youth from north Kashmir`s Baramulla town, Adil, 23, had accompanied his guests from Delhi to Gulmarg for the celebrations.

"My friends from Delhi had requested that they would like to spend New Year`s Eve at Gulmarg and I came with them. We enjoyed every moment spent at the resort, especially the fireworks at Gulmarg club and the dance," Adil said.

Although the Valley has so far received scant snowfall this season, Gulmarg had enough snow on the slopes and the meadows to make the white winter memorable.

The weather department has held out more hope, forecasting heavy snow in the next few days.

The last year ended with Jammu and Kashmir receiving nearly 600,000 tourists, not including pilgrims for Vaishno Devi and Amarnath, signalling the return of peace. The new year has begun well and the earnest hope is that it continues the same way.