His father set up Pahalgam’s first hotel, Hotel Heevan which is still operational. Asif Iqbal Burza, president of Pahalgam Hotel and Restaurant Owners Association (PHROA) and managing director of Ahad Hotels and Resorts which owns the Fortune Resort Heevan, Srinagar and WelcomHotel Pine and Peak Pahalgam – Member ITC’s Hotel Group, speaks exclusively to Steena Joy about hospitality in the Valley of Shepherds and reiterates that Kashmir is as safe a destination as any in India
How has the hospitality scene changed in Pahalgam over the years?
The hospitality scene has changed here. Earlier people used to only come for the landscapes, but now they want to come and experience our way of life, culture and cuisine. Kashmir is predominantly know for its beautiful landscape. But now it is much more about the handicrafts and local foods too, so it can be said the travel and tourism in Kashmir has become more experiential now. And, the expectations have risen. World over the expectations are high with respect to the infrastructure provided there and hence the visitors expect similar infrastructure to be provided by us here in Kashmir. Earlier, when the visitors used to come here, their exposure was limited. But, now they have so many other options to select from. So we have to provide them with the best infrastructure and give them the local experience for which they want to travel to Kashmir.
As the president of the Pahalgam Hotel & Restaurant Owners Association (PHROA) what do you think it can do to promote the industry here?
My first initiative was to spread the message about preserving the ecology and environment of Pehalgam, because we as hoteliers are here because of the destination and not the other way around. For this we conducted a massive plantation drive which is done every year now. We also spread awareness of using eco-friendly and biodegradable products to be used by the member hoteliers and also want to reduce and eliminate use of any kind of plastic especially in a fragile eco zone like Pahalgam.
Furthermore, we want to include what locals have to offer. So we have our handicraft makers here, and we are also promoting village tourism for which we encourage the guests to take the tours. This encourages the locals as well as gives them a feel of being stakeholders in our tourism.
How do you regulate the local ponywalas, etc?
We have till date not received any complaint from the ponywalas in Pahalgam. There is also a ponywalas association here which trains and regulates them.
What is the government’s role in promoting Kashmir as a safe destination?
Honestly, Kashmir has been and will be the safest place for tourism. Despite all the situation here, there has not been any instance where the tourist’s safety is breached into. There is a perception being created that it is unsafe here, but there are many tourists who come here and become our ambassadors to tell others that it is not how it is perceived to be. That is how tourism has survived all these years here.
What about the room inventory coming into Pahalgam with many brands eyeing the market?
In Pahalgam, branded accommodation is very limited. This is the only hotel that is being managed by a branded hospitality chain. But, Pahalgam as a whole has 12,000 rooms to offer in all categories and it is the second biggest destination in Kashmir after Srinagar. Room inventory is not an issue here but the quality of accommodation is. The government should come up with a policy and give some incentives to hoteliers and encourage them to invest and upgrade the existing infrastructure. Upgradation is also required to make the hotels more ecofriendly.
Do you have a well placed waste management system in Pahalgam?
Yes, Pahalgam has a very well managed fully functional common STP. Though most of our hotels have their own STPs, we are still connected with the main STP. That is one of the great initiatives of the government. Also, it’s not just hotels, but many of the nearby villages are also connected to this STP. So Pahalgam as a destination is way ahead as compared to many other destinations in terms of waste management.
What about connectivity issues?
Pahalgam is barely 1.5 hr drive from the existing airport in Srinagar. But an additional airport under the government’s UDAN scheme will definitely encourage more tourism here.
Your expansion plans?
We are coming with a hotel in Sonmarg and we are also looking at Jammu. Kashmir has so much to offer and each destination here is a picture postcard in itself. I would just request the prospective tourists here that they should not go by the existing negative perception but should speak to the people who have already visited the destination and then make a decision.