Khyber’s Gulmarg Entry

Creating a Rs 120 crore world class luxury resort marks the beginning of Khyber Group’s entry into hospitality sector. Market and the government foresees a change that the sector will witness in the near future, reports R S Gull

Photo: Bilal Bahadur

Photo: Bilal Bahadur

As selected crowds started entering the Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa (KHRAS) Thursday for the inauguration, they were not ready for the shock. Assuming it to be ‘yet another hotel’, they did not know what goes into the making of a ‘small luxury hotel’ that cost Rs 120 crore for barely 85-keys.

“It is the best in the state,” Chief Minister Omar Abdullah stated in his long address while heaping praises over the promoter, his namesake, Umar Khursheed Tramboo. The only glitch Omar faced was his computer could not link-up with the resort’s wi-fi for a moment. “I was sceptical though that this project may not come up but full credit goes to him (Umer) that he did not come to me, not even once, with a problem.” That is exactly how ideal businesses work. Conceptualization took a year or so and the implementation was over in exactly four years. It will still take a year for making half of its capacity and the spa operational.

“It just was a dream and thank God, it is a reality now,” admits Umar. “It is a business proposition but the larger idea was to showcase our capacities, that yes we can do, and do it perfectly all right.” That is perhaps the line Omar said at his gripping, long inaugural speech. “We need not to wait for non-locals to invest. This project is actually a tribute to the entrepreneurship and the vision that we have.”

The project does speak volumes about the change that takes place once Khyber gets in. Every single thing that one sees in the seven-acre wooded, sloppy premises suggests that a long thinking has gone into it. “For a long time, we had no other job other than study the local culture, arts, crafts and economies,” said one of the senior members of the designers and architects. “Because we had standing instruction that it must have a Kashmir in it.”

Once the ideas were translated into reality, it looked like a blend of modernity and Kashmiri tradition. The resort logo is actually the Hangul, the red deer that is on a endangered species’ list. Mats are stuffed inside ceiling glasses in such a way that it looks antique. Clad in timber and stone, interiors are designed with traditional materials showcasing Kashmiri crafts; namdas of felted wool, silken carpets weaved specially from local looms, furnishings embellished with crewel embroidery, carved walnut panelling, teakwood floors and papier-m?ch? accents.

So keen are the promoters that the feel of Kashmir and that of Gulmarg should not go away from the guest that a Gujjar hutment facing its frontal fa?ade was encouraged not to move. When the guests occupying nearly half the space would move out to their balcony, they will not only watch the mesmerizing bowl and the fascinating Affrawat peaks, they will also get a feel of the actual environment that makes Gulmarg the ‘meadow of flowers’.

KHRAS has 80 rooms, four luxury cottages and one Presidential Cottage. Its premier rooms have a 386 sq ft space compared to 568 sq ft luxury balcony rooms (568 sq ft) having generous private balconies.

Each room features a separate dressing area, leading to a plush bathroom with a sunken tub where large picture windows offer brilliant views. In the luxury cottages, the single and double bedrooms have covered walkways leading to intimate, private hideaways. The Presidential Cottage is 4227 sq ft grand suite comprising of a large master bedroom, a separate swimming pool, two additional bedrooms each with a luxurious bathroom, a private heated plunge pool with a Jacuzzi, a living room, dining room, a full kitchen and a spacious private garden.

Located at 8825 ft, adjacent to Gandola cable car project, KHRAS looks a dwarfed structure from the bowl. It is barely visible and, designers say, it was deliberate. The structure had to be raised in such a way that it should look part of the overall environment and not an eyesore. This is something that Omar Abdullah admitted as well. It shares the ridge with one of Asia’s five best ski slopes.

But once in, it is a different environment. It is actually a four level structure with two basements managing most of the backend facilities. The two main levels accommodate most of the rooms and suites and other facilities. The resort has multiple restaurants – the Cloves, a terrace restaurant called The Nouf, the tea lounge, Chaikash Spa, banquet halls, conference enclosures, gymnasium, children belt fitted with the modern play-things, an indoor swimming pool, a theatre of 25 seats and Calabash, the cigar and Sheesha room. The sprawling resort includes the beautifully landscaped Paradeez gardens and an amphitheatre; retail outlets, ski shop and more than 10,000 sq ft of meeting, banquet and event space.

But the impression of conservative Khyber is there. It has a corner where one can have any of the best cigar brands of the world but there is no space for a bar. The project has a three-star accommodation for its 200-odd employees as a category, a dormitory for the drivers who ferry visitors to the place so that nobody dies of cold as happened early this year. It has its own affluent treatment plant and most of the vegetation within the premises will be irrigated using the used water. It has already started plantations in the entire premises to integrate it with the ecology of the place. The resort lacks a typical fence so that nature is not intervened.

“There are only 613 accredited small luxury hotels (SLH) across the world of which five are in India and we are the youngest member,” said an official from Interstate Hotels, a US based hotel management company that manages 77,000 rooms in 410 hotels across the continents. “I do not see a near comparison anywhere in India and the nearest one is in Bhutan because it is a different category altogether.”

Managing company says that since they exist at places which are somehow similar to Gulmarg, the resort will help them have a reasonable competition amongst these resorts. Winters sports are the best parameter that can make a difference. Alps is witnessing less snow now, powder snow is endemic to Gulmarg and the safest, long ski runs within affordable climatic conditions have still Affarwat as its address. Within hours after the formal launch, it has started making a difference. The entire capacity is sold out till January 5. Most of the guests are western skiers who swarm Gulmarg during winters.

Luxury Balcony Room in Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa Gulmarg

Luxury Balcony Room in Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa Gulmarg

Omar Abdullah was absolutely objective when he said it needs a lot of grit to fix targets, achieve them while understanding the risks involved. “You did one good thing. You did not create the hotel and asked others to put their name (he mentioned Taj Viventa),” Omar said. “You created it and you named it, despite knowing how fragile the sector is.”

Umer said the idea is essentially business. “But if we can invest and then make others earn for us, it does not make a good idea. We need to explore and see how the best business practices and systems are introduced back home without trying to alter the culture,” he said. The cement giant of Kashmir has already created a difference when it decided to convert its abandoned hotel into a hospital. Then everybody was chasing the maternity sector because it had money but the group decided to have a super-specialty centre. They brought a cath-lab and locked it for nearly a year to get an expert to manage it.

Even the Chief Minister believes there is a change round the corner. “With a better facility available at Gulmarg, we will be in a position to prolong the stay of the high end tourist,” Omar said. Till recently, the Gulmarg was a day-picnic destination with guests being driven for a Gandola ride and then encouraged to return to Srinagar. “It also will raise the bar as it is a benchmark now.” This has already boosted the confidence of the policy makers in the state in the local enterprises. They would least wait for outside investors to come and help Kashmir rebuilt itself as long as there are Umers around.

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