In the 17 years that Manzoor Ahmad has managed a hotel in Gulmarg, an enchanting town in Indian-administered Kashmir, he has never witnessed a season devoid of snow.
However, this year marks a stark departure from the norm: the once snow-clad mountains in the region now stand strangely brown and barren.
“This is unprecedented,” remarks Mr. Ahmad, aged 50, noting that potential tourists have halted their reservations at his hotel.
Annually, thousands of visitors flock to Kashmir in the winter months for the thrill of skiing and the beauty of sightseeing. Yet, the conspicuous absence of snowfall this year has brought the region’s tourism industry to a standstill.
While nearly 100,000 tourists explored Kashmir in the same month last year, officials reveal that this year’s number has plummeted by more than half.
Experts caution that this snowless winter will wreak havoc on the territory’s economy, given that the tourism sector contributes approximately 7% to Jammu and Kashmir’s GDP. Additionally, the inadequate snowfall will adversely affect farming and water supply by failing to sufficiently replenish groundwater reserves.
Environmentalists argue that climate change has taken a toll on the region, manifesting in extreme weather events and prolonged dry spells in both winter and summer. Jammu and Kashmir’s weather department recorded a staggering 79% rainfall deficit in December, coupled with a 100% deficit in January.
Further exacerbating the situation, the valley is grappling with warmer temperatures, with most stations in Kashmir documenting a winter rise in temperature ranging from 6-8 degrees Celsius (43-48 degrees Fahrenheit).
Hotel proprietors report a surge in reservation cancellations, with numerous visitors departing prematurely due to the inability to partake in skiing or sleigh rides.
Aqib Chaya, president of the Gulmarg Hoteliers Club, states, “Over 40% of hotel reservations have been cancelled, and new bookings are presently on hold.”
Raj Kumar, a first-time visitor from the western state of Maharashtra, expresses disappointment about his family’s Kashmir experience, saying, “We came here to witness snowfall and go on a cable car ride… but we were disheartened to find a snowless Gulmarg.”
The dwindling number of tourists is dealing a severe blow to local businesses, the majority of which heavily depend on winter tourism for survival.
Tariq Ahmad Lone, leader of the pony riders association in Gulmarg, boasting around 5000 members, laments their meager earnings over the past three months. Pony rides, a beloved means of traversing the region’s highlands, are a popular tourist attraction.
“Our livelihood is directly tied to snow. A season without snow will bring hardship to our families,” he asserts. Lone emphasizes that, given the decades-long involvement of most riders in this profession, finding an alternative source of livelihood seems nearly impossible for them.
Expressing a shared concern, Showkat Ahmad Rather, the leader of the Ski Association of Gulmarg, underscores the gravity of the situation.
After dedicating 27 years to working as a ski instructor, I firmly believe that making a transition to a different profession is an insurmountable challenge.
Beyond the impact on tourism, experts warn that the dearth of snowfall will also adversely affect the generation of hydroelectricity, fisheries, and farming.
In the neighboring territory of Ladakh, another favored tourist destination, a parallel scenario of a snowless winter unfolds.
“The agriculture here relies on glaciers, and with glaciers melting rapidly, the absence of snowfall in the peak winter season will pose a significant threat to spring water,” cautions environmentalist Sonam Wangchuk.
Describing it as one of the driest periods in the Himalayan region, Sonam Lotus, the director of the Meteorological Centre in Leh, states, “A drought-like situation cannot be ruled out,” a sentiment echoed by Irfan Rashid, an assistant professor at the University of Kashmir.
Traditionally, the region witnesses substantial snowfall during the peak winter, spanning a 40-day period from December 21 to January 29. This annual phenomenon blankets mountains and glaciers with snow, ensuring a consistent water supply throughout the year.
Locals pray to break the dry spell.
Before the 1990s, we witnessed significant snowfall, reaching up to 3 feet (0.9 meters), and it would persist until spring. However, we are now witnessing milder winters,” notes Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, an earth scientist.
Romshoo is among those attributing the changing climate to the challenges faced by the Kashmir valley.
Despite our minimal per capita greenhouse gas emissions in comparison to other states and our humble lifestyle, Kashmir is experiencing the harsh impact of global climate change. We are the ones suffering from this situation,” he laments.
A study conducted by Romshoo and his team suggests that the region, including Ladakh, may heat up to “catastrophic levels” by the end of the century, with a potential temperature increase ranging from 3.98 to 6.93 degrees Celsius.
Meanwhile, local residents hold onto hope for a miraculous turnaround this winter.
Although the weather department has not forecasted heavy snowfall until January 24, Mr. Ahmad expresses optimism that nature will be “kind” to them.