With normalcy, five-star luxury returns to Kashmir

Gulmarg, June 19 (IANS) Like a phoenix risen from the ashes, Kashmir has once again got a five-star luxury resort two decades after the only such property in the Valley closed down due to militancy-related issues. It's a sign of increasing normalcy in a state that has seen a bruising insurgency that only recently has shown signs of abating.

With the beginning of the separatist violence, the state's only 5-star heritage hotel, the Oberoi Hotel, functioning in the palace of the erstwhile Dogra maharajas in Srinagar was closed in early 1990s. Other hotels in Srinagar were also either closed or converted into makeshift barracks of the security forces.

Now, two high-end properties - the Taj and the Lalit - have reopened in Srinagar but they are not of the five-star variety.

Spread over seven acres of land amid majestic pine trees over a terraced mountain slope in this ski-lovers' paradise, 50 km from summer capital Srinagar, the best part about the 85-room Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa is that 70 percent of its staff are locals. Little wonder that its opening season occupancy is a whopping 95 percent.

"It is a challenge to get quality staff, make them perform and retain them because my competitors at the moment are good resorts both in the country and outside," Alex Koshy, the resort's general manager, told IANS.

He said he is delighted at the way things are shaping up at the resort. "For a hotel, reaching 95 percent occupancy in its first season is an achievement. This standard has to be maintained," Koshy added.

The resort, which has some 180 staffers including managers, chefs, waiters, bell boys and security, is owned by Umar Tramboo, who is also its CEO. The Tramboos are a prominent business family of the Valley.

"I have been very particular that the majority of the staff must be from Jammu and Kashmir. You cannot claim Kashmiri hospitality unless the hosts are Kashmiris. Seventy percent of our staff is from the state," Koshy said.

Asked whether the locals, with little exposure to international standards, are performing well, he said: "They have the drive and it is not true that they do not have the right exposure. After the Khyber opened, many trained and talented locals are coming back. My chief engineer is a local who came back from the Middle East, my front office manager came back from Delhi, my HRD manager came back from Bangalore, they are both locals."

Koshy said the local Wazwan cuisine is in big demand at the resort. "We mostly serve the Wazwan to our guests in copper plates known as the 'tramis' with an option of eating in Kashmiri style sitting on the ground or at a table."

"I agree that Wazwan made outside the Valley would definitely not taste the same. You see water and Kashmiri spices make a lot of difference to the taste of this traditional cuisine", executive chef Vivek Kapoor said.

Khyber has a mini movie theatre - the Den - that accommodates 15 viewers. The Igloo is an ideal place for children to hangout and to play table tennis and board games, among others. Chaikash, the tea lounge, offers breathtaking views of the Affarwat Peaks and of Gulmarg. Guests are spoilt for choice, what 25 varieties of tea are on offer.

The resort's hookah and cigar lounge, the Calabash has some of the World best cigars and flavoured hookahs. The Nouf, one flight up from the lobby is a covered deck with fascinating views in all directions.

"If you are a stargazer by night or want to catch the sun's rays by the day, just doze or party with family and friends Nouf is the place you are looking for," said Waseem Raja, the front office manager. Raja was previously with Marriott International.

"Apart from this, we will have a Presidential Suite with four bedrooms," Raja added.

The resort has high-end state-of-the-art facilities while the basic architecture and layout is totally authentic.

The resort is in the final stages of starting its Spa, which has a gym and separate swimming pools for children and adults. "The Spa would also have a steam sauna, a saloon and a massage centre to be run by a professional company," Raja said.

He said he was sure the Khyber would never be short of guests who have the spending power to stay here.

"Gulmarg has always been a high-end destination as a ski resort which is a very costly sport. We have the world's highest golf course here which has never been short of golfers from all over the world. The Khyber is in fact Kashmir's hospitality history-in-the-making and I am proud to be part of it", Raja said.

(Sheikh Qayoom can be contacted at sheikh.abdul@ians.in)

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