A Luxurious Spread

  • Saqib Malik
  • Publish Date: Mar 28 2016 11:14PM
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  • Updated Date: Apr 5 2016 4:13PM
A Luxurious Spread

Globally reputed brands are setting up hotels across Kashmir. But who will they actually benefit?



Kashmir's hospitality industry is in for a boom. A series of posh hotels are setting up shop in Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonamarg and Srinagar in the next few years. Better still, most of them are joint ventures with local hoteliers.

In 2015, the Mushtaq Group of Hotels and the Ahad Group struck deals, worth Rs 1,000 crore each, with Carlson Rezidor and the ITC, respectively, to open half a dozen new five-star hotels, and two refurbished properties as well. Carlson Rezidor will “manage and market” seven properties of the Mushtaq Group – with 817 rooms in all – under the Radisson Blu, Radisson and Country Inns & Suites by Carlson brands, across Jammu and Kashmir, making it the largest international hotel operator in the state. The first of these hotels is expected to open by late 2016 in Srinagar.

"The deal will introduce to Kashmir its first international hotel group which will greatly help clear negative perceptions about the valley and put our state on the global tourism map as the Carlson has presence almost everywhere in the world,” says Chaya (Who is he? Full name?) “And there's a dire need to remove negative perceptions being created about Kashmir.”

Most other hoteliers shared the sentiment that the new ventures will help put Kashmir on the global map of “branded hospitality”.

“Big hotel brands do not acquire properties, they sell their names to us,” says Asif Burza, Director, Ahad Group of Hotels & Resorts. “Rebranding does not mean the existing owner has to walk away; rather, we hire these luxury brand names.” For a start, the Ahad Group's Heevan Resorts in Srinagar, and Hotel Pine & Peaks in Pahalgam will be promoted as ITC Welcome Group destination hotels.

“Apart from the already signed deals, we are negotiating with the ITC to rebrand our other existing properties in Gulmarg and Pahalgam. A good brand will help us retain a loyal clientele that is keen about quality and service,” says Burza.

Another hospitality heavyweight which has just made its debut in the valley is Hyatt Hotels. The global luxury hotel chain is partnering Legend Resorts, promoted by Cottage Industries Exposition, to set up a property “in the form of a District Centre, which will be spread over 34 kanals of land at Bonigam, Shalimar”, an executive working on the project tells Kashmir Ink. Hyatt will be “a consultative partner” for this project, the executive, who requested anonymity because he is not authorised to speak on the project, adds.

So, what exactly will this 'District Centre' be like? Apart from the hotel, it is envisaged to have a food court and a mega shopping complex. “The idea is to provide a unique experience of hospitality and entertainment in Kashmir,” the executive says. Work on the 'District Centre' is going on at a war-footing, and the Hyatt Group's engineers and architects have visited the site “to provide value addition to the construction of the upcoming hotel”.

The Ahad Group is also fast at work, making full use of the ITC's services and expertise. Burza says he has already sent a group of employees to Delhi to be trained by ITC experts. “The bulk of our staff will consist of Kashmiris, but we want to ensure that the human resource operations of the rebranded properties are as per ITC's standards,” he adds.

A crucial “handshake” in the hospitality sector in 2015 was that of the ITC with the iconic Nedou's Hotel on MA Road, Srinagar. The deal, claims the owner Aqil Nedou, will return the hotel, established nearly 130 years ago, to its old glory. “Soil testing” at the site has already begun. The 140-room hotel “will be a fusion of old-world charm and modern luxurious hospitality. It'll be a colonial property packaged in a modern international way,” Nedou adds. “We will make 115 rooms operational in the first phase and make expansions later.”

So what will these tie-ups bring to Kashmir's hotels, other than luxury branding? Spas, saloons and jacuzzis as well as dedicated conference and banquet halls to attract high-end customers, for starters. “Our construction permission is valid for three years and we are hoping to complete as much work as possible during this time. Thankfully, the weather has allowed us to carry on with the work at the site even through the winter,” says a site official at CIE's property in Shalimar.

The CIE project, the brainchild of the brothers Rashid and Ashraf Mir, is selling itself as a “turning point in the history of Kashmir's five-star hotel industry”.

But while they look to bring in international standards and modern amenities, most of these hoteliers are determined to retain the Kashmiri aesthetic of their properties. Burza explains why: “a guest staying in a luxury hotel is obviously well travelled. If the guest demands Kashmiri food, we have to ensure that it's authentic Wazwan. So, food and beverages at ITC Welcome hotels is going to be a major focus area. At ITC Nedou's, the “Kashmiri touch” will translate into a “Moonlight Garden, similar to the Mughal Gardens”.

Although it's clearly good for the state's tourism economy, the mushrooming of 5-star hotels has a catch. “Just imagine a 5-star hotel in Shalimar offering a tariff of Rs 9,000. This would mean that the hotels located in heart of the city would further reduce prices, leading to a tariff war,” Nedou explains. “All hotels in the luxury segment will cater to the same clientele, giving way to intense competition.”


Spoiler Alert

While the starred-hotel segment is witnessing a boom, it isn't as rosy for budget hotels. They are finding it increasingly difficult to attract tourists, especially during winter. Bashir Ahmad Bhat, who owns a budget hotel in Khanyar, Srinagar, explains the problem thus: “There's over-supply in budget hotels with almost 60,000 rooms available. The occupancy at any given point of the year, especially during off-season, is poor. I have some 15 kanals of land in Shalimar and I often think about building a hotel there but always hold back. I don’t think there is enough demand to construct a new hotel.”

Not just owners, the new luxury properties won't do much good to a vast majority of Kashmiri hotel workers either. This, according to Bhat, who is also the general secretary of the Kashmir Hotels and Restaurants Federation, is for the simple reason that few Kashmiris are employed with 5-star hotels. Nedou disputes this claim, however. He claims that his agreement with the ITC mandates that the bulk of the staff in the new hotel would consist of Kashmiris.

If there's one thing that could throw a spanner in the plans of the new posh projects, it's bureaucratic red-tape. Many hoteliers complain that undue delay in approving Pahalgam and Gulmarg Master Plans is holding up construction of new hotels at these tourist hotspots. The J&K High Court's order allowing only “limited” refurbishing of hotels on Boulevard Road, Srinagar, according to Bhat, is another bottleneck in the growth of the hotel industry.

How such bottlenecks are negotiated could well determine the fate of Kashmir's hospitality industry.