Gulmarg, a resort town nestled in the Himalayan mountains of Indian-administered Kashmir, is normally blanketed in fresh powder this time of year, packed with skiers and snowboarders eager to take advantage of the January snowfall. But an unusually dry winter has left the slopes bare, disappointing both travellers and local tourism operators who rely on the annual influx of ski enthusiasts.
The famed Gulmarg Ski Resort resides about 50 kilometres from Srinagar and just 20 kilometres from the contentious Line of Actual Control bordering Pakistan. Towering at over 4,300 feet of vertical terrain, Gulmarg also boasts the world’s second-highest gondola that ascends nearly 13,000 feet, offering unparalleled views of the snow-capped Pir Panjal Range below.
Despite the lack of snow, one anonymous staff member claims resort hotels have still seen high occupancy rates in recent weeks as tourists flock to take in the mountain scenery - though without enough powder, the slopes remain closed.
The dry weather marks a stark contrast from most Januaries according to long-time locals like Asif Ahmad Bhat, age 23, who have become accustomed to abundant snowfall this time of year from decades working in the tourism industry in Gulmarg during peak ski season.
But with bare mountainsides, local businesses and ski instructors that cater to the yearly winter travel boom are unable to open and take on clients, leaving them without their primary source of income.
Bhat grimly acknowledges that the unseasonably warm temperatures have never persisted this long in his memory, sparking concerns over whether climate change is beginning to take a toll on the fragile Himalayan environment - and the winter tourism economy connected to it.
The Gulmarg tourism board convened an emergency meeting last week to discuss the unanticipated shortfall in snow and lack of ski tourists. Potential contingency plans included trucking in machine-made snow to blanket beginner slopes or offering discounts on gondola tickets. Without the normal January windfall, many local establishments fear going bankrupt.
Experts speculate whether shifting weather patterns could make snow droughts an annual occurrence, which could have devastating economic impacts across the snow sports industry as winter destinations like Gulmarg fail to attract recreational skiers.