J&K pins hopes on experimental garden to boost tourist numbers

J&K pins hopes on experimental garden to boost tourist numbers

Strife-torn Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has a strategy that the state thinks will attract more tourists. And it has got to do with tulips.

In an experimental garden in Srinagar, the only one of its kind in India, some 1.2 million tulip bulbs have been planted in such a way that the flowers will bloom over a period of 50-60 days as opposed to the typical 25-30. The state government is hoping that this will help it advance the tourist calendar to March. The traditional peak season for tourists is May and June.

“Unlike last year, our tulips this year include early bloomers, mid bloomers, late bloomers and very late bloomers. The effort is to extend the bloom period to nearly two months, instead of just three to five weeks, and to attracttourists who would otherwise go to see Europe’s tulips," said G.S. Naqash, director, floriculture, with the J&K government in a telephone interview from Srinagar.

Kashmir has a lot of things going for it—mountains, lakes, the weather and the food, and tulips. The tulip garden opened last April, in a limited way, with 16 varieties of flowers that were in full bloom.

Encouraged by the response, 69 types of tulips have been sown for this season. These flowers will bloom in batches, starting in the second fortnight of March and through April, with a “peak bloom time" somewhere in-between.

Kashmir’s tulips are imported from Europe. The 300,000 bulbs planted last year were brought in from Holland, at $10-15 apiece (Rs390-590).

For this year’s crop, 930,000 bulbs in 53 new varieties have been imported, once again from Holland, while the rest have been harvested from last year’s crop. The flowers are known to be difficult to grow without ideal conditions.

“Last year was a success, though limited in scale. We had only 1ha (2.4 acres), that was in full bloom by mid-April. Thousands of local tourists, and some from outside, came to see them. So, we have also raised the land under cultivation from 1ha to 5ha this year. Kashmir’s climate is very similar to Holland’s, that’s why we are hopeful this year," said Abid Maqbool, assistant director of tourism with the J&K government.

Battling the after-effects of a bloody war between terrorists and the armed forces, the government is hoping the tulip garden would improve the number of visitors in the off-season period and give a boost to tourism—the main economic activity in the region.

State tourism officials said they cannot release numbers for tourist arrivals in Kashmir due to security considerations and “instructions from the state government," but said that arrivals have steadily increased since 2003, when India and Pakistan launched a round of peace talks to resolve their border dispute over Kashmir.

Unofficial estimates said around 200,000 tourists visited the state in 2003.

“I would like to go," said Sanjay Kaul, a resident of Jammu and a retired professor of chemistry.

“I still go to Srinagar once or twice a year to meet relatives who stayed back after we moved away during the Kashmir crisis. All gardens in the city have been improved by the government, and though I haven’t seen the tulips, I am curious about it."

Revenue from the sale of tickets, priced at Rs20 apiece, was Rs20 lakh last year. This year authorities project that ticket revenues could more than double.

The authorities are hoping that the tulip garden would be an added incentive for tourists looking for bargains in the early part of the season. Normally, winter and early spring are the “off" season for tourism in Kashmir, as minimum temperatures drop several degrees below freezing point during the four winter months from late October to February.

However, at the onset of spring, hotels are willing to let guests in at a 40-60% discount.

“Both government hotels as well as private hotel owners and houseboat owners give these off-season discounts that make Kashmir quite affordable," said Ashok Raina, tourist officer with the J&K government’s tourist department in New Delhi.