Encouraged by the increased footfall of high-end tourists in Kashmir investors are exploring every possible option including paragliding to cash this boom. SYED ASMA reports.
Paragliders enjoying their maiden flight at Harwan.
Karakoram Explorers, a company investing in adventure tourism, is all set to introduce paragliding in Kashmir. Started by Murad Butt and his university friends in 2005, Karakoram Explorers shifted its base to Manali as uncertainty in Kashmir kept high-end tourists away. But with record number of tourists visiting Kashmir in last three seasons, investors are back with new ideas to make money out of the booming tourism industry. And Murad and his team are no exceptions.
During recently concluded Kashmir Tourism Festival, Murad announced his arrival back home with paragliding sports in Harwan, a small sleepy village located on the picturesque Zabarwan hills in Srinagar.
Once the under-construction road leading to Harwan launch site is complete, Kashmir will officially have its first paragliding station.
Started with an investment of Rs 1 crore, the inaugural event was attended by Murad’s close friends, locals from Harwan village and a few tourism officials. A lucky few got to take their maiden flights too.
“It was thrilling, exciting and fabulous,” says Nazim Khan, a close friend of Butt, “It was my first flight and I would like to do more of it in future.” Khan unlike Butt is not a trained pilot so he took a tandem flight where he was accompanied by a professional pilot.
Murad purchased paragliding equipments worth Rs 40 lakh, keeping in view the safety of his clients. “The only thing I have prioritized is the safety of my passengers,” says Murad.
Besides, he has hired ten experienced pilots from other states. The least experienced pilot in Murad’s crew is paragliding for seven years, another pilot in his team has won silver and bronze medal at an international event.
Initially, Murad plans to start paragliding in Kashmir with 10 paragliders. Each glider has a shelf life between 300 and 400 hours.
“Major portion of my investment went into buying equipments and hiring experienced crew,” says Murad, “It is a dangerous sport and you cannot take risk. You can be lucky once not always.”
In Manali, Karakoram Explorer, is already a successful paragliding adventure sport company with no mishaps so far. “It is a more expanded business in Manali. We manage about 600 flights a day,” said Murad.
Murad started Karakoram Explorers, with Noor Majid Mumtaz and Sheikh Yasir, his university friends. They wanted make use of their business school degrees by making an earning for themselves from Kashmir’s tourism industry. In 2005, when Murad and his friends were in final semester of their studies, they decided to invest in adventure sports. “We decided to try our luck with rafting from Sonamarg as it doesn’t need huge investment,” recalls Murad.
In 2007, after earning money from their first venture, they decided to move their rafting business to Pahalgam. During that time they also introduced paragliding and Zorbing in Sonamarg. It was going smoothly till the summer of 2008. But during Amarnath land row, which virtually shut Kashmir for 6 months, Murad started losing money and decided to shift his business to Manali. Murad’s friends and business partners decided to stay back and they parted their ways happily.
Murad has spent most of his life outside Kashmir. His family, who was into handicrafts business shifted to Darjeeling during early 90’s when armed militancy started in Kashmir. Murad did his schooling form Darjeeling but came back to Kashmir to pursue his Master’s in business administration. “I think times have changed and Kashmir too has opened up for new investments. This time paragliding will work, I believe,” says Butt.
It took Murad five long years to finalize an ideal site for paragliding in Kashmir. “I must have visited and analysed almost 200 flight sites in Kashmir,” says Murad. “Kashmir could become paragliding hub if explored properly.”
Ideally paragliding requires about 2000 and 2500 feet height above the landing sites for safe flights. Murad chose Harwan, which is located on Zabarwan hills because it offers required wind speed and moderate wind temperature. However Butt feels that there could be many such sites in Kashmir where paragliding is possible because of the terrain and height.
Sonamarg was one of the places finalized for paragliding but the wind speed there was too high, 40-45 km/hour, which could be dangerous sometimes. The second place shortlisted by Murad and his team was a mountain top in Bhaderwah. “That was an ideal site for paragliding but it was rejected for being a remote place. Getting tourists there would have been a challenge,” feels Murad.
Finally, technology came to his rescue as Murad and his team located Harwan on Google Earth. After convincing the owner of the land Butt’s dream project was about to take-off.
Nazim Khan, a government employee, has been part of Murad’s Kashmir paragliding project since beginning. Khan is eager to invest in Murad’s dream project but wants to analyse its commercial viability only after it is formally inaugurated.
Paragliding in Kashmir will be formally started in September or October this year. It is said that government is planning to organize an international paragliding event once the road in Harwan is completed.
Tourism department is keeping a close eye on Murad’s project, if it turns out to be a success, the department will float formal tenders inviting interested companies. Till then Murad and his team is set to rule the skies.