The year 2020 and thereafter was overtaken by the Covid pandemic and the hardest hit was the tourism industry, not only in India, but travel across the world came to a grinding halt. The new normal in 2021 brought massive changes and altered the tourism landscape, everyone related to the industry had to shift gears and think anew. Fortunately, domestic travel grew, as people resumed travel and looked for safer options, shorter driving holidays and discovering new places. Syed Junaid Altaf, Managing Director, Empyrean Skyview Projects Private Ltd, promoters of Skyview by Empyrean, a new lifestyle and adventure destination spoke to the Financial Express Online about how they have been ahead of the curve as they had just launched their mountain tourism project at Sanget Valley in Patnitop to attract new age travellers while setting a benchmark for responsible tourism and green mobility. Excerpts:
What is green mobility? How did Skyview by Empyrean get into this space?
Green mobility is about eco-friendly and sustainable transportation. It is about promoting the concept of moving people and not vehicles and encourages modes of transportation that are not dependent on fossil fuel for operation. Green mobility is also about reducing the environmental footprint of the current mobility system i.e. GHG emissions, noise, and air pollution. Empyrean Skyview Projects Pvt Ltd. (ESPPL) came by the opportunity to build an international class gondola [Skyview Gondola] in Patnitop as a hallmark project under PPP model with Patnitop Development Authority. We started building in 2017 and the project was completed in a record time of 2 years and 4 months at an initial investment of Rs 175 crores.
This flagship project is the largest Indo-French collaboration in mountain infrastructure development, and also the biggest tourism project in UT J&K. The Skyview Gondola was our first step towards setting a benchmark for responsible tourism and green mobility as it eliminated a 30-45 minutes road journey to Patnitop from the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Tunnel (formerly the Chenani-Nashri Tunnel) by way of a breathtaking and picturesque gondola ride of over 2.8kms of inclined destination to just 10-12 minutes. In fact, not a single tree was felled whilst constructing the project, along the 2.8kms inclined distance on the gondola line. The gondola is actually ESPPL’s commitment to green mobility. The infrastructure, including the 8 towers, ropes, and spacious 18 cabins, all has been imported from France through technology partner POMA – the world’s leading brand in gondola transportation.
You say you are pioneers in mountain adventure tourism, what are your future plans?
Yes, in fact, with Skyview by Empyrean at Sanget Valley-Patnitop, ESPPL has set a benchmark in developing lifestyle and adventure destinations with world-class infrastructure adhering to global standards of safety and service, offering a plethora of thrilling and exciting experiences, all available in one destination. We see an unprecedented opportunity in terms of footfalls at Skyview, due to its proximity to the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine. However, that is not the only thing that we are planning to build the destination on. Over the next 3 years we are looking at close to 700,000 passengers on the gondola itself. We are also working on building a holistic hospitality brand with differentiated offerings, global partnerships and a unique experience for every customer.
In addition to luxury accommodation on Skyview World, we plan to add more activities and expand our footprint in other destinations. In addition, by creating such destinations, we, along with our partners, hope to raise the bar, generate employment and ensure that the region, where the project is located, also benefits from overall economic development. As a matter of fact, we have also signed up for the Dehradun-Mussoorie gondola project, along similar lines. This should be operational in the next couple of years.
You have combined lifestyle and adventure tourism at Sanget valley Patnitop, what are the various activities and infrastructure that you have introduced here which are unique?
Skyview by Empyrean is indeed a unique lifestyle and adventure destination offering a range of best-in-class experiences in one integrated destination. We have many firsts to our credit — India’s highest gondola in terms of ground clearance, Asia’s first zig zag zipline, tubing sledge and magic carpet. Our outdoor location in the Himalayas, just a two-hour drive from Jammu, is perfect for holidays/short breaks for families, small groups or even solo travellers who are driving down from Jammu, Katra or Punjab – Chandigarh, Amritsar or Pathankot or those taking short distance flights and trains from Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat (Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara) and Kolkata. It is also ideal for those travellers looking for serenity, unsurpassed hospitality, differentiated luxury, eclectic gastronomy, holistic living, culture, adventure sports and folk art against a backdrop of pristine and undiscovered surroundings. Visitors can spend an entire day here or up to 2-3 days filled with fun activities, bespoke experiences, including adventure activities on Skyview World along with a ride on the gondola, to thrilling zig zag zip-lining, tubing sledge, as well as Skyview World activities like trekking, birding, mountain biking sightseeing and interaction with local villagers.
Also on offer are culinary delights at several restaurants – the multi cuisine Banana Leaf, Street Food Carts, Bar-be-que in the outdoors as well as the alfresco Skyview Café for a range of snacks and beverages. One can have an immersive experience of local art and culture and also shop for the finest honey, handicraft items, condiments, spices and dry fruits from J&K at the expanded offering at the Hands of Gold retail outlet. We believe that Skyview by Empyrean has transformed Patnitop into a new tourist hill station with its state-of-art gondola that connects Sanget valley, an idyllic hamlet where Skyview World is situated to welcome visitors, to Skyview Terrace in Patnitop, by way of a picturesque gondola ride of over 2.8 kms of inclined destination in just 10-12 minutes. Today, we are all geared to attract the new age traveller. Through our vertical Skyview Adventure Valley, we have introduced very attractive packages available at different price points which include accommodation, camping, ride on the gondola and a choice of adventure activities. We offer a range of dining options, organise large scale events such as a winter carnival, Music concerts and soon we shall also be offering luxury accommodation at Skyview World.
For your gondola you partnered with POMA. Any specific reason for that?
The wonderful history of ropeways began with POMA in 1936 in the Alps, on the snow-capped peaks of Alpe-d’Huez (France) when Jean Pomagalski, an engineer with a life-long love of the mountains, installed the very first surface lift there. This invention paved the way for the rapid development of recreational skiing in the ski resorts of Europe and the United States, where the surface lift is still called “poma-lift”. The company POMA, then called POMAGALSKI, was officially founded in 1946.Since then, POMA has not stopped innovating and contributing its expertise to ropeway transport. From the mountains to the city, new mobility challenges are driving POMA to invent economically reasonable transport solutions, respectful of people and their environment. There are more than 8,000 POMA installations around the globe, used as urban transport means, tourist attractions or for transporting industrial materials. From mountain peaks to major cities, the Group’s expertise and its ropeway transport systems are recognised worldwide.
What about safety standards, how do you ensure that they are adhered to?
Ever since we opened in October 2019, we have ensured that safety is a priority and that all activities adhere to and are operated under international safety standards. The entire gondola adheres to CEN (European) standard certification making it the safest gondola in the world. Additionally, we have 200 daily tests for the gondola. Rescue operation drills are done every month. COVID-19 PROTOCOL: During the first lockdown due to the pandemic, Skyview by Empyrean was comprehensively audited for Covid preparedness by SGS – world’s leading inspection, verification, testing and certification company. A Covid-ready compliance certificate of safety has been issued by them just before the reopening making Skyview by Empyrean a safe destination for all visitors. All associates follow stringent SOP’s, staff vaccinations and RTPCR tests for them continue, masks are being worn by everyone on the property, social distancing maintained and sanitisers are available at every step, thermal screening, sanitization routines and digital menus have been in place. We are also following the WTTC Safe Travels protocols for adventure travel.
Skyview by Empyrean advocates Sustainable Tourism, what are the steps that you have taken to promote this?
Globally, gondola models are based on sustainability. However, the gondola that you see in Patnitop is not only a reflection of sustainable tourism but it is our dedication to being responsible in tourism. In fact, responsible & sustainable tourism has the larger theme and the gondola built in Patnitop is the first gondola in Asia without any trees being cut. Besides the gondola itself, everything we have done at Skyview by Empyrean Sanget valley-Patnitop, right from responsible sourcing of materials to incorporating local traditions and styles in construction to utilizing local craftsmen, to landscaping with native flora and fauna to architectural design promoting rainwater harvesting for recycle and reuse thereby reducing the load on natural resources and groundwater to the use of biodegradable cutlery and digitized menus; sustainability has been at the heart of the project. It is truly a combination of man, infrastructure, perseverance with its underlying commitment to responsible tourism.
Reiterating our commitment to sustainable and responsible tourism, we are Grand Patron of Responsible Tourism Society of India (RTSOI)as well as a member of “Leave no trace” – a center for Outdoor Ethics that protects the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly. ESPPL is also deeply committed to the development of tourism and especially mountain tourism, and towards this it is a signatory to Future of Tourism, as well as a member/affiliate of the following tourism associations and bodies: ATOAI, TAAI, ADTOI, IATO and J&K Tourism. Additionally, it is an Associate Member of World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), a Signatory Member of World Travel Mart (WTM), and of the Indo French Chamber of Commerce and Industry (IFCCI).
For ESPPL, it has become a mission to promote sustainable tourism through green urban mobility by creating and developing infrastructure to a new and undiscovered destination called Sanget valley and to promote the exquisite Skyview World, uncrowded attractions nearby whilst continuing to promote and empower the forgotten hill-station, Patnitop.
What can modern tourism developers and travellers do to contribute to the ecosystem?
Plan ahead and prepare.
Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
Dispose of waste properly.
Leave what you find.
Minimise campfire impacts.
Be considerate of other visitors.
What are the big challenges that are being faced by the tourism sector in UT J&K? In 2019 with the political events that occurred, tourism was jolted to a very large extent and for a project like ours — we were meant to inaugurate it at almost the same time — there was a sustained effect of that in the first few months. Since March 2020, Covid-19 further dented tourism. Besides, the infrastructure that supports tourism is still evolving in the UT. There are challenges, but we as entrepreneurs have signed up for it being in the tourism industry in Jammu & Kashmir. I hope that there is policy support to the tourism industry at the administration level in times to come. I look at these challenges more like opportunities.
Patnitop is a major tourist attraction, however it doesn’t still have a 5 star hotel, do you see this as a challenge? If so, how do you plan to address it?
No, I don’t see the lack of a 5-star property as a challenge, in fact, Patnitop has been a fairly popular hill station for the last few decades and the setting up of the Skyview by Empyrean project here offers an unprecedented opportunity to develop into a global destination. At present there are almost 800 beds catering to various segments, which we, as partners, are already promoting to our customer base, through our Skyview Partner Experiences vertical. At the same time, we too are looking to expand our own product and we are building luxury cottages. The idea for us is to have an integrated mountain resort offering true mobility to our customers, including food and beverage luxury accommodation, adventure on and off property.
We at ESPPL are in the process of filling the gap of luxury accommodation by building cottages at our own Skyview World to cater to that clientele which is looking for international standard quality. This will be launched by the end of the year, and we will add more rooms in the coming year. We believe that we should act like catalysts to Patnitop that is growing and has multi-faceted opportunities for tourism. I also believe that with our coming in and setting up shop at Patnitop a lot of global hotel chains will get attracted to the destination and I truly believe that upgradation and further investment is something that is forthcoming.
How has the global pandemic impacted the business? And how are you proposing to operate in the new situation where It is being said that one will have to live with this virus? How are you proposing to ensure health and safety for both staff and visitors?
If the 1920’s changed how the world travelled with the introduction of commercial aviation, the year 2020 was overtaken by the Covid pandemic and travel across the world came to a grinding halt. Everyone related to the industry had to shift gears and think anew. Fortunately for us, we at ESPPL were ahead of the curve as we had just launched Skyview by Empyrean at Sanget valley – Patnitop, a new mountain tourism and lifestyle destination for new age travellers looking for serenity, unsurpassed hospitality, differentiated luxury, eclectic gastronomy, holistic living, culture, adventure sports and folk art against pristine and undiscovered surroundings. We believe that tourism will be led by developing new destinations offering bespoke experiences, much like those we offer for solo travellers or groups, curated specially by our local experts.
Already, travel and tourism within India is gaining momentum and we are confident that Skyview by Empyrean will continue to offer a destination for short breaks that is safe for travellers, is environmentally conscious and responsible, and one that gives back to the community – all values that hold multi-fold importance in society today.
We have also introduced a variety of packages with our partner hotels at Patnitop which include a ride on the gondola and a range of adventure activities at Skyview World in Sanget valley. The product is designed to attract all visitors — ranging from budget to high-end. On offer are a number of unique experiences such as a zig zig zip line in collaboration with Firefox, tubing sledge, magic carpet, on Skyview World. And off Skyview World activities include guided mountain biking, hiking, camping, birding and much more. These are low contact activities which allow for physical distancing. It is expected that this type of sustainable, adventure tourism will see growth in the post-COVID landscape.