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Tourism

Published on: Dec. 23, 2022, 10:06 p.m.
Skyview and the art of picturesque gondola rides
  • Skyview by Empyrean puts Patnitop on India’s adventure destinations map

By Suman Tarafdar

As ropeways go, the views on the Sanget-Patnitop Gondola can hardly be bettered, whether it is summer views of fields and forests or the white wonderlands of winter. Now, Skyview by Empyrean Patnitop has been certified as India’s first Sustainable Tourism Destination and a Champion by the Responsible Tourism Society of India (RTSoI).

Spectacular as a ride on it is, it’s no longer just about the gondola ride. With the recent expansion in its offerings, Skyview is the first of its kind holistic lifestyle and leisure destination in the Himalayas, with the highest ropeway, soft adventure activities and dining experiences. The mesmerising views are a bonus.

Skyview’s story is just as fascinating. Once the Chenani-Nashri tunnel (which cuts travel time between Jammu and Srinagar) opened, Patnitop was no longer en route. Its fall from crucial stop en route meant a decline for the local economy, and one of the steps taken was to up the tourism offerings. “In 2014, when our parent company FIL was looking to diversify into mountain adventure tourism, we came upon an opportunity being offered by Patnitop Development Authority for a Public-Private-Partnership in the development of a ropeway,” says Syed Junaid Altaf, managing director, Empyrean Skyview Projects.

“For Empyrean Skyview Projects Pvt. Ltd (ESPPL), a subsidiary of FIL, this was an ideal project that involved the development of mountain adventure tourism by merging infrastructure and tourism to deliver a holistic customer experience with a commitment to green or sustainable mobility.”

Thus, in 2019, Skyview by Empyrean Patnitop became the flagship project of ESPPL. However, the day it opened, the state of Jammu & Kashmir saw a change in its administrative status and threw the region into uncertainty. Just months after Covid followed, causing further disruption. Essentially, the project is looking to have its ‘normal’ this financial year!

Altaf is upbeat about the potential of the project. “We believe that this unique project has transformed Patnitop into a new tourist hill station, with its state-of-art gondola that connects Sanget valley, an idyllic hamlet and the gateway to Patnitop, by way of a picturesque gondola ride of over 2.8 km of inclined destination in just 10-12 minutes.”

  • Altaf: This project has transformed Patnitop into a new hill station

    Altaf: This project has transformed Patnitop into a new hill station

The Sanget-Patnitop project was developed at an initial cost of about R175 crore, which included construction and completion of the ropeway and initial development of lifestyle destination infrastructure. It is the largest Indo-French collaboration in mountain infrastructure development, the biggest tourism project in Jammu & Kashmir and a hallmark project under PPP model with Patnitop Development Authority. Construction started in 2017 and the project was completed in 2 years and 4 months, says Altaf. 

The business focus of ESPPL is towards integrated ropeway mobility, mountain tourism and public infrastructure, he adds. “We expect to break even within 7-8 years of full-time operations in a non-Covid period.”

The ropeway sector is not new to India, though for a country of its size, projects are comparatively few. Ropeways in Rajgir and Darjeeling were started in the 1960s, though a spurt in the sector is fairly recent. The federal government is also looking at ropeways as a transport mode in cities, with the country’s first ‘urban’ ropeway project slated to open in Varanasi in 2023, though Guwahati opened one last year. About 150 ropeway projects are said to be in the pipeline.

Safety first

Ropeways in India haven’t had the best reputation for safety and Altaf has worked hard to ensure that the lack of safety is not a concern at Patnitop. The primary USP of the project is adoption of international safety standards for Skyview Gondola, says Altaf. Our partnership with POMA, global leader in ropeways, led to imbibing of global safety standards right from selection of technology, material, the manufacturing process and, consequently, the operationalisation and execution of the same.

Given the challenging nature of the terrain, challenges abound for most such projects, and this one was no exception. “The biggest technical challenge for a ropeway project in India is the lack of supporting infrastructure industry in the erection of the ropeway asset in India – this includes erection specialists both mechanical and electrical, large winches, helicrane for speedy erection of the towers, amongst others.”

  • Skyview at dusk

The destination, which offers many experiences, is designed to appeal to a large base of customers. “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 travelers, who are driving down from Jammu, Katra or Punjab – Chandigarh, Amritsar or Pathankot,” points out Altaf. For those from further afield, Jammu, about a couple of hours away, is the nearest airport and major railway hub.

“We also aim to cater to millions of tourists who visit nearby Katra for religious tourism – Skyview is situated just a 90 minute drive away from the Vaishno Devi Shrine in Katra,” points out Altaf.

There are also plans to expand the offerings. “We plan to expand this property to 40-50 rooms in the next three years, with some at Patnitop so that various combination packages can be offered to guests,” informs Altaf. “Plans include wellness options and three to four restaurants.”

ESPPL is setting up the largest tourism development project in Uttarakhand and the first dual use (tourism and urban mobility) aerial ropeway in India connecting Dehra Dun and Mussoorie. At 5.5 kms, this ropeway will be amongst the five longest ropeways in the world. The Rs450 crore project will have retail and entertainment facilities as part of the auxiliary development spread over two phases.

It is also developing the first ropeway, at a height of 10,797 ft, to the Char Dham Temple at Yamunotri, Uttarakhand, as part of the Char Dham Yatra. Yatra. This 3.8 km ropeway to be built in PPP mode, has an envisaged investment of Rs250 crore, and will include additional tourism amenities like accommodation and food outlets.

“As part of our expansion plans, we will also be bidding for new projects that are expected to be tendered by the government in the next 18-24 months that include the Maa Chandi Devi Ropeway, Kedarnath Temple, Hemkunt Sahib, Shankaracharya and Shivkhori,” adds Altaf. Lofty plans indeed!

  • The gondolas provide spectacular views of the Sanget valley

Skyview by Empyrean: key highlights

• It is one of India’s highest (in terms of ground clearance) and longest ropeways soaring over 65 metres from the ground, with the longest span of 849 metres between two towers

• The ropeway features 18 cable cars/ gondola, along with eight towers

• A one-way journey takes about 10 minutes;

• The entire infrastructure, including the towers, ropes and cabins have been imported from France through technology partner POMA – the world’s leading brand in ropeway transportation

• Each cabin can carry eight people, with the capability of 600 per hour

• With five-factor safety, the entire ropeway adheres to CEN (European) standard certification, making it among the safest ropeways in the world; and

• The total inclined distance covered by the cable car from the lower to upper terminal is 2.8 km. The vertical rise to the top is 645 metres, though the lower terminal is at an altitude of 1,343.17 metres and upper terminal is at an altitude of 1,998 metres from the sea level.

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