"We are expecting to cross 8.5 million turnout of pilgrims by December 31 midnight. We have already crossed 8.45 million and an estimated 50,000 pilgrims are expected to visit the shrine during the next 48 hours," Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine Board Chief Executive Officer Simrandeep Singh told PTI.
He said last year's figure of 8.17 million pilgrims was crossed almost 20 days ago.
The pilgrim arrivals dropped from 9.32 million in 2013 to 7.80 million in 2014 and further to 7.76 million in 2015 and 7.72 million in 2016.
Singh attributed the increase in turnout to various factors including the efforts of the board to make the pilgrimage pleasant by adding new facilities for a hassle-free journey.
"The ropeway is functional while the seven-kilometre Tarakote track came up as an alternate route with better facilities," he said.
On Dec 24, Jammu and Kashmir Governor Satya Pal Malik inaugurated the Rs 850 million Bhawan-Bhairon passenger ropeway, which reduced the travel time between Bhawan and Bhairon Temple (one-way journey) from one hour to just about three minutes.
The board has decided to keep the tickets affordable, with the to and fro journey costing Rs 100 per passenger.
The alternate Tarakote Marg, which was completed in seven years at a cost of Rs 800 million, was opened for pilgrims in May.
The track, which is six metres wide and has a comfortable gradient and very attractive wayside amenities, provides pedestrian pilgrims a cleaner and scenic route which has two 'bhojanalayas' as well as seven toilet blocks equipped with facilities for the elderly and the disabled.
A medical unit with doctors, paramedics, medicines and equipment had been established to facilitate pilgrims round-the-clock. The entire track is based on a ramp type design, without any steps and has an average and smooth gradient of one in 12 which, with interlocking antiskid tiles, makes it easier for walking.
Singh said the old battery run cars were replaced with new ones and the board had also decided to start a three-day community kitchen along the new track to facilitate the pilgrims who are expected to come in huge numbers on New Year.
"The free of cost food will be served to the pilgrims on December 30 and 31 and January 1," he said.
From 1.39 million in 1986, when the board took over the affairs of the shrine for better management, there has been a steady increase of pilgrim footfalls every year, touching the all-time high of 1.04 crore turnout in 2012 against 1.01 crore the previous year.
The pilgrim arrivals at the shrine touched 3.11 million in 1991 and reached 7.41 million in 2007.
However, the number dropped to 6.79 million in 2008, which was attributed to the two-month-long Amarnath land row agitation, but again went up to 8.2 million in 2009 and 8.72 million the next year.