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30th August '2015
Sustainable Tourism in Ladakh


Ladakh is popularly known as the moon land. The name has been given to this place because of its dramatic landscape resembling the lunar surface. In a number of places if a picture of an astronaut standing on a rock is taken, no one can say that it is not on the moon! There have been many other names given to this northern most region of the Indian sub-continent. In local language it is called, “La-Dwags”, the land of many passes. Some others have called it the Shangri La and still others have given it the name of land beyond the Himalaya. However, many people outside the sub-continent have the impression that Ladakh is some mysterious land in the high mountains inhabited by Buddhist monks only. On the contrary, Ladakh is a vast region almost a hundred thousand square kilometres in area representing about 70% area of the erstwhile State of Jammu & Kashmir, encompassing varied landscapes and many cultures, Buddhist, Muslim, and even animistic! The land is so barren and desolate that according to a saying only a dear friend or a serious enemy can come here! Population density is probably the lowest. It is said to be as low as one person in one square kilometre.

Ladakh was thrown open for Tourism in July, 1974. During the first year about 500 tourists, mostly foreigners visited the area. A lot has changed since Ladakh was thrown open for tourists about four decades back but the basic spirit and the magnetic attraction of the land and its people are still there. Tourist figures have grown from about 500 in 1974 the first year of its opening to almost two hundred thousand in recent years. Also initially, it were mostly the foreign tourists who were enchanted about this mysterious land but now the number of domestic tourists from various parts of the country far exceeds the foreign figures! Last year one hundred eighty one thousand tourists visited Ladakh. Foreigners were only fifty nine thousand No doubt such a massive influx of tourists gave a big boost to Ladakh’s economy but at the same time there have been negative fall outs too!

The most important consideration for development of a tourist area is “Peace”. Fortunately, Ladakh has most of the time enjoyed a peaceful atmosphere most of these years. Next come connectivity and infrastructure. Fortunately, Tourism has acted as a catalyst for improving the connectivity of the area. In earlier times, in the absence of air connectivity, Government employees used to consider their posting in Ladakh as exile! Now, people keep on visiting the place as often as they get a chance. The air connectivity has not only increased the number of tourists but has been a boon for the local population also.

After connectivity, the most important input is infrastructure. Ladakhis have been very positive and innovative in this regard. The paying guest accommodation also called “Home Stays” has been a pioneering activity in Ladakh. In fact, the UNDP has shown documentaries about the “Home Stays” of Ladakh in many countries. With the incentives from Tourism Department, this activity caught up all over Ladakh and is still very popular with tourists. After that many a hotels came up through local entrepreneurship. We have now even internationally starred accommodation with central heating. The tourist transport infrastructure has also improved a lot. Most wonderful thing about Ladakh Tourism is that the major entrepreneurs are the local people. Tourism has also helped in reducing unemployment. In fact, quite a few people have been giving up agricultural activities to join the Tourism sector.

There have been some negative fall outs also. The environment being very fragile is bound to be affected adversely with the influx of such a large number of tourists. Leh town used to have a population of about 15,000 or so. Now in summer the population must be more than 50,000 which may be putting a lot of pressure on the civic facilities. Similarly, the trails in mountains, new spots in some distant areas like Pangong, Tsomoriri, Nubra and so on do show some impact of the large influx. The Ladakh Hill Development Council has been doing excellent work in trying to safeguard the ecology and provide some civic facilities in different places. The environmental cess for these works is a positive step. Another aspect which shows a visible impact is the local culture. The local clothing is being replaced by modern outfits. Similarly, the food habit is undergoing changes leading to dependability on imports. The Ladakh Festival started some years back had given a boost to local culture. Various villages used to compete in producing different cultural programmes. During the festival days people would feel pride in wearing traditional costumes. The monasteries too were maintaining the traditional religious functions and events. Ladakh is probably the only place where one can see the real and living Tibetan Buddhist traditions. However, the sanctity of the worship needs to be protected. The monasteries should not allow hordes of tourists clicking away pictures during Puja.

Keeping in view the area, the traditions, and the vastness of the place even couple of hundred thousand tourists coming in an organised manner at different times will not have any adverse impact. However, one needs to remember that it is the quality of tourism and not the quantity which is important for the economy. One of the handicaps in attracting upper class international tourist is the lack of connectivity to international air routes. Leh can easily have foreign charters if the airport is upgraded and declared as an international airport. When many other tourist destinations can get hundreds of charters from abroad, why can’t Leh have the same especially from European countries and even from nearer locations in Central Asia.

In earlier times, Ladakh was an important landmark on the Silk Route. There is no difficulty in starting an Aerial Silk Route from here. Across the border foreign tourists have been flying straight from various foreign capitals to Samarqand and driving in luxury coaches on Karakoram Highway to Islamabad to fly back home. We could have a similar arrangement of flying into Leh from neighbouring Central Asian destinations and then driving to Srinagar or Manali to fly out. At the moment a number of groups are operating in reverse and flying out from Leh. Given the establishment of peace in the region, one could think of people driving in from Gilgit, Skardu and even Lahasa to Leh and then flying out. It may seem a utopian dream but it could materialise sometime in future! Let us hope that the Ladakh Tourism with the active co-operation of the local people progresses on right and responsible lines and remains sustainable with the preservation of its environment, ecology and culture.

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