More than a half-century after China closed the Nathu La Pass on the Sikkim-Tibet border, the first batch of 50 Indian pilgrims and tourists will be going to the legendary Kailash-Manasarovar in Tibet on Thursday.

This follows a bilateral agreement to open the pass for Indian visitors which was signed on September 18 last year when the Chinese President Xi Jinping visited New Delhi. The agreement offered an alternative route for the Kailash-Manasarovar Yatra through Nathu La, in addition to the existing arduous route through Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi , during his visit to China last month, had announced in Beijing that the Nathu La Pass would be operational in June.

250 pilgrims this season

The decision to reopen Nathu La has brought cheers to the tourism industry in West Bengal and Sikkim as it is expected to result in a flood of tourists in the coming years. Nathu La Pass, a part of the ancient Silk Route, is 54 km from Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok. After the 1962 India-China war, Chinese authorities closed the border, thus shutting down an ancient route for trade and pilgrimage.

This season, a total of 250 pilgrims will travel by the Pass in five batches — all selected, grouped and organised by the Central Government. The first batch will arrive in Gangtok on Wednesday and start the eight-day journey on Thursday. According to sources, they would get acclimatised for the high- altitude Tibetan plateau, where air is thinner and oxygen is less, for two days at two places – Seventh Mile and Sherathang. Then they would move to the destination through Shigatse in Tibet.

Unlike the trip through the Lipulekh Pass, there would be no need for trekking as all the pilgrims would travel by bus. The Lipulekh trip, which takes around four weeks, is extremely arduous and is mostly on foot. Because of long trekking through places as high as 19,000 feet from sea level, aged and unhealthy people are not considered for the yatra. The Lipulekh route was badly damaged in the 2013 earthquake in Uttarakhand.

The other route to Kailash-Manasarovar is through Nepal, which also requires trekking. However, because of the recent earthquake, this route is not fully operational now. Mount Kailash, which Hindus believe is the abode of Lord Shiva, and the legendary Manasarovar Lake are holy places for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, though they are located in the south-western corner of Tibet.

Will improve ties

While the reopening of Nathu La Pass will improve India-China relations and bilateral trade, it will also improve tourism prospects in the region. “This is a very important development for the tourism sector in West Bengal and Sikkim,” Partho Guha, secretary of the East Himalayas Travel and Tour Operators Association, told BusinessLine. “It opens a window of opportunity for the tour operators and local communities.”

He said though this year the yatra was being organised by the Centre, from next year, private players might be permitted.

“There is a heavy demand for the Manasarovar tour and we expect a flood of visitors in the coming years — which means more business for tourist operators, travel agents, taxis and hotels.” Moreover, since the yatra would be from June to November, an idle season for tourism in this part of the Himalayas, it would be a ‘boon’ for the tourism industry.