Two sides to Ladakh tourism

Shyam G. Menon | Updated on January 23, 2012

When Ladakh was first opened to tourism in 1974, a total of 527 people visited. Of them, 500 were foreign tourists, 27 domestic. Since then, the trend of foreign dominance in tourist arrivals has remained. It has shaped the profile of Ladakh's tourism.

“Ladakh means adventure,” said Chewang Motup Goba, owner of Rimo Expeditions. The foreign visitor, in town to trek or climb, wasn't partial to any one service. He/she engaged a variety of service providers ranging from hotels to restaurants to taxi drivers to mountain guides and muleteers.

Those days, thanks to a regulated economy, domestic tourists had little disposable income. Slowly, trends changed. The official figures for 2010 pegged overall tourist arrivals at 77,800 of which foreigners were 22,115 and domestic 55,685. As of August, the 2011 arrivals stood at 1,48,588 with 29,856 foreigners and 1,18,732 domestic tourists.

The economic environment in West Europe and US, Ladakh's prime source of foreign tourists, was not rosy. Asia was on the rise and disposable income with Indian tourists had grown. More important — India was clearly a rising economy.

As with any destination, Ladakh wants that tourist money. The problem? The spike in traffic and the changed mix in tourist arrivals can mould destination differently.

Impact of package tours

A major cause for the spurt in domestic arrivals was the cheap package trip sold by travel portals and airlines. Some time ago, these packages scared for their short duration. Ladakh, being a high-altitude area with commensurate need to acclimatise, must not be sold for short-duration stays. People end up with headache, altitude sickness. The local chapter of the Himalayan Club distributed pamphlets cautioning people of altitude and the need to follow protocol.

Now, the worry is pricing and destination. Very competitive, package trips beat down prices. They attract traffic. Service providers stay busy. Yet, with tourist arrivals beating previous statistical predictions, the question is — what is Ladakh's carrying capacity? Is endless linear growth possible in cold desert? According to the travel trade, Leh experiences water scarcity and even as hotels/guest houses have increased in number, there is no modern town sewage system. Cars and ATMs are more now; Internet is still fragile, electricity fails, Leh's roads reek of generator fumes. On the other hand, the figure of 1,48,588 tourist arrivals till August 2011 compares with Ladakh's overall population estimated at 2,70,000 (source: Wikipedia), that of Leh alone — 1,17,000.

This season, according to the trade, there were days when up to 500 taxis plied from Leh to environmentally-sensitive locations such as Pangong Lake.

Money with domestic tourists, improved access to Leh, Ladakh's need for livelihood, climate change — all these factors point to likely more traffic from the plains. What could this mean for a destination's longevity?

The local administration has a vision document. This writer's efforts to talk to administration failed because it was the time of the annual Ladakh Festival with VIPs in town.

The domestic tourist leaves restaurants, hotels, shops and taxi drivers happy — look carefully, you will see the typical profile of the plains dweller in this spending pattern. Mountain guides, camp cooks, camp helps and muleteers, who work in the outdoors that has so far defined Ladakh's tourism, earn less from the domestic tourist.

With the start of the Sindhu Darshan Festival, pilgrim traffic was added to this sedentary segment.

Meanwhile, domestic tourists in the outdoors pose a different challenge. What they don't know, they ask. What they partially know — that is difficult to handle.

When tourism is mere traffic

Ladakh's 2.7 lakh people live in a vast physical expanse that is at times solitude incarnate. It is a counterpoint to India's plains with over a billion people. Will too many tourists make a Manali of Leh? Adventure tour operators fear that foreign clientele may taper.

Ladakh is not alone in this fear. At the other end of the country, in Kerala, trade sources share the sentiment. As they travel carrying home around, Indians — especially tightly-knit ethnic groups — defeat efforts to showcase the local.

Tourism becomes mere traffic. Hence the argument in some sections of the tourist trade in Ladakh that instead of appealing to everyone, their region should be preserved as a high-priced, modest-volume destination, which also accommodates interested budget travellers. The issue, they emphasise, is not foreign tourist versus domestic; it is preserving a destination for long. Late September, P.T. Kuntzen, Chairman, Ladakh Tourist Trade Alliance, said that the trade planned to take up the subject of package tours and their impact on destination with travel portals. There was also talk of hiking hotel room tariff in 2012.

However things aren't that simple. Young Ladakhis, after higher studies in Jammu, Chandigarh and Delhi, typically return to Ladakh although the region has only three main sources of income — tourism, agriculture and supplying the armed forces. That's expecting a lot from a small economy.

Near Leh's Shanti Stupa, I met Shakeel Hussain, who has been a taxi driver for almost 30 years. He said the 2011 tourist season had been terrific. His worry — besides farming and tourism, what is there in Ladakh? What would happen to new hotels and mortgages should tourism falter, as it periodically does? Theoretically, domestic tourists provide exactly this resilience. Provided — all that money is not at the expense of destination. Ladakh ponders.

Published on December 01, 2011

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