Pandemic roadblock: The uphill task of reviving mountain tourism

International Mountain Day is celebrated on December 11 to create awareness about the importance of mountains to life, to highlight the opportunities and constraints in mountain development, and to build alliances that will bring positive change to mountain people and the environment around the world. In India, mountain tourism thrives in the Himalayan region. However, the pandemic has created a crisis of livelihoods for mountain communities. Aptly, the theme of this year’s Mountain Day is sustainable mountain tourism. The Good Story Project ‘visits’ the northern states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand and the Union Territory of Ladakh that border the mighty Himalayas to understand how the pandemic has affected communities living here and how difficult revival of mountain tourism is going to be.

Swati Subhedar

The Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) is spread across 13 states and Union Territories — Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Assam and West Bengal. It stretches across 2,500 km and nearly 50 million people reside in this region. The IHR extends from the Indus River in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east. With its towering snowy peaks, majestic landscapes, pilgrimage destinations, rich biodiversity, and cultural heritage, the IHR has been, for decades, attracting tourists from India and across the world.

Tourism provides financial and employment opportunities for people residing in these mountain regions, and it brings revenues and profits for state governments. In the past few years, tourism in the IHR has got impacted due to natural calamities or safety and security reasons, however, the prolonged pandemic has dealt a massive blow. Unfortunately, it’s the local people and communities living in these mountain regions – most depend on the inflow of tourists for survival – have suffered the most.

While two lockdowns in two years brought tourism in the Himalayan region to a complete standstill, sporadic episodes of revival were followed by dampeners. The latest one that has shaken the tourism industry is the new variant of the virus – Omicron – that is threatening to ground airlines, and it may lead to people putting their travel plans on hold for now. In such a scenario, revival in tourism is going to be an uphill task.

Keeping the many challenges in mind, the theme of this year’s International Mountain Day is sustainable mountain tourism. The United Nations Environment Program and United Nations World Tourism Organization define sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social, and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.

The Good Story Project speaks to various stakeholders living in the mountains of Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. These destinations are popular among a range of tourists … adventure-seekers, pilgrims, families, solo travellers, and those who often run to the mountains for the much-desired peace of mind. However, the communities here have been facing a unique set of challenges. The pandemic has just added to their woes.

With its towering snowy peaks, majestic landscapes, pilgrimage destinations, rich biodiversity, and cultural heritage, the Indian Himalayan Region has been, for decades, attracting tourists from India and across the world. Image: Swati Subhedar

Ladakh: A ticking time bomb

Ladakh is a cold desert in India, which lies in the Great Himalayas. It has the mighty Karakoram range in the north, and, in the south, it is bound by the Zanskar mountains. Several rivers flow through Ladakh, which form deep valleys and gorges and many glaciers are found in the region. Life here is harsh, but historically, Ladakh has always been a self-sustained region. People grew their own food and there were enough resources for people to sustain themselves.

This was until Ladakh was opened to tourism in 1974.

As per the Tourism Ministry data, while 16,449 tourists visited Ladakh in 1994, it saw an inflow of about 2.79 lakh tourists in 2019. The rise in the number of tourists has pumped in money in job scarce Ladakh, but it has also had a detrimental effect on natural resources.   

“Today, Ladakh is literally sitting on a ticking time bomb. The rapid growth in unregulated tourism over the years has put tremendous pressure on natural resources. In the early nineties, there were only around 80 hotels and guest houses here. Today, there are more than 1,000 registered and unregistered hotels, guest houses and bed and breakfast (B&B) set-ups just in Leh (town),” said Vilayat Ali, who runs a sustainable tourism company called Pristine Ladakh.

He added: “Almost all hotels are pumping out water through bore machines for their daily use. Some big hotels pump out additional water for their swimming pools. The glaciers which are the main source of recharge for the groundwater are depleting at a very fast rate. The Khardong glacier – the main source of stream water for the Leh town — has almost vanished. The level of water in the Indus Rivers too has gone down to more than 50% in the last decade. The day is not far when there won’t be any groundwater left.”

Depletion of natural resources is not the only problem. Every summer, Leh generates more than 60 tons of garbage. “Earlier, as there was no waste management system in Ladakh, it was dumped in an open area abandoned by the Indian Army called ‘Bombguard’. The garbage was burnt every night and every morning one could see a thick fume of smoke in and around Leh. Today, even though Leh has a solid waste management plant, the unwanted garbage still gets burnt at Bombguard. Both, tourists are locals are to be blamed for waste generation,” said Ali.     

Every summer, Leh generates more than 60 tons of garbage. Image credit: zerowasteladakh.com

From primarily being an agricultural economy, Ladakh’s economy is now heavily dependent on tourism. Many of Ladakh’s residents, especially the young, draw their income from these activities. As a result of the shift to tourism, locals are gradually giving up farming – their traditional source of livelihood.

“Before pandemic, everyone was making money. The tourism business was lucrative, so everyone jumped into it. Some opened hotels, some drove taxis, and some became guides; practically everyone switched to tourism. Gradually tourists became our primary source of income. The pandemic hit us hard. Suddenly there was nothing to fall back on. The only good part about the pandemic was that there was no pollution,” said Tashi Tsange, owner of Tukchu Homestay in Leh.

The homestay and hotel owners are keeping their fingers crossed for next summer and soon Ladakh, like earlier, will be full of tourists. So, what is the solution?

“Tourism should be encouraged as long as it’s sustainable, benefits the local communities, and does not harm the environment. The present-day Ladakh does not meet any of these criteria. Unregulated tourism has made Ladakhis rich, but it has done irreparable damage. Ladakh needs to regulate tourism. Bhutan has done it. We need to direct tourists to other less explored destinations so that locals living there can benefit too. Lastly, homestays should be promoted, prominence should be given to organically grown fruits and vegetables, and we need to find eco-friendly alternatives for plastic,” said Ali.   

In the early hours of June 17, 2013, a flash flood came down upon the overflowing banks of the Chorabari lake in Uttarakhand. Carrying huge amounts of silt and rocks, it destroyed lives, houses, and everything else that came its way. Thousands lost their lives. Image credit: The Indian Express

Uttarakhand: Needed desperately … a concrete plan to sustain tourism      

Most of the northern parts of Uttarakhand are part of the Greater Himalayan ranges and are covered by the high Himalayan peaks and glaciers. Eighty-six per cent of states’ geographical area is mountains, and there are several famous peaks in the Garhwal and Kumaon regions of the state – like, Nanda Devi, Trishul, Chaukhamba, Shivling, Bhagirathi, Neelkanth, Gaumukh etc – that are preferred by tourists.

However, the four most economically lucrative peaks are Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri and the holy pilgrimage to these four mountains is known as the Char Dham Yatra. The yatra provides employment opportunities to lakhs of people living in these mountain regions, and also tour operators and yatra organisers spread across the country. It also forms an economic ecosystem that benefits the shrines, the areas around these shrines and generates significant revenue for the state.

Picture this. In 2019, the Kedarnath Yatra broke all the previous records and generated a revenue of Rs 400 crore. The other three destinations – Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri – too earn revenues to the tunes of several crores every year. Those who benefit from the inflow of pilgrims are porters, palki and pony service operators, owners of hotels, lodges, dharamshalas, dhabas and small restaurants, guides, tour operators, temple committees, self-help groups that sell pahadi food, prasad and other products and private helicopter services.   

In 2019, nearly 38 lakh pilgrims visited the shrines. In 2020, the yatra was put on hold and in 2021, the route was open only for two months after which the Uttarakhand government postponed the pilgrimage till further orders. “The locals were really happy when the yatra started. They were, to some extent, able to mitigate the losses incurred last year. However, looking at the inflow of tourists, the state government postponed it. Though we have started getting enquiries for next year, the past two years have been tough for the locals who were dependent on the Char Dham Yatra to make money,” said Suryaprakash Kothari, who is associated with the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN).

While the official loss numbers have not been released, one can only imagine how badly those dependent on the yatra must have suffered. There are people who wait for the yatra to begin every year as it helps them make enough money for the rest of the year.

The Char Dham Yatra sites. Image credit: http://www.jagran.com

“The unfortunate fact is, it’s always the poor who suffer. No one saw the pandemic coming, and no one could have imagined that the Char Dham Yatra, a mode of survival for many, would get cancelled for two consecutive years. Only those who were in a position to quickly innovate their business models or could find other avenues to earn money did not struggle during the lockdown and thereafter. However, say, a dhaba owner or a tea stall owner, the poorest of poor, who did not have any other option, are still struggling, and will continue to struggle,” said Umesh Pandey, a travel expert, who is associated with the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN).    

In July this year, to compensate for the economic loss due to cancellation of the Char Dham Yatra for the second consecutive year, the state announced a relief package worth around Rs 200 crore, set to benefit over 1.63 lakh people in the state.

“How will this one-time payment help? And the government has not taken into account people who are not registered. The pandemic is not the first, and it’s not going to be the last disaster that is going to impact people living in the mountain areas. Disasters related to climate change are already on the rise. If we talk about sustainable mountain tourism, then the primary task is to find permanent solutions to at least some of the problems faced by people living in the mountains who are associated with the travel and tourism industry so that an unprecedented event like a pandemic does not empty their bank accounts. The government has talked about sustainable mountain tourism but has never shared what concrete steps it plans to take,” said Pandey.  

The stunning Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh. Image: Swati Subhedar

Himachal Pradesh: Reaching out to shepherds, artisans

“Total nuksaan ho gaya. Business hi thapp ho gaya (We suffered massive losses. Our business went bust),” said Sukhbir Singh, who runs a manufacturing unit and a store in Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh. Singh, like many others in the state, is a part of the small-scale industries that manufacture and sell the world-acclaimed Pashmina shawls.

Pashmina refers to animal-hair fibre forming the downy undercoat of a domesticated variety of goat called the Changthangi goat. These goats used for pashmina shed their winter coat every spring. One goat sheds approximately 80–170 grams of the fibre. These goats provide the wool for Kashmir’s famous Pashmina shawls that commands huge demand worldwide.

If you visit the northeren region of Himachal Pradesh; in particular the cold desert mountains of Spiti and a few remote villages in the mountain regions of Lahaul and Chamba districts, you will come across many nomadic shepherd tribes who herd sheep and goats and move from one place to the other. The pashmina wool used in manufacturing units in the state also comes from these shepherds.   

However, since the 2020 pandemic, the entire end-to-end chain of Pashmina manufacturers and sellers has got affected. “Our artisans who used to weave Pashmina shawls are mostly from Nepal and other remote villages of Himachal. They went back to their native places just ahead of the 2020 lockdown and have not returned since then. In the absence of these artisans, manufacturing of handmade shawls came to a standstill and because of fewer tourists, the business has got affected,” said Singh.

The Pashmina shawls manufactured in Himachal are also exported. “Our business is not entirely dependent on the incoming tourists. Usually, the machine-manufactured shawls are exported and the ones that are weaved by local artisans are sold in the domestic market. However, the lockdowns affected both the business avenues and we are staring at huge losses,” said Gurcharan Singh, a manufacturer of Pashmina shawls, who has his manufacturing unit in the Bashing village on the Kullu-Manali highway.

He added: “Every manufacturing unit has 30-35 artisans and not all owners could afford to give salaries during the pandemic. In the organized and unorganized sector, nearly 12,000 artisans are working in the state and the government has not given the artisans or manufacturers any compensation.”

“It’s a good sign that the government is now also thinking about the forgotten lot, like the shepherds”. Image: Swati Subhedar

In a welcome move, the Himachal Pradesh government announced in June 2020 that from 2021 fiscal, it will provide 638 goats of the Changthangi and Chegu breeds to families in the Pashmina producing snow-bound areas in Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur districts and Pangi in Chamba district under the National Livestock Mission. Under the mission, 29 units, each comprising 10 does and one buck of both Changthangi and Chegu species will be provided.

Each unit will cost Rs 70,000. Ninety per cent cost will be borne by the Central government, while the state and the beneficiary will share the remaining cost in equal proportion. The hill state records about 1,000 kg Pashmina wool production annually at present and aims to double it in next five years.  

“This won’t solve all our problems, but it’s a good move. Presently, we are importing Pashmina wool from Kashmir, which is costly. This way we can buy wool from Himachal, save that cost and manufacture more Pashmina products, or pay our artisans more,” said Singh.   

One of the aspects of sustainable mountain tourism is that it is a way to preserve and promote local art, crafts and high-value products. The state government’s planned move to boost Pashmina wool production in the state will help people in the mountain regions of Himachal who are into Pashmina business, including the shepherds who fall under below the poverty line (BPL) category.  

“When tourism started booming, local people, irrespective of what their original professions were, switched to the tourism industry. I know for a fact that many Pashmina artisans switched to tourism because they were not earning enough. It’s a good sign that the government is now also thinking about the forgotten lot, like the shepherds or Pashmina artisans. This is also one way of sustaining mountain tourism,” said Jitendra Bharadwaj, who is associated with the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC).

Also read: Lockdown and the hauntingly beautiful Spiti Valley.

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

Published by

Swati Subhedar

Meaningful conversations, ginger tea, Maggi, playing Tennis, backpacking, travelling, exploring, photography, adventures, meeting interesting people, mountains, beaches, and dramatic sunsets ... these are just some of the uncomplicated things that keep me going.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s