Spiti — a cold desert mountain valley located high in the Himalayas in the Northeastern part of Himachal Pradesh – was barren this summer. It was peak season, but there were no tourists because of the coronavirus-induced lockdown. It’s going to be a cold, dark, and long winter for the locals as tourists have been advised to give Spiti a miss until further notice. For homestay and hotel owners, tour operators, drivers, trek-organizers, horsemen, porters, and locals, who are dependent on tourists for survival, the pandemic has meant zero earnings. This story is like a postcard from Spiti … words and pictures telling you individual stories
Scenic Himalayan lakes, 1,000-year-old monasteries, pretty villages, unexplored treks, surreal landscapes, harsh highlands, winding roads, dramatic skies, extremely warm people and apple-cheeked children … Spiti, a cold desert mountain valley located high in the Himalayas in the Northeastern part of Himachal Pradesh, is all this and a lot more.
Despite the inaccessibility and harsh weather conditions, Spiti Valley is on the bucket list of many travel and adventure enthusiasts, and usually, between March and June, the valley is packed with Indian and international tourists, bikers, trekkers, and adventure-seekers. This year, something unusual happened. The summer of 2020 was a black summer for the locals of Spiti Valley … a summer they are not going to forget for a long, long time.
“For the first time in the past 18-19 years, there were no tourists in Spiti during the peak season because of the lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic,” said Lara Tsering, owner of Spiti Valley Tours and Lara’s Homestay in Kaza — a town situated along the Spiti River at an elevation of about 12,500 feet above sea level, home to the world’s highest petrol pump. “I spent the whole summer cancelling bookings and refunding money. I don’t think people will travel anytime soon. The harsh Spiti winter will set in from October. I am expecting the situation to improve only next year,” he said.
For homestay owners, hotel owners, tour operators, drivers, trek-organizers, horsemen, porters, and locals in Spiti Valley, the pandemic has meant zero earnings.
The valley — situated 415 kms from the summer capital of Himachal, Shimla, and 390 kms from the winter capital, Dharmshala, which is home to Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile – is a research and cultural center for the Buddhists. The name Spiti means ‘The middle land’ (the land between Tibet and India), and the popular tourist destinations in Spiti are the Tabo monastery; one of the oldest in the world, Dhankar monastery, Ki monastery, Kibber Monastery, Pin Valley, Chandra Taal and Giu, famous for the 500-year-old mummy of a Buddhist monk, among others.
Largely untouched, tourism set foot into the Spiti Valley after 1992 when the valley opened up to the outside world. The valley, and the surrounding region, is one of the least populated regions in the country — the Lahaul-Spiti district has a population of 31, 564, and Kaza is the sub-divisional headquarters. The northern part of the valley is usually cut-off for eight months due to heavy snowfall and the southern part, which has access via Shimla and is a more popular tourist route, is shut periodically throughout the year because of snowfall.
The best time to visit Spiti is from March to June when the temperature ranges from 0-15-degree Celsius. Tourists avoid visiting Spiti during the monsoon months (July to September) as there are possibilities of massive landslides. Winters in Spiti are for the daring as the temperature dips to as low as -20 degrees Celsius because of the heavy snowfall. The locals, and those associated with the tourism industry, thus have a very small window to earn money through tourists.
Keep swiping right to see some stunning visuals from Spiti.
When Spiti Valley said no to tourists
Himachal is a much sort-after tourist destination. There are 3,350 hotels, 1,656 homestays, 2,912 travel agencies and 1,314 guides, 899 photographers and 222 adventurers registered with the state tourism department. The total bed capacity of hotels and homestay units is 91,223 and 9,144, respectively. While 1.72 crore tourists (Indian and international) visited Himachal in 2019, 1.64 crore visited in 2018.
In January this year, when the locals living in Spiti Valley – most dependent on the incoming tourists for livelihood — were gearing up for the upcoming tourist season, coronavirus had just started spreading its tentacles in the country. After a long and cold winter (October-January), when the business is bleak, the locals were looking forward to the peak season to pick up. They were optimistic as they were getting many booking enquires.
However, as the number of coronavirus cases started going up in February, people started cancelling their bookings. From March 23 onwards – the day the first three-week-long nationwide lockdown was announced by the government – everything came to a standstill. The lockdown was extended twice after that and eventually ended in May end.
In July, the Himachal Pradesh government announced opening up the state for tourism with guidelines that tourists were required to follow. It was mandatory for the incoming tourists to show their COVID-19 negative report, furnished from any of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)-recognized labs. They also had to pre-book hotels and stay at least for two days. However, by September, the state eased some of the guidelines and lifted the mandatory condition of carrying an e-pass or registration for tourists and also allowed inter-state travel.
However, the Spiti Tourism Society decided it would stay shut to tourists for the year 2020 and said no tourism activities, including jeep safaris, package tours, trekking and camping, would be allowed.
In a letter submitted to Additional Deputy Commission of Spiti, Gian Sagar Negi from Spiti Tourism Society said: “This decision is made considering the consequences of the pandemic on the high altitude region of Spiti Valley which has limited medical facilities, underdeveloped infrastructure and extreme geographical condition with our harsh winters and pre-existing medical condition of Acute Mountain Sickness.” The letter further states that social distancing would be tough in winters and patients would have to be taken out of the valley in case one such case emerges, further complicating the situation. The letter also urges travellers to cancel all travel plans to Spiti Valley this year to make it a safe destination for next year. A sanguine decision, but it’s going to hit the locals hard.
“No help from the government”
“My cars are parked since March and the drivers are sitting at home doing nothing,” said Kamal Kishore, a tour operator who is based in Shimla, and organizes tours to Spiti. “There is no chance of Spiti opening for tourists this season. While some drivers went back to their native villages and are doing farming, most haven’t earned a penny this season and won’t until the next. Some tour operators gave them their salaries, but since we haven’t got any financial help from the government in the stimulus package that it had announced, we are also in a fix,” he added.
Mahendra Singh, a driver, who is associated with one such tour operators, lives in Chandigarh. He usually ferries tourists to popular destinations like Shimla and Manali, but he looks forward to going to Spiti three-four times during the peak season. A couple of trips to Spiti help him earn more than the regular destinations. This year, he had to let go of Spiti, and he has no hopes of even Shimla and Manali opening fully for the tourists. “I have exhausted all my savings. Now I will have to look for a job. I don’t think the overall travel scene will improve anytime soon,” he said.
Jitendra Bharadwaj, who works with the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC) in Mumbai, is usually very busy throughout the year organizing tour packages. A chunk of tourists visiting Himachal come from Mumbai and Delhi. However, he has spent this whole summer cancelling bookings and refunding money. “Not just us, the entire tourism chain in Spiti, which includes hotels, tents and homestay owners, guides, photographers, porters and drivers, has taken a hit. Some of the local people own apple orchards or grow cash crops, so they have something to fall back on. But those who depend on tourism have been rendered jobless.”
Spiti Holiday Adventure is a travel platform that organizes treks, jeep safaris and adventure tours and treks in Spiti. When contacted, Nikhil Bhambure, business and communication head of the company, said: “Our revenues are zero since March and we had to dig into our savings to pay our staff.” He added: “The tourism scene in Spiti has picked up only recently. So, the locals still have the option to fall back on their traditional occupations like farming or transporting goods. It’s people like us, who are dependent on tourists, suffering. Being remote, don’t think Spiti will open up this year, not even for the winter tourists.”
Trekking and camping in Spiti is something that the adventure-seeking tourists from India and abroad look forward to. A small business-model runs around organizing these treks and camps. Often, guides, porters, horsemen, cooks and tent-owners accompany tourists on these treks. For Jagat Singh, who hails from Uttarakhand, and is a porter, such treks mean good business. “I live in Manali, but come to Spiti during the trekking season. Usually, I make good money, but, this year, I have earned nothing,” he said.
Those who run proper hotels in Spiti are facing bigger problems. It’s not easy for them to run and maintain their hotels in a remote location like Spiti. These hotels are not operational throughout the year. So, every time they open, the hotel operators have to spend additional money on maintaining their properties. As the business is cyclic, it’s inconvenient for them to hire permanent support staff. Most hotels have dedicated staff members who diligently return every season. But, in case they don’t, the hotel owners have to make alternative arrangements for the year.
“My cooks, cleaners, drivers and hotel boys come from neighbouring states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and even Nepal. This year none of them could make it because of the lockdown,” said Chhobyang Singhe, owner of the relatively high-end hotel Spiti Heritage Himalayan Brother, which is in Kaza. He had no option but to shut the hotel. He managed to come down to Dharamshala in the nick of the time, just before the lockdown was announced. He has two properties here, which he opened in July as the country started unlocking. He is banking on these two properties as the Kaza property “is going to be shut for a long, long time.”
As per Tsering Tsang, who co-manages the Sakya Abode hotel in Kaza, along with her husband, the coronavirus situation was never so grave in Lahaul-Spiti, but it was the locals who were wary of not letting outsiders in Spiti. “Most homestays might open, but they won’t get any traffic,” she said.
Well, not all are complaining. Take Lara Tsering from Lara Homestay, for instance, who said: “The lockdown was a blessing for me. We are busy organizing tours throughout the year. The summer months are very hectic. The lockdown gave me an opportunity to explore Spiti, something that I had never done before. I went on solo trips and discovered new trails and walks.”