By Tashi Lundup, Murtaza Fazily and Sunetro Ghosal, Stawa 10-19
On 5 August, Government of India read down Article 370 and decided to bifurcate J&K state into J&K UT and Ladakh UT. These decisions will come into effect on 31 October, 2019. In the interim period there have been celebrations, protests and a sense of anxiety fuelled by lack of clarity on what to expect and how things will change. This anxiety has resulted in a demand to recognise Ladakh UT under Schedule VI of the Indian constitution to provide protection of land ownership and identity, which the government has agreed in principle.
Government of India has made a sustained push to follow up its decision to bifurcate the state. While Kashmir valley remains under severe restrictions, parts of Ladakh remain unaffected though some restrictions remain in Kargil. A favoured strategy to facilitate development in Ladakh is to increase tourism to drive development. In this regard, Union Minister of State for Culture and Tourism (Independent Charge), Prahlad Singh Patel visited Ladakh in September to explore ways to boost tourism in Ladakh. Here, it is important to ask if more unregulated tourism will actually result in sustainable and equitable development in Ladakh?
According to the Tourism Department, Leh more than 150 No Objection Certificates have been issued for new hotels and guest houses in Leh in the last 12 months. Leh town already has more than 300 hotels and 800 guest houses. The spurt in tourism has encouraged more people to build hotels and guest houses on farmlands.
Assistant Director of Tourism, Leh, Tsering Angmo expressed some reservations. She said, "We managed to achieve full room occupancy due to sustained increase in tourist numbers. If the number of hotels and guest houses continues to grow, it will soon be difficult to fill all rooms."
Furthermore, tourism remains rather unpredictable. In 2018, 327,366 tourists visited Leh - 50,011 more than 2017. Most people expected this trend to continue but were disappointed in 2019 as the number of tourists visiting Leh till the end of August was 243,983 - 20,777 less than the figure in August 2018. The travel industry has already started feeling its impact. Stanzin Sonam, who runs a hotel in Sheynam, said, "This year room occupancy in my hotel dropped by 30%. Lots of new hotels have come up leading to intense competition. I heard that some hotels are offering rooms at 50% discounts to increase occupancy. The competition is only going to get worse."
Kargil has been hit hard by the events of 5 August. Tourism in Kargil has been growing steadily over the last few years. In 2018, 109,284 tourists visited Kargil and reached 75,771 by the end of August 2019. It was expected to better the record of 2018. Tourism Officer, Kargil, Rasool Lal reported that the trend in Kargil in 2019 was similar to 2018 till 4 August. "The numbers dropped after 5 August," he added. Kargil witnessed protests against the reading down of Article 370 and the administration responded by imposing restrictions. Tourism, thus, came to a grinding halt in Kargil district.
Hotelier and former-EC in LAHDC, Kargil, Nasir Munshi said that tourism sector in Kargil has been hit rather hard by these events. "Government of India had issued an advisory before 5 August asking tourists to leave the state, which resulted in a heavy decline. There was a film crew in Kargil that occupied some hotels but this was negligible. All our bookings were cancelled after August. Leh did not suffer much as it has air connectivity. Kargil is dependent on the road from Kashmir."
Taxi owners too have suffered from this downturn. President of Kargil Taxi Union, Shamim Ahmad said that taxis in Kargil have been idle causing problems to hundreds of families. "Work has come to a standstill. We get some bookings on the Leh route but this cannot sustain the 1,000 taxis registered in Kargil. Every stakeholder in the tourism sector has been suffering since 5 August. However, we have to stay united to protect our identity and future."
Tourism alone cannot be the cornerstone of an economy as it is impacted by several factors ranging from economic and political changes to policy/regulations and technological shifts. Tourism remains notoriously unpredictable and volatile which increases the vulnerability of people who are dependent on it for their livelihood.
President of All Ladakh Tour Operators Association (ALTOA), Tsetan Angchuk said, "In Ladakh we face challenges related to politics as we share a border with Pakistan and China. It is a very sensitive area. If there is war, the tourism sector shuts down for four-five years. We must explore alternative economic avenues too. Right now, everyone wants to visit Ladakh but we will soon reach a saturation point. For instance, in 2019 the number of tourists probably fell due to the general elections, the Pulwama attack, and the shutdown of Jet Airways."
This was echoed by former MLA, Kargil, Asgar Ali Karbalie who explained that globalisation means that everyone gets affected by any disturbance and economic slowdown. "West Asia is a good example of how pockets of disturbance impact the larger region. Our economy always takes a hit when there is disturbance in Kashmir. Also, our country is going through an economic slowdown. No one knows what will happen after 31 October. I am not hopeful about tourism till we have normalcy in J&K. The three regions are inter-connected. Where will the tourists come from?"
Despite growth in tourism, infrastructure in Ladakh remains inadequate. AD, Tourism, Leh, Tsering Angmo agreed. She explained, "Infrastructure in private and government sectors have improved but a lot still needs to be done and we need to find funds for it."
Tsetan Angchuk agreed with her. "Air connectivity to Leh has improved from five-six flights a day to 15-16 flights. The new terminal will further boost passenger capacity. Similarly, Leh-Srinagar highway has been upgraded and the Leh-Manali highway is also improving. Similarly we now have Airtel and Jio in addition to BSNL for internet services," he enumerated.
During his visit to Ladakh, Union Minister Prahlad Singh Patel identified key areas to boost tourism including upgrading manpower, awareness about bread-and-breakfast scheme, boost and training for home-stays and promotion of adventure sports.
There are still questions about how the impact of tourism will be mitigated. Already, the growth in tourism has increased emission of various greenhouse gases. A travel agent in Leh said, "Leh district receives three times more tourists than Kargil. Thus, the negative impact of tourism on Leh is much more severe than Kargil. We must focus on promoting eco-tourism."
According to official records, 3,487 commercial taxis were registered in Leh district and 1,218 were registered in Kargil district as of March 2018. Emissions from vehicles are now recognised as a major contributor to human-induced climate change that is causing glaciers to melt.
Tsetan Angchuk provided a qualification here. "We cannot blame the tourism sector alone for emissions. Hundreds of military trucks ply on these roads every day. These vehicles are old and burn fuel inefficiently, which harms our health and the environment. Our vehicles are regularly tested for their emission level."
While his point is relevant, there is a clear correlation between increase in tourism and pollution in Ladakh. During the tourist season, 16-18 tonnes of waste are collected from Leh city per day, while the annual waste production is 374 tonnes, including 2,500,000 plastic water bottles. In Kargil, around six tonnes of waste is generated each day.
The scale of the problem shocks many Ladakhis. For instance, Stanzin Namgyal who runs a hotel in Skara said. "I was astonished to know that tourists are consuming so many plastic bottles. I have now stopped providing plastic water bottles to my guests and have installed a water dispenser at the reception to refill their bottles."
There is also a need to decentralise tourism in Ladakh. Currently, infrastructure is concentrated in Leh town, and to a limited extent, in Kargil town. Executive Director of LEDeG, Eshey Tondup felt that this has resulted in water scarcity, groundwater pollution, waste management, traffic and pollution in urban areas. "If we promote rural tourism, it will reduce the resource burden on urban areas and help distribute the benefits of tourism," he added.
Tsetan Angchuk illustrated this with the example of Stok Kangri. "The residents of Stok had complained about the environmental impact of trekking on Stok Kangri. We have now decided to stop all tourist-related activities from 2020 on Stok Kangri for the next three years to safeguard our environment," he explained.
The most glaring omission of Ladakh's tourism sector is the lack of a coherent tourism policy to regulate and guide the sector. There have been efforts by LAHDC, Leh to adopt a tourism policy but it has remained on paper. So far, Kargil has not developed a tourism policy. Tsering Angmo said, "We will soon have a tourism policy once we formally become a UT. Everything can be systematic if we have a policy in place."
Tsetan Angchuk mentioned that they are currently drafting a tourism policy for Leh. He said, "A tourism policy has been included in the Ladakh 2025 Vision Document but it was never implemented. Now, with UT everyone has woken up to the need for a policy. We are currently drafting a policy by considering the requirements of stakeholders and the Ladakh Vision Document 2025." The composition and mandate of this committee remains unclear.