By Tsering Dolkar, Stawa 11-17
There has been a lot of talk about the concept of sustainable tourism in Ladakh. People have started to observe the negative impacts of unregulated tourism in the region. Everyone I know – friends, elders, family, and tourists – seems greatly alarmed by the changes taking place in Ladakh.
The tourism industry has been growing at a rapid pace in Ladakh, especially in Leh district. The economy of Leh district has become completely dependent on tourism. While there are many positive outcomes from tourism, we cannot overlook and ignore its negative impacts. In Leh, there is an urgent need to develop, adopt, and implement a policy to regulate tourism before it destroys our environment and society.
These impacts are very evident in touristy places like Pangong-tso. Though I have not visited Pangong-tso and other tourist sites in the recent past, I have heard, read, and seen images of negative impact tourism is having in these places. This reminds me of Chennai, where I was told about Marina beach, which is supposed to be Asia’s longest beach. I was very excited and decided to visit it one day. I cannot articulate my disappointment as the beach was littered with heaps of garbage and human waste. Though I stayed in Chennai for a year, I never visited this beach again.
What is the future of tourism in places such as Pangong-tso? We urgently need systems to maintain tourist sites and develop necessary infrastructure. If the current system continues and tourism collapses, what will happen to the thousands of people engaged in the tourism sector who will no longer have a livelihood and how will this affect our society? We are already seeing the impact of uneven distribution of benefits from tourism, which are largely concentrated around urban areas. In this regard, the concept of home-stays is a boon in rural areas. Tourists get a first-hand experience of local life, while villagers get a source of income. I once visited Hinju village during one of my treks. At the entrance, I saw a signboard listing the names of the families in the village. Each family take turns to accommodate tourists, which ensures that the benefits of tourism are evenly distributed in the village. Perhaps this model needs to be expanded across Ladakh.
Kargil district has a lot of untapped potential for tourism but suffers due to the lack of infrastructure and governmental support. It is not surprising that many youth from Kargil migrate to Leh to work in the tourism sector, which has resulted in conflicts between the two districts of Ladakh over various issues. Kargil has also suffered due to its physical proximity to Kashmir and the LoC between India and Pakistan; each time there is unrest in the Kashmir valley or in the event of war , tourism in Karil has taken a severe beating.
The two districts of Ladakh seem to be mirror opposites with regard to tourism; one needs regulation, the other needs support. Unfortunately, neither seems forthcoming.