By Tashi Lundup, Stawa 11-17
Leh has been experiencing a boom in tourist arrivals each year. The roar of Enfield motorbikes and SUVs has brought this region out of its slumber. Tourism now accounts for a significant part of Leh’s economy and provides employment for thousands of people. However, this form of tourism has a downside as it fuels a growth in commercial vehicles, hotels, and restaurants with a negative impact on the environment and culture of Ladakh.
Assistant Director for Tourism, Leh, Tsering Angmo acknowledged these challenges. She said, “Tourism has spurred economic development in Leh and is a boon for travel professional. However, we cannot ignore its negative impacts, including environmental degradations, water scarcity, cultural decadence, and rise in crime.”
The annual tourist arrivals remained below 80,000 till 2010. It jumped to 179,492 in 2011 and rose further to 235,698 in 2016. This number for 2017 will be even higher as the number of tourists was already 258,720 by the end of September. The district administration did not anticipate this spike and has been unprepared to deal with the influx.
Traffic congestion and parking issues are common in and around Leh town. The district has more than 60,000 registered vehicles in addition to thousands of unregistered vehicles registered outside. When the passes open in summer, tourists start streaming in with their private vehicles, which further worsens traffic movement in Leh town. Administrator for Municipal Committee, Leh, Rigzin Spalgon said, “Most tourist facilities are concentrated around the main market. There is limited space in this area and most people park their vehicles on the roadside, which affects traffic flow. Also, the number of vehicles is growing each year and the traffic situation continues to worsen.”
The narrow roads and ongoing construction work further restrict traffic movement and the administration has instructed hotel owners to develop their own parking space. The issue of vehicles has caused conflicts in the past such as the one on 22 July, 2015, when Leh’s taxi union called for a one-day strike to protest companies based outside Ladakh supplying self-driven vehicles to tourists. In addition, the simmering conflict between Leh and Kargil taxi unions has become a sore point in the relations between the two districts.
Angchuk Shalu, President of Ladakh Taxi Operators Cooperative Limited said, “We have around 8,000 commercial taxis and rental cars from outside, which affects our business. We have asked the administration and Indian Army to ensure that locals benefit from tourism.”
The growing number of vehicles is also affecting the environment. During the tourist season thousands of vehicles crisscross the district, which have caused glaciers to recede and let to acute water shortage. This is worsened in Leh town by the use of flush toilets and the drilling of private bore wells, which affects the groundwater table. These practices are also causing a health hazard. A recent study found E.coli in some of Leh’s drinking water supply. Virulent strains of E.coli are known to cause a wide range of diseases.
Some guest houses have now started encouraging tourists to use Ladakhi compost toilets. Guest house owner in Tukcha, Yangchan Dolma explained, “Compost toilets are environment-friendly and tourists love the idea. If we are to conserve water, we should stick to traditional compost toilets.” In addition, pollution of streams is a major issue for residents. Tsering Ladol, who lives in upper Changspa said, “We used water from the stream for washing and bathing till five years back. Now the water is so dirty that we do not even touch it. We clean the stream every year but the amount of garbage is too high.”
A tourism continues to boom, fertile agricultural lands are being converted in guest houses and hotels. It is also causing conflicts such as the one between All Ladakh Tour Operators Association (ALTOA) and Bangalore-based India Hikes over waste disposal and economic competition for Chadar Trek in 2013-14. Tourism is also fuelling migration of labour which leads to a threefold increase in the population of Leh town in summer and exerts additional stress on the environment.
Tourism is also affecting culture and social relations. Even as Ladakhis are embracing modernity, tourists have started questioning the authenticity of contemporary Ladakhi culture. For instance, French national, Didier Cretenot, who first visited Leh decades back, said, “Leh is unrecognisable! All you see is construction work along with crowded markets and monasteries. The natural beauty and rich cultural heritage have disappeared.”
AD, Tourism for Leh, Tsering Angmo said, “We don’t have tourism policy to regulate tourism and conserve our environment and culture.” In fact, the district administration charges tourists ₹400 as environment fee and ₹20 as wildlife fee. However, the tourist-related infrastructure remains dismal.
Vivek Banerjee, a tourist, said, “There are no public conveniences on the road to Nubra valley and Pangong-tso. I am ready to pay more for the basic necessity of a public toilet. The situation is worse in the main market area where there the toilets are filthy. How is the local administration using the environmental fee?”
In February 2017, LAHDC, Leh has adopted a policy for eco-tourism to reduce the impact of tourism in the district. A decision was taken to use the revenue generated by the collection of the fee – estimated to be approximately ₹53,000,000 at the time – for eco-tourism initiatives. This includes public convenience facilities, promotion of Ladakhi culture, promotion of home-stays, disposal of garbage, protection of water resources etc. We tried to reach LAHDC, Leh for their inputs on how this is being implemented but failed to get a response.
In the current model, tourism provides livelihood and access to modernity, even as it commercialises and commodifies culture, religion and identity. The lack of an inclusive policy that supports indigenous skills and participation from different strata of society has resulted in increased social strain and loss of traditional skills. Currently, the elite and upper class have benefited most from the current form of tourism, while other sections are relegated to the periphery.
The lack of regulation and its impacts is perhaps best illustrated by tourism in and around Pangong-tso. On the absence of regulation, camps and concrete structures have sprouted along the banks of the lake. These camps have no sewage facility, which often reaches the lake along with other waste. The camps also exert unsustainable pressure on vital resources such as water. In addition to environmental issues, this model is also causing rifts between the villages such as Man-Merak that are outside the tourist zone and Spangmik and Lukung that are in the tourist zone, wherein the former have threatened to block access to Pangong-tso if their grievances are not addressed.
Many travel agents and guides are sensitive to the problems of mass tourism and are making efforts to address them. One such travel agent and guide is Stanzin Namgyal, who organises cleanliness drives with his colleagues. “I am not qualified for a government job. I have worked as a guide for the last seven years to support myself and even pay for my studies. Tourism is my source of livelihood and I will do anything to promote it. If tourists stop visiting Ladakh, what will happen to people like me?”
Many travel agents have now started promoting environment-friendly activities such mountain biking and home-stays. Travel agent and director of Ju-Leh Adventure, Stanzin Gyatso said, “Home-stays are the best way to understand local culture and help re-distribute revenue. We also discourage the use of plastic bottles during treks and instruct our guides to bring back polythene bags and wrappers. Nature has given us so much and it is time we give something back.”