Voice of Ladakhis: The reasons and the aftermath of the growth of tourism in Ladakh

Ladakh, a valley located within high Himalayan mountain ranges, was an undisturbed place merely 10-15 years ago but the scenarios have changed, not just for the land but also for the locals. We talked to a few Ladakhis and people offering tourism services in Ladakh to understand their viewpoints about the growth of tourism in Ladakh.

Situated in the main market of Leh since 1983, Hotel Lingzi has seen several decades and the changing surface of tourism in Ladakh. From being a secluded valley to the ground full of tourists, Ladakh has witnessed the hospitality industry the most in the last few years. Hotel Lingzi, which has been serving international and domestic tourists for a long while, is not untouched by this fact.

Tourists recreating a scene from ‘3 Idiots’ Source

Rinchen Angmo, whose grandparents started the hotel back in the early 1980s, has observed the transition to the core. According to her, Ladakh tourism would centre around the foreign tourists who would mainly visit the land to explore the trans-Himalayan trekking, mountaineering, or to learn more about the culture and history of Ladakh, while many would be curious to visit for its closeness to Tibet.

However, as Angmo says, there has been an enormous surge in domestic tourists even since 2010, post the release of the popular Hindi movie – ‘3 Idiots’ and the definite mention of Ladakh in it. “The movie, no doubt, played a major role in attracting domestic tourists,” she says, adding that the domestic tourists primarily visit popular destinations, like Pangong lake, as their priority. At the same time, some are interested in learning about Ladakh’s culture.

Hotel Lingzi situated in the main market area of Leh

On the other hand, Angmo has also noticed domestic travellers falling prey to the sickness due to a lack of knowledge about the weather conditions of Ladakh. “Ladakh is located at a high altitude, and it is advised to take one day off for acclimating. On the contrary, aiming to cover most of the places in a short period, people start touring the day they arrive here and fall sick,” she says. “The tourists need to learn about Ladakh before coming here,” Angmo adds.

‘Influenced ways’ leading to Ladakh

While Ladakhis give fair credit to the movies like ‘3 Idiots and ‘Jab Tak Hai Jaan’ for increasing tourism in Ladakh, the tour operators and guides do not forget to acknowledge how the growing usage of social media turned out to be a tourism booster for the valley. Ajay Sharma, a tour operator providing services in Ladakh, when asked about the potential reasons tourists urge to visit Ladakh, had just one word to say, with certainty in his voice – “Instagram.”

Ajay Sharma (third from both sides) with a group of tourists.

The reason might appear unknown to many of the villagers living in Ladakh — who are just witnessing the transformation of their land — Sharma has observed tourists highly being influenced by the videos and short-form travel content around Ladakh on Instagram and similar sites. “As the movies inspired people to visit Ladakh, many domestic tourists travelled to the place, and with their ability to share their trips through these sites, they began to motivate other travellers also to do the same,” he says.

After conducting various trips to Ladakh, Sharma believes that most travellers who come to him desire to see those places in Ladakh that they might have seen on Instagram. According to him, this behaviour has been common among domestic tourists since 2017-2018.

COVID-19 – the ultimate game changer

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Not just social media has contributed to the increased number of tourists for Ajay Sharma, who runs Mountainbea, but also the COVID-19-induced lockdown that took place in the initial months of 2020. After a long closure, as soon as the unlocking of the tourist places unfolded, Sharma says, he saw double the numbers of tourists that he would get in the pre-COVID time for Ladakh. “People, who were working from home, also took our services just for the sake of travel, even if it cost them double,” Sharma adds that he ran a special package for such travellers.

The trend gained a peak majorly post the second lockdown in 2021 when people involved in the hospitality and tourism industry saw a boom of domestic tourists in Ladakh. In a conversation with Local Samosa during this period in 2021, Pulkit Chauhan, owner of a Delhi-based travel agency, said, “Ladakh has become the preferred location of people in the current time. We have never taken so many bookings for Ladakh in the last 4-5 years.” It is the same time, Rinchen Angmo mentioned that Leh city suffered a shortage of tourist cars, and locals had to offer their private vehicles for tourism purposes!

Chunka’s hotel in Leh

Sahil Chunka, who runs a hostel in Leh, remembers the time and calls the number of travellers – “insane.” Contrary to 15-20 guests in April 2021, his hostel welcomed triple the numbers in and around October in the same year. Although Chunka understood the potential of tourism in Ladakh much before, that led him to open the hostel in his hometown after he returned from Delhi. Even he was amazed at the number of tourists that followed in 2021 and said that post this time, 90% of his hostel remains occupied in all months.

‘Ladakhis want a clean land like before.’

Along with the boom also comes the catastrophe, Chunka says, mentioning how tourists have been littering Ladakh on their trips. “Major tourist destinations in Ladakh are not the same as they used to be. There are discarded items and leftovers over the places,” Chunka laments. Adding to it, he says, “There are travellers who come here with the mindset of just drinking and having parties with their friends at the major places in Ladakh, who mostly ruin the beauty of our land. Ladakhis want a clean land like before.”

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As a solution to the problems, Chunka has kept strict rules at the hostel where alcohol is not permitted. Moreover, his hostel has been designed with a “zero waste” concept, and he maintains that travellers adhere to the rules and ideology. However, he also says that the locals of Ladakh, especially youngsters, must be responsible for their land and play an active role in maintaining the culture. “We will have to become responsible if we want responsible travellers in Ladakh,” he adds.

Flourishing businesses and experiments

Despite shortcomings, Chunka does not miss out on mentioning how the increasing number of tourists has also helped the locals to thrive and helped with their livelihood. “Back in my childhood days, we saw only army trucks in Leh and no cars. There would be fewer shops, inconsistent electricity, and only two channels on the T.V. for us,” he says, adding that things have changed for the better for locals.

With tourism opening multiple opportunities for Ladakhis, the valley’s landscape seems to have changed. Not only have people opened more shops catering to the varied needs of tourists, but a few are also taking a chance with experiential stays, hoping it will give them profitable returns. The owner of Dolkhar recently worked with over 40 Ladakhi craftspeople from different villages to create a boutique stay in Tukcha.

Dolkhar, a recent zero-waste property in Leh

Named Dolkhar, the place consists of seven villas made out of locally sourced materials like compressed stabilized earth blocks (CAEB) for the building, local willow and poplar wood for the roofs, and traditional columns and beams for structural support. The whole development aims to create a zero-plastic ecosystem while offering insight into the Ladakhi culture with its culinary confluence of modern haute and traditional Ladakh.

Being a luxury space, Dolkhar might not be attracting a large crowd, but as the owner says, she has received a good number of guests at her place. “Those tourists who have value for a sustainable stay come to our place, and that well serves the purpose behind the creation of Dolkhar,” she says. Contrary to other positive reasons that led tourism to grow in Ladakh, she highlights that even factors like the 2010 Ladakh floods and cross-border tensions have helped people to take notice of the place. “Irrespective of the reasons, the tourism growth is helping the locals,” she says.

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It will be wrong to say that only the new businesses are experimenting with adapting to the travelers’ preferences. Abhilasha Bahuguna, who has been selling Pashmina-knitted items with the help of locals for the last five years, had to change her strategy post-COVID lockdown at her store, ‘Looms of Ladakh’ situated in Leh. “Before 2020, when our sales would mostly depend on the foreign travellers, we had production at a small scale. With the spike in domestic travellers in Ladakh, we have changed the product range and now have a wide variety of products at comparatively lower prices,”

Amid the need to allure the travellers, however, also lies a quaint homestay in Sankoo of Kargil district that does not require captivating the tourists by opting for other practices. The homestay belongs to Shanaz Parveen, a Taekwondo champion whose victorious performances are enough to motivate the tourists to stay at her place. “Once a tourist from Kolkata had come to our homestay after reading about me in a newspaper. Although our homestay is far beyond the popular tourist spots, he chose to stay with us,” Parveen recounts.

A discussion with Ladakhis and those associated with tourism in Ladakh certainly suggests that the valley is going through a major cultural change. As of now, the locals are willingly accepting it, for it promises to provide them with a fair and sustainable livelihood. Meanwhile, for athletes like Shanaz Parveen, the growth of tourism in Ladakh appears as no less than bliss as the officials have started taking charge to revamp the crippled sports facilities, which otherwise, could be a far-off dream for Ladakhi athletes.

Also Read: The Indian travel industry after the second wave: Crippled or booming?

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