Can a winter festival revive Ladakh's tourism amid Indo-China standoff?

The tourism sector accounts for 50% of Ladakh's GDP

By Renu Kotwal
Published: Friday 29 January 2021
Can the Zanskar festival revive tourism in Ladakh amid Indo-China standoff? Photo: DD News
Photo: DD News Photo: DD News

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and Indo-China standoff paralysed tourism in the Union Territory (UT) of Ladakh. Majority of the populace, who rely on the sector for their livelihood, are struggling to save the tourism business chains.

The air about Indo-China delimitation is still not clear but Ladakh administration has resumed tourism promotions with “Zanskar winter sports and youth festival 2021” from January 18 to January 30.

People practicing ‘yoga’ and ‘meditation’ in a snowcapped, isolated valley; youth playing ice hockey and skating on the snow after trekking over the frozen Zanskar river famous as the ‘Chadar Trek’; traditional archery followed by a colourful, cultural food festival — this is what tourists would be offered in the 13-day Zanskar festival.

Under the banner of ‘Khelo India’, this winter fest is organised by the department of sports and youth services in collaboration with the tourism department with a view to boost the state’s economy.

Ladakh is a global adventure tourism destination with attractions like Khardongla pass (the world’s highest motorable road), Nubra valley, Tsomoriri lake, glaciers, majestic peaks and Buddhist monasteries. A major hotspot for trekkers, Ladakh remained at standstill due to pandemic followed by tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). 

After abrogation of Article 370, in August 2019, Ladakh was declared a separate UT. In the same year, Prahlad Singh Patel, the minister of tourism and culture declared investment in Ladakh tourism. The Union Ministry of Home Affairs opened more areas of Ladakh for international tourism. 

Earlier, restricted areas of Khaltse, Nubra and Nyoma subdivisions were opened with the intention to promote the new UT as a global tourist destination. But post August 2019, tourist inflow decreased due to a tentative ban on the internet. The hotels, guest houses, catering services, private transport companies and artisans making traditional handmade goods had no customers.

The tourism sector contributes 50 per cent to the gross domestic product (GDP) of Ladakh. According to the Ministry of Tourism, more than 2.79 lakh tourists visited Ladakh in 2019 and only 6,079 tourists visited Ladakh till June 2020.  

The major attraction, Pangong Tso, the world’s highest saltwater lake, remained closed for nearly a year due to Indo-China clashes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). These clashes began in May 2020 adding to the COVID-19 crisis. On 10th January 2021, the administration reopened Pangong Tso for tourists but under strict restrictions.

“People see just tourism as livelihood here. One of my friends started a hotel in 2019. Amid COVID-19 and Indo-China stand-off, no tourists visited Ladakh. He took out a loan to pay his expenses. Chadar trek is the only hope in winter,” a local traveller, Stan Zin told Down to Earth.

Fearing the closure of tourism, Ladakh Tourist Trade Alliance (LTTA) demanded ‘waive off’ of commercial loans and financial assistance from the government. LTTA chairperson, PT Kunzang appraised that tourism needs at least two years to bounce back.

Jigmet Namgyal, assistant director, tourism, Ladakh told Down to Earth that the winter fair would rejuvenate tourism in Ladakh.

“Tourism revitalisation would take its time. It would be slow but we have winter fest, Chadar trek is famous among tourists. In 2020, most of the cultural festivals were cancelled because of COVID-19 but this crisis was universal. Immediate restoration is not possible. Ladakh would take its time to bloom again,” he said.

According to LTTA, advisories by foreign embassies are also a reason behind low inflow of foreign tourists. In 2020, Ladakh received only 1,060 foreign tourists. These advisories are likely to continue till clarity over the Indo-China standoff. The winter festival in the remote valley of Zanskar is expected to open new avenues for tourism but the tensions along LAC remain a concern.

Stanzin Phelgais, nodal officer, department of Youth Services and Sports said winter sports would attract global tourists and administration is all set to welcome them.   

“I do not have an exact number of tourists participating in the winter festival but it is the first of its kind. Jamyang Tsering, a Lok Sabha member from ladakh, participated in the Chadar Trek and Kiren Rijiju, the Union Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs participated in the winter sports festival,” he said.

The winter fest is a hope for resuming tourism but the continuous Indo-China tussle along the LAC cannot be ignored. It would shadow the inflow of tourists. The trade unions have demanded a ‘waive off’ on commercial loans for the tourism industry, but the government has still not responded. There is no clarity on how the administration would revive tourism or diversify the revenue sectors to decrease dependence on tourism.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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