50 Years of Tourism in Ladakh: boon or bane?

(Shorter version published at: https://www.outlooktraveller.com/destinations/india/can-ladakh-embrace-tourism-while-protecting-its-fragile-ecosystem)

Sites like Tsomo Riri lake in Changthang are major tourist attractions @ Ashish Kothari

Ashish Kothari and Kunzang Deachen

2024 marks the 50th anniversary of tourism in Ladakh. In 1974, when the region was opened up to people other than pilgrims, researchers and government officers, it got a total of 527 tourists. In 2022-23, the count reached 531,000 & 525,374, greater than Ladakh’s resident population. Over the last couple of decades in particular, with air connectivity and easier road access from Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, the numbers have shot up. This was aided in no small degree by the film ‘3 Idiots’, the final scene of which has actors Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor reconnecting at the spectacular Pangong Lake. From about 74 thousand in 2008 before the film was released, the tourist count shot up to nearly 180 thousand by 2011. Interestingly also, while the domestic to foreign tourist ratio was nearly half-half in 2008, by 2011 domestic visitors were four times higher than foreign ones.

For a region needing to generate new livelihoods, tourism has come as an important opportunity. Ladakh’s traditional occupations – pastoralism, agriculture, trade – are struggling to survive for various reasons, and there are only limited jobs in government. Tourism has generated various kinds of jobs and income opportunities, including running hotels and homestays, opening up restaurants and shops, doing trekking, mountaineering and nature guiding, renting bikes, driving cabs, selling local produce including fruits and crafts, and more. Directly or indirectly, it makes up over 50% of the monetary economy now, according to local tour operator associations. It is therefore understandable that many kinds of people and institutions, both from Ladakh and outside, want even more tourist flow, and are demanding greater infrastructure and access.

Adverse Impacts

As is often the case, the boons that tourism has brought, are only one side of the coin. The flip side, of detrimental impacts, is also now generating a lot of discussion and some corrective action. Such impacts include: degradation of Ladakh’s fragile ecosystems and wildlife, a burgeoning solid waste and effluent problem, unregulated construction (much of it not following ecological and climate-sensitive approaches), increased vehicular load (especially visible in Leh town where traffic jams are becoming common), detrimental socio-cultural changes such as the introduction of junk foods and homogenous western lifestyles, and the entry of a commercial, competitive mindset that was relatively rare in traditional Ladakhis.

One of the main effects of rapid, unregulated growth in tourism is an increase in inequality throughout the region. There is also a distortion of those aspects of traditional life that were crucial to well-being, such as economy and social life being centered around the gift economy and self-sustainability. These are being impacted by the money economy and leading to an increase in individualization and self-centeredness. The younger generation appears to be having mental difficulties keeping up with this level of competition, which will only get stronger over time if present trends continue. This seems to be more intense in areas with a high concentration of tourism.

For some years now, several civil society organisations and some members of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), have been raising concern about the above impacts. Over a decade back, for instance, the Ladakhi Women’s Alliance of Ladakh campaigned against the use of plastic and of water bottles, which were contributing significantly to piles of garbage in and around Leh town, as also in major tourist destinations. Groups like Snow Leopard Conservancy – India Trust and Nature Conservation Foundation have been warning of the impacts on wildlife, where new roads are opening up areas previously undisturbed, or due to activities such as tourists feeding ‘cute’ marmots or chasing after Blacknecked cranes (severely endangered, with Ladakh having India’s only breeding population) to get photographs.

Even some of the most direct beneficiaries of tourism, such as associations of hoteliers, tour operators, bikers, taxi and tempo traveller owners, rafting companies, and trekking agencies have been expressing concern. They are worried both about the possible entry of outside companies, as also about a ‘killing the golden goose’ syndrome. 

Unregulated construction in Leh to cater to real and imagined tourist numbers @ Ashish Kothari

Policy Directions

In 2022, the UT Administration published a draft ‘Tourism Vision for Ladakh’, prepared by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India. Put out on 10th February, it sought comments from the public by 15th February, an impossible deadline for anyone to provide wellthought out inputs. It is not clear if Ladakhi groups and communities were consulted in the framing of the draft Vision, but there has been a general tendency to impose such policy directions emanating from New Delhi with hardly any meaningful participation of local people. Reportedly, the vision has been finalized without considering comments submitted by the Ladakh Tourist Trade Alliance (a regional body of all tourist trade associations) and others, but has not been implemented yet.

The Vision has a lot of language indicating concern for the direction tourism is taking in Ladakh. For instance, it states:

“In 2019, 38,652 foreign and 2,41,285 domestic tourists visited Ladakh,exceeding its own population, thus, making the calculation of carrying capacity an

essential factor in developing Ladakh more sustainably and protecting its fragile

ecosystem. With such a high demand for tourism, infrastructure interventions are

required to minimize tourisms’ adverse environmental, social, and cultural impact.

In the absence of carrying capacity and impact assessment data, it is difficult to say ifthe current rate of tourist influx is sustainable…

The mass tourist arrivals during the peak season have already caused a huge challengefor adequate availability of civic services. Traffic jams, lack of regular water supply, poorwaste management, and increasing pollution are causing enormous difficulties to thetourists and locals alike. If this goes unabated, Ladakh may not remain a preferreddestination, particularly for those tourists who are looking for a unique eco-experience.Therefore, in the context of tourism development, Ladakh currently is on crossroads ofthe opportunities emanating from its unique landscape elements and cultural heritage,and the challenges largely posed by ‘overtourism’.”

It goes on to make several recommendations that are important: conducting a carrying capacity within two years, diversifying destinations to reduce the pressure on the few current tourist hotspots (such as Pangong Lake, Nubra Valley, some of the high passes), incentivising low-impact tourism such as trekking and wildlife viewing, enabling communities to manage a substantial part of the tourism, creating dedicated governmental and other institutions for capacity building in sustainable tourism practices, and others.

While the overall focus of the Policy appears progressive, there are serious internal contradictions, and questions about implementation. For instance, it states that the biggest challenge is poor infrastructure, and that “better roads are therefore the first infrastructural need in Ladakh, not only for travellinglocally but also to ensure connectivity with the rest of the country.” This ignores the enormous detrimental impacts that highway construction has already caused in Ladakh. It also recommends making Leh an international airport, providing flights from cities not yet connected, and constructing airports in Kargil and Nubra. It is hard to imagine how all this can be sustainable.

There is no clarity on who will conduct the carrying capacity studies, and whether experienced people from Ladakh will be involved. More seriously, there is no recommendation that a moratorium be put on expansion of tourism till such a study is completed, and appropriate regulations and processes put into place to ensure that the carrying capacity is not exceeded (and, where already exceeded, to reduce the impact). This is crucial because even as one arm of the Government of India comes up with such a policy direction, other arms are rapidly building facilities to increase tourist numbers. One example of this is the upcoming new airport, with a stated capacity of two million annually – six times the population of Ladakh!

There Are Alternatives

Several civil society and trade association actions have already demonstrated the possibilities of responsible tourism in Ladakh, including several recommendations made in the draft Policy. Amongst the earliest of these was the innovation of homestays, started by SLC-IT in the early 2000s after a village woman asked in a meeting it had organised: ‘why can’t visitors stay in our homes, enjoy our hospitality, and give us the earnings’? As far as is known, this may be the first such initiative anywhere in the Himalaya, since when, homestays have become quite the buzzword with tour operators, civil society organisations and government agencies. Unfortunately, not all of these follow a process which involves building capacity, instilling ecological and visitation ethics, and ensuring some degree of fairness such as rotating hosting opportunities. But in principle and as demonstrated by SLC-IT’s ‘Himalayan Homestays’ programme, this is a viable alternative to hoteliers and tour operators cornering most tourism income.

Guest room at a homestay in Zangla, Zanskar @ Ashish Kothari

The NGO Local Futures has focused on preserving local food systems and protecting related traditional practices. In collaboration with local organizations and the local government through activities like hosting workshops and dialogues on food, farming and traditional knowledge, to promote more responsible tourism, and produce short films on the major issues facing Ladakh today. Program like “Help in the village”, running throughout the agricultural season, enables visitors (tourists & locals) to help out with various work in Ladakhi villages, especially agricultural work including crop harvesting, irrigation, weeding and the like, along with household work and village building projects as they arise. Not only does this provide useful labor for the Ladakhi hosts, but facilitates meaningful cultural exchange and deep learnings about various contemporary socio-environmental challenges affecting not only Ladakh, but the world, and lessons for confronting them that these rural spaces offer.

Ladakh Art and Media Organisation (LAMO), another civil society group, holds art exhibitions, residencies, festivals, workshops, music performances, film screenings, and various other activities and events featuring artists from Ladakh and all over the world. In Collaboration with the Himalayan Cultural Heritage Foundation (HCHF), it is documenting and disseminating cultural practices and historical sites along Nubra Valley’s silk route, with a view to protecting and revitalising them. It is proposing measures for more sustainable tourism in Nubra, engaging with stakeholders and youth through capacity building, enhancing livelihood opportunities, conserving the environment and heritage of the region.

Another organisation, Ladakh Environment and Health Organisation (LEHO) started Ladakh Ecotourism to achieve sustainable tourism development in the region to enhance rural livelihood, provide incentives to local communities to prevent migration from villages, and bring all stakeholders on a common platform. It also promotes homestays. In 2009, Thinlas Chorol established the Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company, to provide young women livelihood opportunities, as also show that trekking and mountaineering need not be an exclusively male domain. Tsetan Dolma started De Khambir as a restaurant specialising in local cuisine; several other restaurants and cafes are now doing the same, including Solja started by Spalzes Angmo, which is now part Local Futures Ladakh. High end establishments like Dolkhar & Lchang-nang are promoting locally inspired architecture, cuisines, and cultural experiences. Enterprises like Ladakhi Basket, Siachen Naturals, Nima Goos Goos, Organix Ladakh and Reetsot, are marketing foods that are locally sourced, build on traditional cuisine, embed ecological responsibility (except perhaps the footprint of long-distance consumption), and generate livelihoods for farmers.

The promotion of responsible trekking, biking, mountaineering and adventure tourism by tour operators is also increasing. Deleks Namgyal, president of All Ladakh Tour Operators Association admits that in the recent past, some of these activities have had negative impacts. He told us of the trek to Stok Kangri peak, which used to be a favourite destination for trekkers and mountaineers because of its proximity to Leh town. But there were no regulations, no power with the local community to enforce responsible behaviour, so in 2020 the villages en route simply blocked the route and refused to allow anyone in. “We have learnt from this experience, and are now trying to promote responsible trekking and mountaineering, such as ensuring all waste is brought back, no trees or bushes are cut for fuel, local people are treated with respect, and as far as possible, homestays are availed of”, said Namgyal. He added that more norms were needed, such as no off-road driving (a huge problem in places like Changthang where flat grasslands and desert ecosystems are easy to drive on), trekkers to take back their non-biodegradable garbage, a local escort being mandatory in sensitive areas, etc. A model trek in the Ko Valley is being developed where these norms can be demonstrated, with local villagers including the traditional headmen (gobas) being empowered to enforce them. They have already experimented with impossing minimum selling price (MSP) for services so as not to undercut each other. As an example, the MSP for hiring horses would be Rs. 700/horse/day, to be enforced by all the 300 members of their trekking association, so that horse-keeping by villagers can be revived.

Car-free street in main market, Leh, a welcome step by the Ladakh administration @ Ashish Kothari

Hotel Association president Skarma Tsering Dehlex, spoke of the norms that hoteliers have set for themselves, e.g. only Ladakhis being allowed to set up hotels, and no-one allowed more than 35 rooms so that there is fairer distribution of earning opportunities. The taxi association has resolved that no-one should own more than 2-3 vehicles, and that it will oppose the entry of companies like Ola and Uber. Dehlex also mentioned a series of resolutions that tour operators and other organisations have passed since 2000, on these issues. The latest, on 28 April 2021 (signed by all tourism related associations, religious bodies, and political parties), resolved “for the preservation of Ladakh as a unique tourist destination and for protection of avenues of entrepreneurship and livelihood of the local people, and to protect the fragile ecosystem, investment in the tourism sector from outside the region in any form, will be discouraged and opposed.” There was immediate (and successful) protest when, as soon as Ladakh became a Union Territory separated from J&K, the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation expressed its interest in starting a large hotel in Ladakh. He admitted however that one problem was violation of such norms by some local operators, especially those that come with collaborative outside investment, a route used by outsiders to bypass the ‘only Ladakhi’ norm. He also mentioned that inequalities within Ladakh were an issue, for instance those with substantial investment potential from Leh setting up operations elsewhere. For this reason, as an example, a resolution was passed by operators in Hanle (a part of Changthang now exploding with tourism, and facing the problem of unregulated and often badly-run accommodations) to not allow anyone from Leh to establish a guest house there.

A few government-sponsored programmes are also providing examples of what sustainable tourism could look like. A car-free section of Leh town, within its main market, has become a favourite for both local people and visitors, and enables women from nearby villages to sell fresh produce. The UT Administration is promoting festivals that showcase Ladakhi culture and cuisine, such as a Buckwheat festival, though sometimes one gets the feeling that they going on overdrive with these, perhaps as a way of keeping local people happy or distracted away from several serious issues Ladakh faces.

The Need for Paradigm Shifts

Tourism cannot be seen in isolation from the economic, political and socio-cultural transformations Ladakh is facing. While it was a district within J&K state, there was already a feeling of neglect and alienation. Since it became a Union Territory in 2019, this has actually increased, since most decision-making is happening at the best of the central government. The way New Delhi looks at this region is how it has looked at India as a whole: promoting a model of development based on unending economic growth, mega-infrastructure, and meeting consumerist demand with no consideration of impacts and supply-side constraints (including environmental). Its hold on Ladakhi policies and programmes is vice-like, with little genuine attempt to provide a meaningful voice to Ladakhis themselves. Since 2023 an increasing number of local residents have protested the failure of the central government to fulfil promises like providing Ladakh autonomy in the form of statehood or under the Constitution’s 6th Schedule, the latest being a mass rally and total closure of Ladakh on 3rd February 2024, and a 21-day fast by local educationist, inventor and entrepreneur Sonam Wangchuk. There are real fears of local institutions such as the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council losing control over the allocation of land. With major Indian and foreign corporations eyeing profit-making opportunities in Ladakh, these fears are not exaggerated.

Whether tourism goes the way it has gone in so many favoured ‘destinations’ across the world, metaphorically killing the golden goose, or can be transformed into something truly beneficial to the region as also to visitors, will depend on how these larger contexts play out. Meanwhile, there has to be continued action and advocacy for the alternative approaches described above, including the positive elements of the Tourism Policy. These issues will be at the centre of a series of events to be organised by local civil society groups and tour operators in mid-2024, including a Vikalp Sangam that brings together all alternative approaches.


Ashish is with Kalpavriksh, Pune; Kunzang is with Local Futures Ladakh.

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