Tourism has emerged as the backbone of Ladakh’s economy over the last few decades. Hoteliers, guest-house owners, shopkeepers, antique-dealers, pony-men, guides, taxi drivers and a significant section of society depend on tourism for their livelihood. There has been a dramatic growth in tourism over the last decade and a half. This is reflected in the mushrooming of hotels and guest houses and an increase in the number of commercial vehicles. This has made tourism in Ladakh a fairly tough and competitive business sector.
In 2022, more than 500,000 tourists visited Ladakh, which marks the highest number of visitors in a year so far. However, the number of tourists has fallen to less than half that number, and as summer winds down the tourist season is also about to end. As a result of this downturn, many hotels have closed early this year and many hoteliers have discharged their staff members or limited the number of hotel staff. Initially, people solely blamed the cancellation of Go Air flights and the resulting increase in airfares to Leh for the downturn. However, even after airfares decreased the number of tourists in Ladakh remained low. This resulted in anxiety among people in the tourism sector. Many people started arguing that Ladakh is not a sustainable tourism destination. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that there are many factors that have caused the downturn in tourism. We need to identify these reasons, analyse them and introspect over them.
Most visitors perceive Ladakh primarily as a tourist destination. The dominant perception is that Ladakh is an expensive destination, especially in terms of transportation. I have heard people comment that for the amount of money required to visit Ladakh one can travel to an international destination such as Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok.
Many people have enjoyable holidays in Ladakh but there are many others who have had bad experiences while travelling in the region. This does not mean that the people in the tourism sector are bad. In fact, most people are polite, honest, and sensible people. I remember an incident that took place in 2021. A Ladakhi taxi driver found a mobile phone somewhere in Changthang. He along with a friend traced the owner of the phone to his address in Mumbai. The phone contained important personal data and information. The owner of the phone was happy and relieved to get the phone back. He offered the taxi driver Rs 50,000 for his efforts and honesty. However, the latter refused and finally accepted Rs 10,000 as the person insisted on giving him some sort of reward.
However, the misbehaviour, greed, arrogance and conduct of a few people in Ladakh gives the whole region a bad name. For instance, the number of tourists doubled in 2022 as compared to preceding years and many people expected this to remain stable for the next few years. Some decided to take advantage of this. I have seen some hoteliers who increased the cost of food at their restaurants, some even doubling it over existing rates, without necessarily improving the menu. Travel agencies who use these hotels for clients were confused and irritated by this sudden increase in rates.
I have also heard reports that some proprietors at Pangong-tso would pretend that their tents were fully occupied even for clients who had pre-booked tents through their agency. It is difficult to sleep in the open at an altitude of 12,000 feet above mean sea level. These tented accommodations are generally priced at Rs 5,000 per night. However, these unscrupulous proprietors would claim they were full to push the price up and the tourists were desperate enough to pay Rs 10,000 a night for a tent. The clients complained to the agency on their return and the agency in turn cancelled future night stay at these establishments at Pangong-tso. Thus, these proprietors had to pay a high price for their greed and dishonesty.
Similarly, many taxi drivers removed the luggage carrier from their vehicles to reduce its loading capacity. In addition, they would only take four passengers even though the administration had permitted them to ferry six passengers at a time. In addition, many drivers were reluctant to pay the customary commission given to hoteliers. Furthermore, many taxi drivers are hesitant to take clients for local sightseeing around Leh town as they earn more for trips to Nubra and Pangong-tso. Consequently, those who do agree for local sightseeing trips have started charging more than the prescribed rate.
I have heard of an incident where a taxi driver charged a couple INR 2,000 for the journey from Leh airport to their hotel located 4 km away. He took them to their hotel through a roundabout route. The couple later discovered that the trip should have cost them Rs 500. I have also heard some hotel owners speak about how some drivers complain that their clients take “too many photographs” on the way and waste their time. There was also one incident where a driver insisted on smoking cigarettes in the vehicle in the presence of his passengers.
Such experiences create a very bad impression of Ladakh and its people. Most successful businesspersons would agree that honesty, uprightness and mutual trust are prerequisites for success. This is also reflected in popular culture with the fable that warns us against killing the ‘goose that lays golden eggs’. The fable talks about a greedy person killing the goose to collect all the golden eggs at one go to become wealthy in an instant. The fable ends in certain doom for such a greedy person. We must pay heed to the wisdom of this fable.
Thus, one should resist any temptation to fleece tourists. In the long term, this will certainly ruin tourism as a whole. In addition, it will also have adverse impacts on society. Thus, exorbitant airfares may have contributed to the downturn in tourism but it is imperative that we also reflect on our own weaknesses and shortcomings. Self-reflection and constructive criticism are important qualities for long-term success.
Prior to independence, Ladakh was open for tourism and in the summers, a limited number of tourists, around 200-300, would visit the region. They would stay in the region for longer periods than tourists nowadays and later write about their experiences. There are hundreds of travelogues written by these travellers through the 19th and early 20th Centuries, which provide us with a wealth of insights into Ladakh in that period and the experiences of these travellers.These travelogues invariably praise Ladakhis for their honesty, simplicity and truthfulness. These writers mentioned that despite material poverty, pony-men, porters, cooks etc. were content and did not try to extort more money from travellers.
As mentioned earlier, Ladakh is already an expensive destination with respect to transportation and stay. Greed and opportunism makes some people make it even more expensive by unilaterally increasing their rates for taxi and stay. This causes unnecessary unpleasantness and harms Ladakh. It is thus not surprising when we hear tourists speaking about ‘arrogant’ people they encounter during their trip. For instance, I remember a Ladakhi student telling me about someone once asking them about their native place. When the student replied, “Ladakh”, the person replied curtly, “They looted us!” Furthermore, there are several videos online about people sharing their negative experiences in Ladakh. I remember one where a man is pointing towards a barren mountain and telling viewers that there is nothing to see in Ladakh. He told his viewers not to waste their time and money by visiting Ladakh. On seeing the video, my first reaction was that this man must have suffered some bad experiences in Ladakh and the video was his way of indirectly venting his frustration.
Unfortunately, the problem is not confined to the relationship between tourists and tourism-related personnel. There are many problems within the tourism sector too. Hoteliers report that some travel agents are notorious for not paying their dues to the hotels they use. I have heard hoteliers joke that it is easier to run a hotel than to recover money from some travel agents! Many travel agencies do not pay their dues in time even after repeated demands. Some do not pay at all and as a result lose credibility with the hotels who then refuse to provide them with rooms. Similarly, there was high demand for taxis in 2022 and there are some reports of travel agents cheating taxi drivers, especially non-Ladakhi drivers who were roped in to meet the demand. Such people are a menace to society and they give Ladakh a bad name.
I have also heard local shopkeepers and vegetable vendors complain that some hoteliers refuse to pay them on time for various essential commodities and vegetables purchased from them on credit. One vegetable vendor spoke about a specific hotelier who had outstanding dues of over INR 10 lakh (INR 1 million) and was showing no signs of clearing any of it!
Thus, when people argue that tourism in Ladakh is not sustainable I cannot help but think of such incidents that make it even more unsustainable. We must not forget that economic cycles are temporary while a bad business culture can cause permanent damage. I think good conduct can go a long way in making tourism more sustainable. In this regard, social leaders, business people, community leaders, politicians, media-persons and members of civil society must come forward to help reflect, identify such challenges and instil better practices in our everyday lives.
Editor’s note: We have withheld the identity of the writer on request.