Tourism industry, one of the major economic engines of the region, has been crippled in the wake of Coronavirus pandemic. The industry that contributes more than 60 percent of Ladakh’s GDP and has an annual turnover of around ₹600 crore is facing the toughest challenge yet. Tour operators, travel guides, commercial vehicles, hoteliers and guest houses have been severely affected. Small businesses and services related to tourism are also facing the heat of the nationwide lockdown. Since around 70% households are directly dependent on the tourism industry, the pandemic has affected all segments of the industry. Today, the tourism industry is finding it hard to cope with the situation.
Tsetan Angchuk, President, All Ladakh Tour Operator Association (ALTOA), said, “COVID-19 pandemic has emerged as a major challenge for everyone, and it is a matter of great concern for people in the tourism sector. We have a limited earning season and many people here are dependent for their livelihood on seasonal businesses.”
Talking about the revival of the industry, he informed that the situation is dependent on the global circumstances and the increase in number of patients. According to him, the tourism industry in Ladakh would take 12-18 months for its revival. He added, "Until and unless a vaccine for the virus is found, it is very difficult to say that the industry will recover fully. There is a fear among the people as they are afraid to travel. Also, apprehensions of locals whether to welcome the tourists or not cannot be ignored".
Rinchen Dorjay, Owner, Ladakh Art Palace said, “The pandemic has affected the biggest and the most established economies throughout the world and our homeland Ladakh is not an exception. We all know that our economy is predominantly dependent on tourism. As of this year, we don't have any hope, but we are hopeful that probably things will return to normal next year.”
The economy of Ladakh is in a grim state. The usually vibrant summer and crowded streets of Leh have fallen silent. Most of the shops are closed and those in operation are finding it hard to sustain due to less number of customers. Daily wagers have been affected the most by the pandemic.
Stanzin Sedol, a travel guide said, “I have been working as a travel guide since last year and the money I earn helps me and my family to meet our daily expenses. Now, because of the pandemic, I have to find an alternative job for livelihood.”
Tashi Tundup, an owner of a travel agency owner, said, “Youth have taken loans from the banks to start their own ventures in the tourism industry. Also, many students work as travel guides during summer break to earn some money so that they could sustain their studies. The pandemic has put everyone into a difficult situation.”
As the industry has been hit hard and the recovery of the sector looks distant, the stakeholders are urging the administration for some relief measures such as soft loans and relief incentives. On May 4, representatives of Ladakh Tourist Trade Alliance met Lieutenant Governor, R K Mathur and discussed the issues faced by the tourism industry of Ladakh. The delegation requested a moratorium of 24 months and the loan interests for this period to be borne by the government. They requested a fast track process to provide DIPP industrial subsidy for early disbursement of finances, waiver of registration and other annual fees, applicable to the hospitality industry for the current year and complete withdrawal of GST for a period of five years to reinforce the much-affected tourism industry till the situation gets back to normal.
Tashi Tundup said, “Because Tourism Industry is excluded from the Central Govt's Atma-nirbhar (Self Reliant) bailout packages, we are left to rely on ourselves. We are left with no option but to work on our own to find out alternatives for economic problems faced by all of us and also the staff. UT Administration and Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council should work on the unemployment issues first rather than focusing on new projects.”
Talking about the financial aid, Tsering Sandup, EC, Tourism, LAHDC, Leh said that final estimates of the loss and relief measures are yet to be ascertained. So far, a rough estimate of nearly ₹250 crore is needed from the government as a relief package.
Commissioner/Secretary, Tourism, Rigzin Samphel expressed the importance of focusing on commercial and developmental activities along with the handling of crisis. He said that as per the SOPs/Guidelines issued by Ministry of Home Affairs, GoI, for tourism department, Ladakh is now open for tourists. He said, “We are ensuring strict precautionary and safety measures such as screening and registration at all the entry points (roadways and airports), vehicle sanitization, safety and hygiene protocols for hotels/ guest houses”.
Prior to the outbreak of this pandemic, tourism industry of Ladakh had been flourishing. With the heavy influx of tourism increasing every year, the question of sustainability was often overlooked. The Covid-19 crisis is looked upon as a testing time for the industry.
President ALTOA discussed about a post- Covid task force, where new trekking routes, lakes, mountain peaks, and other potential areas will be explored. The survey report of these new avenues is expected to be completed during this year.
Later, this report will be submitted to the UT administration as well. The prime focus will be on promoting homestays in far-flung villages, agro-tourism, certified skill development training for youths and updating the tourist map of Ladakh. The main aim of this survey is to make tourism industry more holistic in nature and to outreach the benefits to every nook and corner of the region.
While the stakeholder are seeking help from the government for their survival, they also want to utilize this time of crisis as an opportunity to re-invent the tourism sector in a sustainable way to cope with such unanticipated scenario in the future.