Tourism in the Union Territory (UT) of Ladakh, which accounts for more than half the region’s gross income, has suffered tremendously in the past two years. Events like the abrogation of Article 370, tensions on the border with China, and COVID-19 had brought the tourism industry to a complete standstill. (Image above of tourists clicking a selfie near Pangong Lake courtesy Shutterstock/Roop_Dey)
In the past two months, however, the situation has seemingly improved, with tourist footfall on the rise once again now that the restrictions imposed due to COVID have been eased.
To further facilitate the entry of tourists, the UT administration of Ladakh issued a notification earlier this month allowing Indian nationals to visit notified protected areas, which include Nubra Valley, Pangong Lake and Tsomoriri Lake, among others, without the need for an inner line permit (ILP).
While some have questioned the long-term wisdom of this decision given the fragility of Ladakh’s ecology and its strategic importance for India’s national security, this step has been taken to encourage more domestic tourists. While decisions like these look to open the floodgates for the region’s tourism industry once again, here are some basic pointers on what you as a tourist should or shouldn’t do when you visit Ladakh.
Follow COVID-19 Protocols
While the virus has slowed in some parts of the country, a region like Ladakh cannot afford to let its guard down at this time. Tourists must follow the COVID-19 SOP issued by the UT administration, which states clearly that “all passengers arriving in Ladakh, both by air and road, must have a negative RT-PCR report not older than 96 hours”.
Without a negative RT-PCR report, tourists will have to undergo mandatory quarantine and a COVID-19 test. Anyhow, “every person/tourist on person/tourist on arrival irrespective of having RT-PCR negative test report will mandatory be administered RAT test at the point of arrival”.
The region’s public health infrastructure can only handle so much. During your stay, if you feel any of the symptoms associated with COVID-19, please get yourself tested at the Sonam Norboo Memorial Hospital in Leh or other testing centres sanctioned by the local administration, and follow all quarantine protocols to the letter.
Avoid Plastic Bottled Water & Littering
Tourists must avoid packaged food and bottled water covered in plastic. Every summer, during the tourist season, thousands of plastic bottles and food packaging items are not disposed of properly. Ladakh is getting crushed under the weight of non-biodegradable waste. If you’re riding along popular tourist routes and trekking trails, don’t throw trash by the wayside. Either find suitably marked garbage dumps or carry your trash with you until you find one.
After all, the consequences associated with such waste material is much greater in Ladakh than elsewhere, given its remoteness and the fact that its waste management infrastructure isn’t quite equipped to handle the tons of garbage generated during the tourist season. Instead of bottled water, get your own steel bottle or flask which you can refill wherever you’re staying.
Ladakh is home to an amazing array of flora and fauna. From the snow leopard to antelopes, ibexes, marmots and the black-necked crane, the region is blessed with diversity. However, as a result of changing climatic conditions due to global warming and illegal poaching, many of them have been declared endangered species.
As tourists, it’s your responsibility to not intrude upon their natural habitats or harass them in any way. Always maintain a sufficient distance from wildlife while you take in the spectacular sights on offer. DO NOT chase them around in your bikes, SUVs, or ask local taxi drivers to do so and DO NOT feed them any packaged food or snack items you consume.
It’s also important to address a recent bad habit of some tourists who bring their vehicles with them to ecologically fragile sites like the Pangong or Tsomoriri Lake. The peculiar desire to take polluting SUVs on the banks or into the lake itself must be discouraged. This is disrespectful, pollutes the pristine lake and sometimes even damages the vehicles.
Respect Local Culture, Ways and Traditions
Ladakh is home to many ancient monasteries and other heritage sites. It’s imperative for tourists to honour these historical sites, and the cultural symbols and monuments associated with them. Do not scribble on delicate and intricate wall frescoes and paintings in monasteries and refrain from taking photographs wherever prohibited. In some places, photography is allowed, but without a flashlight. Let your memory capture everything and abide by the rules.
Please maintain a sober behaviour and observe silence at places of worship. This, however, should be extended to other tourist sites as well.
Going further, if you’d like to experience local ways and engage more with local culture and how the people live their everyday lives, you could choose to live in village homestays rather than conventional hotels. Of course, this choice is entirely dependent on you. Meanwhile, you also have the option of visiting local stores and promoting homegrown handicraft products, apparel wear, jewellery and food, among others. This ensures your money goes into local hands.
Use Traditional Dry Toilets
As The Better India has reported in the past, the region is facing an unprecedented water problem due to receding glaciers and exponentially rising tourist footfall.
Conventional flush toilets use disproportionate amounts of water. Traditional dry toilets require little to no water at all. Also, dried human excreta is used as organic manure. It does take time to get used to the peculiar odour coming from these traditional dry toilets, but it’s a critically important way of saving water in a region considered to be a cold desert.
Get Consent Before Taking Pictures of Locals
Put yourself in the shoes of local villagers in Ladakh. Imagine someone walking into your property and taking photos of yourself, your family and children while you are home, at work, or during your prayers. In other words, when visiting habitations along remote routes, trekking trails or anywhere else, take the consent of locals before taking photos.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)