Ladakh only opened to tourists in 1974, before which it was almost completely isolated from outside influences. After the Sino-Indian war of 1962, large numbers of Indian troops were stationed in the region and efforts to develop Ladakh began. But it was when large numbers of tourists began arriving that the changes became dramatic — in the environmental, social and economic. spheres.
Tourism certainly is not the only factor contributing to this process of change, but it is the most important. The tourist industry has made some of the local in-habitants affluent, but the benefits have not been shared equally and a significant part of the revenue does not stay in Ladakh. The souvenir trade, for example, is almost completely monopolised by Kashmiris and Tibetan refugees.
Between 1974 and 1980, the number of visitors coming to Leh went up from about 500 to 14,000. During this initial period of expansion, many Ladakhis opened guest-houses and were able to earn well. However, the number has leveled off at the 1980 mark , but new restaurants and guest-houses continue to be added. Consequently, occupancy has gone down drastically and competition has increased. Since the tourist season is limited to four months per year, with up to 70 percent travelers arriving during July and August, the possibilities of attracting more tourists are limited.
Development in general and tourism in particular have disrupted the traditional subsistence economy and made Ladakh more dependent upon imports from other parts of India. The population of Leh, the capital, has risen from 5,500 in 1971 to 15,000 today. Leh can no longer provide for its own needs and the Leh-Srinagar road has become a lifeline whose frequent closure leads to severe shortages. Another side effect of tourism has been rocketing inflation – a day’s rental for a horse or donkey used to be IRs.30, today it is IRs120-150. Leh now depends upon large supplies of fossil fuels trucked in from Kashmir. Tourists demand imported foods and a constant supply of hot water.
The disruption of the economy, intensified competition, and unfulfilled expectations raised by modernisation and tourism have caused increasing tension within the Ladakhi community, and between Ladakhis and Kashmiris in particular. The traditonal harmony between different sections of the population has gradually been replaced by open conflict, the latest outbreak of which in July led to the imposition of curfews in Leh.
Tourists in general exude a seductive image of life in the West, one marked by wealth and leisure. This leads the Ladakhi youth to imbibe a highly unrealistic image of life in the West. They take on “Western values” and reject their own traditional societies as backward and inferior.
Having endured the shock-effect of “development” and tourism, many Ladakhis have felt the need for a different approach. One noteworthy effort was the establishment in 1987 of the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), which works for the preservation and development of traditional culture, particularly among youngsters. Together with other groups, such as the Ladakh Ecological Development. Group, SECMOL is working to manage the impact of tourism.
Judging from the response of Ladakhis and outsiders to these and other initiatives, there remains hope that, with the help of the state and central governments, the harmful effects of tourism can be countered. But equally important is the attitude and behaviour of the tourists themselves. Without a greater awareness among the visitors, these efforts are all in vain.
van Beek is a development sociologist.