According to official data, the tourist influx in Leh this summer surpassed its previous records. As many as 2.5 lakh (250,000) people flocked Leh in just two months, June and July. For a city whose population is around 31,000, that is eight times more than that and twice that of Ladakh's population, which is approximately 1.33 lakh.
"The heavy flow of tourist traffic through the Atal tunnel (also known as the Rohtang tunnel), constructed above 10,000 feet from sea level, has NGOs and environmentalists concerned about the impact of the rising tourists and vehicles on the sensitive Himalayan region", says environment journalist Vivek Gupta. This year 7.62 lakh (762,000) vehicles have already passed through the tunnel in the eight months between January 1 and August 19, data revealed
LEH'S LANDSCAPE IS CHANGING
Gupta, who is an independent journalist covering climate-related vulnerabilities in the Himalayan region, points out that the impact of climate change is so huge that the water crisis due to less snowfall has forced several desert villages to search for a new livelihood. "Unrestricted flow of tourism has put further pressure on the local ecology," he says. "While water demand has increased, so has waste generation, especially plastic bottles. The rapid increase in the construction of hotels and restaurants is decreasing the region's natural landscape."
Meanwhile, the government is actively promoting tourism, he adds. With the easing of road connectivity and transport, unchecked tourism will have a disastrous impact on Leh's future if ecological concerns are not addressed promptly. Promoting responsible tourism is the need of the hour.
Almost 50 years since its inception, the number of tourists in Ladakh has grown to 4.5 lakh this year in just eight months (from January 1 to August 31 2022).
The region is a big draw for motorbike rallies throughout the year, which, as activists say, leads to environmental damage. In 2018, wildlife enthusiasts and activists had protested about a major motorsport rally which would have affected the ecologically sensitive areas of the cold desert. This led to the organisers changing the routes of the event.
The allure of a Ladakh motorcycle ride lies in its hundreds of kilometres long arid, largely unoccupied terrain at heights averaging 12-14,000 feet above sea level - something that cannot be experienced anywhere else on the planet. From the border with China to the Siachen glacier in Nubra Valley to the magnificent Pangong Lake - the region offers a visual spectacle unlike others.
"It is a test of the human will", says Aditya Patel, an avid motorcycle traveller who has extensively travelled the region over the last five years.
"The region now houses the world's highest motorable road - the Umling La - at 19,000 plus feet, which is higher than the Everest base camp," he adds. "Ladakh is so vast that experiencing it all in one trip is nearly impossible. That's why motorcyclists keep returning every year."
While the influx of tourists does take a toll on the fragile ecosystem of the region, Patel says that most people visiting the region are slightly more mindful of that than regular tourists, and clean up after themselves.
"In my opinion, it would be counterproductive to curb tourist movement rather, we need sustainable waste management solutions. The region is accessible to tourists for about 4-5 months a year."
Sustainability Is No Longer A Niche
For the last 12 years, 35 year old Gulzar Hussain has been telling his guests at check-in time to reduce their use of plastic water bottles and other waste. Hussain owns a travel company whose motto is to use travel for social upliftment and identifies himself as a naturalist and an ethnographer.
He believes the region isn't being promoted in the right direction. He says, "Ladakh should be promoted throughout the year and not just for 3 months. It has 6 beautiful seasons around the year and various properties homestays are open 365 days. The misconception is that it is only annually open for a limited period."
Touching upon the topic of sustainability, a lifestyle change that people are taking to across the globe, he adds, "Sustainability is the only way out it is no longer a niche. We tell our customers when they check in to minimise the use of plastic water bottles. Conservation, community, and commerce is our business mantra, and we strictly abide by it. Ladakh is a desert, and water is scarce, so the government should host an awareness programme along with stakeholders.