Innovations in Himalayan Tourism

Seema Bhatt

Travel to the Himalaya

Travel to the Himalaya is an age old practice

The Himalayan region is a fragile ecosystem and if not addressed, the issue of mass tourism will lead to extreme degradation of this ecosystem that may become irredeemable. Tourism in this region urgently needs to be regulated. It has certainly gone beyond the carrying capacity of most fragile areas.

Travel to the Himalayas is an age-old practice. For a thousand years, and more, people travelled on what is popularly called the ‘silk route’ that was essentially the trunk road crossing Central Asia and connecting China in the east and Rome in the west. This route was used by people for trade, religion, conquest and even adventure. Buddhism is said to have been disseminated through the branch routes of this road that were also responsible for the spread of different philosophies, arts and crafts across the region. With the advent of the Kushanan rule in the first three centuries of the common era, Hadda, Taxila and Kapisha became centres of art and learning representing hybrid cultures. The influence of this culture spread along the main Silk Route from Central Asia to China and signs of this are evident in the work of the Han artists1.

The Himalayan region has from time immemorial been revered and is significant both for its religious and spiritual import. The entire territory is considered a sacred space. Popularly known as Dev Bhumi, pilgrimages to these mountains have played an important role for many different religions. The Mahabharata from the 1st century BC provides the earliest written evidence of pilgrimages to the Himalaya while mentioning Hardwar, Badrinath and Kedarnath as pilgrimage destinations2. Although, primarily Hindu, Hemkund Sahib in Uttarakhand is a very significant destination for the Sikhs. There are also important Buddhist and Bon sanctuaries such as the Kongpo Bonri in central Tibet. Until about the middle of the 20th century, the number of pilgrims who visited these religious sanctuaries was low because travel involved arduous treks. For example, in the middle of the 19th century, only about 5-10 thousand pilgrims undertook the 30-day trek to Badrinath each year. With a better road network and transportation providing better access, the number of pilgrims has only been going up. It reached 180,000 in 1975 and 925,998 in 20123.

In the 19th century the British found recreation in the Himalayas and established what are even today called, ‘hill stations’. A new kind of Himalayan tourism came into being. Shimla was established as the first hill station in 1819. It became the government and military summer headquarters for India in 1838 and remained so until 1947, when the British withdrew from the country. Post-independence, after a brief lull, in the early 1960s, the Indian middle class discovered hill stations as tourist destinations, leading to the advent of mass tourism in the Himalayan region. The number of tourists visiting these destinations has gone up exponentially. Take the example of Mussoorie, where tourist numbers have gone up from 158,000 in 1958 to 980,921 in 20064.

Mountaineering and trekking in the Himalayan region got a boost in the 1950s, after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed Mt. Everest. There was also an opening of several strategic roads that resulted in better access and connectivity. Ladakh first opened to tourism in 1974 with a total of 527 visitors. In 2015, Ladakh recorded a total number of 214,4135. Similar numbers have been recorded from Nepal. In 1962 6,179 tourists arrived in Nepal. Nepal reached its peak in 1999 with a record 421,000 tourist arrivals6. The numbers of tourists to Nepal have fallen drastically in the last 10 years or so as a result of political conflict.

For the modern day tourist, the Himalaya now offers a range of other exciting opportunities, too. Besides the aesthetics and traditional mountaineering, there is the chance to experience unique cultures. For the adventurous, there are options such as rafting, kayaking, rock climbing, mountain biking, bungee jumping, paragliding, etc.

Tourism has brought an enormous boost to the economy. However, a large percentage of economic benefits from tourism often tend to be drawn away from the destination and only a fraction trickles down to local communities. Known as ‘tourism leakages’, this is revenue that is generated by outside entrepreneurs who often benefit more than the local community. A study of tourism leakage estimates that 40% of all money spent by tourists ended up leaving India7. Studies carried out also show that on an average, of every US$ 100 spent on a vacation tour by a tourist from a developed country, only around US$ 5 actually stays in a developing country destination’s economy8. This kind of tourism has often resulted in the privatization of common resources and displacement of people to make way for hotels and resorts. Unregulated mass tourism has resulted in degrading habitats and particularly deforestation in the Himalayan forests. Every hill station shows evidence of pollution of land and water. Garbage has become a common site at all these destinations. Ironically, every hill station is now subject to traffic jams and increasing air pollution. Mass tourism has also caused the exploitation of women and children.

Innovations in Himalayan Tourism

The growing realization of the ill effects of mass tourism has resulted in some interesting innovations in tourism, albeit on a very small scale. Some of these are described here.

Community-based Homestays

Community-based homestays have over the last ten years become popular particularly in the Himalayan region. They follow the age-old practice of having house-guests. Tourists stay with local families in their homes in places where there is a room to spare for guests. Accommodation is basic but comfortable. Tourists have the opportunity to experience first-hand, local culture by living with the family, enjoying local cuisine and getting a glimpse of local life. Communities in turn benefit financially and also get an incentive to conserve and showcase local traditions and culture. Homestays are popular in Ladakh, Spiti and Sikkim and such is their popularity that there is even a website ( promoting them.

A pioneering effort of establishing home stays in Ladakh was made by the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC), a local Non-Government Organization (NGO) working in trans-Himalayan regions of Ladakh, Zanskar and Spiti for the conservation of the endangered snow leopard in India. How they started is a story in itself. SLC while working on the conservation of the snow leopard in the Hemis National Park realized that this highly endangered animal fell prey to local people who would guard their livestock against it. Livestock in Ladakh is penned into enclosures during the winter when temperatures are below freezing. It is also at this time that the snow leopard comes to lower altitudes for food. Once it realizes where the livestock in villages are housed, it breaks in and kills them. Unfortunately, since it is hard for it as well as the livestock to get out of the enclosures, the result is a massacre.

The villagers used to be outraged at this loss and in retaliation killed the snow leopard. SLC got into discussions with the people of Rumbak village, and suggested that they start homestays where people could let out one room in their house to tourists trekking in the valley and wild-life enthusiasts keen to spot the snow leopard, if they were lucky. Rumbak is significant because many treks originate from here into the Hemis National Park. The villagers, a bit reluctant to start with, agreed to this. There was considerable capacity building on various aspects of hospitality, sanitation, waste management, etc. that went into this initiative, particularly with the women who primarily run these homestays. One of the starting points to trek in the Hemis National Park is the two household village of Zingchen, an hour’s drive from Leh. Zinghchen residents run a ‘Parachute Cafe’ serving tea, snacks and instant noodles, which have come to be known as the ‘modern’ staple diet in Ladakh. Visitors can trek through the Rumbak Valley, the home of the snow leopard, and eventually arrive in Rumbak. As you enter the village, you first encounter the Parachute Café run by the women of Rumbak. A great place to catch your breath, have a cup of tea and stock up on hand knitted woollens. Visitors are then led to a Ladakhi home that serves as the central booking for homestays in Rumbak. Each household offers a homestay and the allocation is through rotation. Once they are allocated their homestay, the staff accompanies them to their ‘Ladakhi home’. The room for guests is simple, yet neat and clean with adequate mattresses and blankets. The meals are served in the kitchen, the central place in the house, along with the family. Part of the Ladakhi homestay is the Ladakhi toilet. The toilet is a room located on the ground floor a little away from the main house. The toilet itself is a dugout cavity in the floor. The cavity opens into a lower floor where all droppings are converted into manure for use in the fields. Mud is swept into the cavity after each use and this helps to keep the toilet dry and odour free. In this cold desert with less water, these toilets are ideal, being hygienic and eco-friendly.

Women who run the homestays today in all the nine households in Rumbak are financially independent and feel a sense of empowerment.

Homestays in Rumbak

Homestays in Rumbak

Parachute Café run by women in Rumbak

Parachute Café

They are now ready to train women in other villages too. The youth of the village are now involved as guides for trekkers and help with other related activities. There is now less hostility towards the snow leopard. In fact, tourists come to see the snow leopard and that has now become an incentive for the local community to help conserve the snow leopard. Indeed a Win Win situation.

An Urban homestay in Sikkim

Netuk House is perhaps the oldest home stay in Sikkim. It has been the home of the Dengzongpas, an old and respected Sikkimese family. Strategically located on the Tibet road, it must have been a rather significant place when trade still thrived between Sikkim and Tibet. Today it stands tucked away in a corner of Gangtok, but still just a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the town. The guesthouse that is now part of the Heritage Houses of Himalayas has 12 rooms all decorated in the traditional Sikkimese style with indigenous fabric and furniture. The open terrace with traditional Buddhist flags flying, affords a breath-taking view of the majestic Kangchenjunga. Clouds descend upon the forests of the eastern Himalayan slopes as you sip tea. Look over the wall and the scenario changes. You see the real face of Gangtok, jumbled and chaotic. It is this paradox that makes Netuk house so unique. The food served is home-cooked and delicious. A range of traditional Sikkimese dishes are served, personally supervised by the lady of the house. It is not uncommon for a member of the family to join you for a meal, amicably chatting with guests. Netuk house provides a unique Sikkimese experience and stands out like an oasis in the midst of the growing urbanity of this hill state capital.

Planned Ecotourism in Sikkim

Yuksam-Dzongri is a well-known trekking trail on the route to the mighty Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain peak. The trail runs along the periphery of the Kangchenjunga National Park, famous for the red panda and many other animal and bird species. It starts from the village of Yuksam and winds its way to Dzongri and finally to Goecha la, covering a distance of 45 km and reaching an altitude of 4940 m.

Netuk House

Netuk House

The village of Yuksam is in the far western corner of Sikkim. It is revered (it is said that this was the place where the Gods first came and settled) and known to be the first capital of Sikkim. Tourists hardly spent any time at Yuksam, a sleepy little village, before setting off on the trek. The villagers had very little interest in the tourists or the trail since only those who were hired as guides, porters or cooks earned from trekking activities. This remained so until 1995 when a project on Sikkim Biodiversity and Ecotourism started in this village. The aim of the project was to ensure that the people of Yuksam benefitted from the trekking tourism on the trail, to address the threats that the biodiversity on the trail faced and to then try and influence the state government to have better policies for tourism in general and ecotourism in particular.

The project tried to achieve these aims through training of many different groups of people. There were training programmes for the guides who took tourists on the trail. These programmes made the guides aware of the ‘do’s and don’ts’ on the trail and they began to understand the importance of this trail because of its unique biodiversity. There were training programmes for porters and cooks, focused on how best they could carry on with their activities without causing much damage to the trail. As a result of the training, these people became aware of the significance of this trail and this knowledge instilled in them a sense of pride and responsibility towards it. As feedback about these well- trained and aware guides, porters and cooks went back to the state government, their wages were increased and this added another incentive for them to do a good job.

As other villagers watched their fellow Yuksam-folk benefit from the training, they got enthused and wanted to contribute to the project. They realized that if they made their village and houses more attractive to tourists, then perhaps the people who spent only one night in the village might stay longer. Many villagers started giving out rooms in their houses for tourists to spend the night in. Shopkeepers started storing more things in their shops. Residents opened a few more restaurants as tourists started spending more time in the village. Yuksam seemed to suddenly wake up and take pride in its existence!

The youth of the village then got together and formed an organisation that called the Kangchenjunga Conservation Committee (KCC). The Yuksam-Dzongri trail being on the periphery of the national park is managed by the Forest Department. The KCC, however, decided to help the Forest Department in keeping the trail clean, by organizing regular clean-up campaigns. They have today one of the best-planned solid waste disposal plan, a role model for the entire country. The KCC also developed a Code of Conduct for all trekkers, very clearly pointing out what could and could not be done on the trail. Visitors to Yuksam were requested to follow the Code of Conduct.

Code of Conduct for the Yuksam-Dzongri Trail

  • Leave only footprints, take only photographs
  • High altitude vegetation is frail, avoid trampling, follow trails and do not pick plants or flowers
  • Do not disturb wildlife or its habitat, do not buy endangered animal or plant products
  • Use kerosene or bottled gas for cooking, heating and lighting, avoid using fuelwood
  • Ensure that you and your staff are properly equipped with warm clothes and fuel and avoid littering, deposit garbage at designated sites, carry out all batteries
  • Keep all pollutants away from streams and lakes
  • Do not give treats to children, it only encourages begging
  • Respect the sanctity of holy lakes and historical sites, no smoking, drinking or loud talk
  • Educate yourself about the ecology, customs, manners and culture of Yuksam
  • Support local conservation programmes

The beautiful Himalayan state of Sikkim has a lot to offer to tourists in terms of natural beauty. Tourism planning at Yuksam for the Yuksam- Dzongri trail is now used as a model for Sikkim. Perhaps the most important impact this project has had on planning in government is to ensure that different kinds of people ranging from the villagers, tour operators and government officials all sit together and plan for a particular area.

Addressing Climate Change : Community-Based Tourism in Nepal

Nepal has been and remains a pioneering country in promoting the concept of ecotourism. It was one of the first countries in the region to promote community-based homestays. The concept of community lodges is however relatively new even in Nepal. The idea is that the community contributes to the building and maintenance of the lodge and subsequently benefits from the revenue generated. There are some community lodges that have partially been supported by tour companies. The community benefits as a whole and can decide how best to spend the revenue.

The village Nangi in the Myagdi district of Nepal is situated with a breath-taking view of the Dhaulagiri range. The community here has built a lodge for tourists. The lodge is a rectangular structure with an open courtyard. There are ten rooms on either side, able to house twenty people. There is set of shared toilets on one side of the rectangle. A few steps upwards take us to the dining room that can also be used for meetings. The community lodge is one of the twelve such lodges in the region.

Nangi is an exceptional village thanks to one of its most famed residents, Mahabir Pun who is an Ashoka fellow and recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay award (considered the equivalent of the Asian Nobel Prize). Born in Nangi, Mahabir recognized the need for education and dreamt of establishing a high school that would serve as a model for education as well as vocational training. He founded the Himanchal School here with particular focus on computer education and other income generating programmes that include paper-making from the local Lokta plant. Nangi also coordinates the unique system of tele-medicine where patients from surrounding villages come for consultation s with doctors through a tele-link.

The community lodge here was established with partial support from the Micro-Enterprise Development Programme (MEDEP). This multi-lateral donor-funded initiative supported by the Ministry of Industry (Nepal Government) and the United Nations Development Programme was established in 1998. A substantial contribution was also made by the community in donating time and labour with additional support from the school. A committee with representatives from the community oversees the management of the lodge and the revenue goes directly to the school from where some of it can be routed for community activities. Although not on the direct tourist circuit there are more than fifty organized groups of tourists that pass through this area on their way to places like Khopra, Ghorepani or Ghandrung every year and a link has been established with these tour groups through operators. Nangi also attracts many tourists and volunteers because of the school.

View of Annapaurna from Nangi

View of Annapaurna from Nangi

Nangi is surrounded by forests and its inhabitants depend upon forest resources for their livelihood needs. Of particular relevance is the herb Zanthoxylumoxyphyllum, locally called siltimur that fetches a very good price in the market. Climate change is likely to have an impact on forests and the resources therein. Given that the mountain ecosystem on the whole is less likely to be impacted and tourism will continue, the community lodge seems like a reasonable adaptation strategy to combat climate change. The challenge lies in maintaining adequate hospitality standards and marketing and publicity to promote this enterprise.

Towards Responsible Tourism in the Himalayas

The Himalayas are burdened with tourists and mass tourism in the region, which presently is irresponsible, unplanned and unmonitored. The impact is evident. In June 2013, a cloudburst in Uttarakhand resulted in over 100,000 people stranded. There was devastating destruction, much of it a result of the construction of tourism infrastructure where it should not have been. The Himalayan region is a fragile ecosystem and if not addressed, the issue of mass tourism will lead to extreme degradation of this ecosystem that may become irredeemable. Tourism in this region urgently needs to be regulated. It has certainly gone beyond the carrying capacity of most fragile areas. The initiatives described above are few and far between and the scale at which they operate is very small. More endeavours are needed for the right kind of awareness. The primary requirement is that of training and capacity building. It is unreasonable to expect the community to handle a tourism business without building of skills in the fields of hospitality, sanitation, etc. It is equally important to develop appropriate education and awareness materials for tourists, including information about the site and a Code of Conduct for appropriate behaviour. Finally, there needs to be a set of standards that tourism enterprises are required to follow and a certification to assure those. The Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC) are the result of collaboration of over 30 varied organizations that came together in an attempt to come up with a minimum level of standards of sustainable tourism. 37 criteria are organized under four main themes :

  • Effective sustainability planning
  • Maximizing social and economic benefits for the local community
  • Enhancing cultural heritage
  • Reducing negative impacts to the environment

Although these criteria were developed to be used primarily by the accommodation and tour operation sectors they could be equally applied across the industry. In August 2014 the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, launched the Sustainable Tourism Criteria for India (STCI). These criteria are for tour operators, beaches, backwaters, lakes and rivers. The challenge lies in their implementation. If the Himalayas are to be saved from the onslaught of mass tourism, more innovations are needed and eventually all stakeholders need to be responsible.

An examination of sustainable and eco-tourism efforts in the Himalaya with descriptive case studies of two initiatives – Yuksam in Sikkim and Nangi in Nepal.

About the Author

SEEMA BHATT is an independent consultant working on issues related to biodiversity, climate change and ecotourism in Asia. A graduate from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, her particular focus of work is on strengthening the links between conservation of biodiversity and livelihoods of local communities and also looking at how they adapt to climate change. Seema has worked extensively on ecotourism issues in South Asia and has co-authored a book on Ecotourism Development in India. Seema is also a Fulbright Scholar and the Honorary Vice President of the Ecotourism Society of India.


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