Is Ladakh closing to tourists? No. Are there surgical strikes happening there? No. Are the locals not providing shelter to tourists? No. Then, why is it that we need to stop hiring a bike and head to Ladakh? Because we’re killing it, slowly and perhaps, irretrievably. By Shubhanjana Das

Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir is perched at an altitude of 3,000 metres and is spread over an area of 87,000 sq. Km. housing a total population of 2.74 lakhs (as of 2011). Before 2009, Ladakh needed to be introduced and located geographically in order for people to know about its existence. So, what happened in 2009 that shot up Ladakh’s popularity exponentially in the Indian tourism scene from just 500 tourists in 1974 to an average of 6 lakh a year? The famous Bollywood film 3 Idiots released and the Indian mass’s eyes opened to the spectacle of this region. Rugged mountains, crystal blue lakes, and a distinguished Tibetan culture – the Indian tourists had witnessed very few places with as uniquely scenic a sight that Ladakh offered. What started off as a much needed economic boost to the Tourism Department of the Leh-Ladakh region gradually took a shape that scientists, environmentalists, and even the local people couldn’t comprehend. 

Last year, Ladakh experienced a tourist footfall of 277,255 which is almost as much as much as the whole of Ladakh’s and double the amount of Leh’s population. While tourism is only a natural and even a necessary development in Ladakh’s primarily agro-based economy, its fragile eco-system is suffering at the hands of the unchecked growth, which is now proving to be a burden on Ladakh, its biodiversity, and its people. How, you ask? Let us break it down for you. 

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Ladakh is breathtaking in more ways than one. While the mountains may provide a warm welcome, its weather and altitude don’t. Without proper acclimatisation and medication, one is susceptible to experiencing mountain sickness, which shows symptoms of nausea, dizziness, breathlessness and headache. To cope with the sickness, doctors advise consumption of enough water in order to ensure the supply of oxygen to the body. Let’s stop here and do some quick maths. If Ladakh received 2.77 lakh tourists last year and assuming that every individual tourist consumed an average of 6 bottles of water a day, how many plastic water bottles is that a year? Let’s just say it’s a number that Ladakh’s limited dumping and recycling facilities can’t manage to its full extent.  

The pristine Pangong Lake risks losing its virgin blue hue, shimmering ever so brilliantly under the bright sun. Leh’s officials have gone on record to state that over 600 vehicles ride up straight to the shore of the Pangong Tso even though a sign clearly restricts so. And not only will you find the odd sight of SUVs lined up on the shore of the lake, but also 3 Idiot Cafes, the signature 3 Idiot bums, the yellow scooter from the movie, and people taking pictures dressed as Kareena Kapoor, all contributing to the larger issue of ignorant and irresponsible tourism plaguing Leh-Ladakh. The sight is no different in the Nubra Valley, one of the most visited tourist attractions in Ladakh. The sand dunes of the cold desert are home to the rare double-humped Bactrian camels. The present state of tourism negatively impacts not only the eco-system that they are a part of but directly affects the animals as hundreds of tourists stop at Nubra to ride the majestic camel on the sand dunes. This makes us question if our short-lived thrill and adventure must come at the cost of disturbing and harming the inhabitant wildlife of a region irrevocably?  

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Now, why is the burden of tourism such a monumental crisis that Ladakh is now facing? That is indeed hard to fathom for what you see is only towering mountains, crystal blue waters, unique wildlife, and stupas perched on mountaintops overlooking a striking topography of the valley. What you don’t see is the other, rather ugly side of Ladakh – the heaps of trash disposed of every day without proper recycling facilities. If we talk about the biodegradable waste that is produced, we ought to note that the lack of sufficient oxygen supplies potentially slows down the degradation process. As for the non-biodegradable plastic waste, it gets dumped into Bomb Guard Landfill, conveniently hidden from the sight of tourists as it is located far from the main city.  

The next time you plan a trip to Ladakh, count your stay, not in the term of days or nights but your carbon footprint to understand why it is high time we strike Ladakh off our itinerary, for its biodiversity’s sake, for nature’s sake. 

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