Interview with Mr Chewang Lachenpa on Tourism in North Sikkim

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Mr Chewang Lachenpa (right) being interviewed in Gangtok, Sikkim 

Photo credit: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya / ICIMOD

Mr Chewang Lachenpa, a former executive member of the Lachen Tourism Development Committee, was interviewed about tourism in North Sikkim at a coffee shop in M G Road in Gangtok, Sikkim as part of HI-AWARE’s scoping study in the Teesta region. 

The interview was arranged by the Mountain Institute (TMI)-India based in Gangtok.

Q 1. Can you give us your take on tourism in Lachen and upstream areas in North Sikkim?

Road tourism has really taken off in Lachen and Gurudongmar since 2005. Of the tourists passing through Lachen, about 70% are Indian. Most visit Gurudongmar Lake, a sacred lake situated at 5,430 m.a.s.l., which is the number one tourist attraction in North Sikkim. Other foreign nationals also come, but they usually go up to Chopta valley, as they are not allowed to go near the Sikkim-China border, as this area is controlled by the Indian Army. Lachen has developed rapidly in the last decade to take advantage of the increase in the number of tourists passing through to visit Chopta valley and Gurudongmar. Today there are about 40–45 lodges and two homestays in Lachen village and about five lodges in Thangu. About 10% of the people in Lachen are directly benefitting from tourism, while others are employed in traditional occupations. Women’s involvement in the production of handicrafts, wool carpets, blankets, sweaters, yak ghee, and chhurpi also supports tourism development. Out-of-state tourists typically stay 1–2 nights in Lachen before heading off to Chopta valley or Gurudongmar, whereas tourists from within Sikkim prefer to stay in Thangu. Peak tourist seasons are March through May and September through November. 

Trekking is a way to diversify tourism in this relatively unexplored part of North Sikkim. However, there are challenges involved. For example, trekking to Green Lake and beyond in the Kangchenjunga Biosphere Reserve has not really taken off, because this is a restricted area. Tour operators have to obtain special trekking permits for their clients from the Home Department in New Delhi, which is a cumbersome process that can take up to six months. If the Government of Sikkim in Gangtok could issue special permits for Green Lake, this trek could rival the Dzongri-Goecha La trek in West Sikkim and open up other trekking possibilities in the region, including adventure tourism. 

Q 2. You mentioned other trekking possibilities in Lachen and up north. Can you give some examples?

There are many old trails in North Sikkim that have been used by animal herders and traders for centuries that could be opened up for trekking. For example, it is possible to traverse from Lachen to Lachung, although the reverse is more common. Also from Chopta valley to Muguthan. Closer to Lachen, the Lamo Adang trek has enormous potential. Trekkers can hike up to Lamo Adang from Lachen, camp one night up there, and return to Lachen the following day. However, currently, road tourism is the dominant form of tourism around here, with tourists heading up to Chopta valley and Gurudongmar in vehicles, spending several nights along the way, mainly in Mangan, Lachen, or Thangu. For trekking to really take off in this part of North Sikkim, the process for obtaining special trekking permits to restricted areas needs to be expedited and a raft of strategies put in place to attract an altogether different breed of tourists, namely, trekkers and adventure seekers. 

Q 3. But surely road tourism does not only bring benefits. Can you elaborate on some of the negative aspects of tourism here and how these are being dealt with? 

Yes, tourism entails trade-offs. Road tourism has brought with it the rapid development of Lachen village. It now resembles a small town rather than the idyllic village it used to be. There are not many traditional houses – and those that remain are being pulled down to make way for modern concrete buildings. This is a worrying trend, considering that UNDP and the Government of India had listed Lachen as of the 26 heritage villages of Sikkim. The 2011 earthquake also destroyed many traditional mud-stone houses around Lachen.

Road tourism has had some negative impacts, such as the waste problem, fluctuations in the prices of commodities, and road blockages along the mountain roads. Zero Waste Himalaya – an alliance between WWF, the Kanchenjunga Conservation Committee (KCC), and the Eco-Tourism and Conservation Society of Sikkim (ECOSS) – is helping with waste management. For garbage collection, each household pays the rate set by the Lachen Dzumsa of about INR 30–40 per month and each lodge or homestay about INR 100 per month. Over 50% of the waste is sent to the Resource Recovery Centre for recycling, and the rest is dumped in landfills. WWF helped ban plastic water bottles in Lachen, and the Lachen Dzumsa has been enforcing the ban ever since. According to ‘Down to Earth’, Lachen is the first village in all of India to ban bottled water. So the Lachen Tourism Development Committee, along with other entities active in Lachen and upstream areas, have their work cut out for them: to maximize the benefits of tourism while at the same time minimizing its negatives. 

Q 4. Dealing with the negatives of tourism is one thing. But the bigger question is what kind of tourism model do you think will suit North Sikkim best?

Certainly eco-tourism – with its emphasis on environmental stewardship, optimum use of locally available resources, and low-impact ethics – is well suited to the fragile environment of North Sikkim. Organisations such as The Mountain Institute-India, ECOSS, and WWF have introduced the concept of ecotourism. But this has to be more than just a marketing gimmick for tour operators and local businesses. More importantly, what is needed around here is community-managed tourism, not top-down tourism. With community involvement, we can, for instance, attract tourists interested in culture by promoting festivals, such as the two-day Lachen Tourism Indigenous Festival, which is held at the beginning of each year. Mainstreaming good practices of community-managed tourism such as ‘homestays’, use of local resources, including human resources, and promotion of local products can help boost the local economy, lead to the appreciation of local culture and local knowledge, and instil pride in the host communities

Gurudongmar Lake at 5,430 m.a.s.l. is popular among Indian tourists

Photo credit: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya / ICIMOD

Lachen has grown in the last decade as a result of road tourism

Photo credit: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya / ICIMOD

Thangu is the last civilian settlement on the way to Gurudongmar lake

Photo credit: Jitendra Bajracharya / ICIMOD
Chopta valley in North Sikkim is popular with tourists or trekkers on their way to Muguthan

Photo credit: Jitendra Bajracharya / ICIMOD