Reviving tourism in the Kailash landscape post COVID-19

Sunayana Basnet, Jennifer Selth, Matthew Dunn, and Janita Gurung

The tourism industry in the Kailash Sacred Landscape was hit hard by COVID-19. As locals try and reboot the industry for the post-pandemic era, we take a look at the various ways in which people are trying to secure their livelihoods and return to normality.

Mt Kailash stands towering at 6,714 metres above sea level symbolising centuries of religion, devotion, culture, and tradition. Every year, thousands of pilgrims from all over the world visit and pay homage to this majestic peak and the Manasarovar Lake, which hold significance to Bon, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain religions.

Local people from Humla celebrate Limi festival with traditional attire

Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya

With its rich natural and cultural biodiversity, the Kailash Sacred Landscape (KSL) draws thousands of tourists each year for diverse tourism activities related to religion, spirituality, adventure, ecology, recreation, and education. Besides Mt Kailash and the Manasarovar Lake in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, numerous sacred and tourist sites dot the landscape, such as Patal Bhuvaneshwar, Adi Kailash, and Munsiyari in India, and Api Himal, Rinchenling Gompa, and Tripura Sundari in Nepal.

The curse of COVID-19

A long bridge connecting Nepal and India over the Mahakali river

Photo: Janita Gurung

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, the tourism industry of the KSL was in good shape. Tourist numbers had multiplied in recent years, and the local communities were expressing increasing interest in the sector. All that ceased with the government-imposed lockdown from March 2020. During this time, the open borders between Darchula-Nepal and Dharchula-India, divided by the Mahakali River, were sealed off. This closure had several large- and small-scale implications – it affected the daily lives of local residents, hampered cross-border movements, and ultimately paralysed the entire tourism industry.

In order to closely understand the impact of the pandemic on KSL’s tourism industry, we conducted a study in the landscape by speaking to some stakeholders who are vital cogs in the tourism wheel.

The plight of the porters

Three women porters from Darchula

Photo: Janita Gurung

“We used to make at least NPR 10,000–15,000 when the tourists came to Simikot, but after COVID, we had to carry construction material; this provided us less income and the load was heavier.”

Bachu Sunar, Bachkali Rokaya, and Basu Rokaya are part of the porter workforce – consisting of several women – at Simikot airport in Humla District. For years, during the pre-pandemic days, they used to mostly carry tourist luggage. They say that this was convenient for them – both in terms of better wages and tips as well as lesser load. But during the pandemic days since there were no tourists arriving in Simikot, they were forced to lug much heavier load – food supplies and construction material. They say that they were much happier when the tourism industry was thriving.

When the roads are closed. . .

A local entrepreneur with his jeep

Photo: Janita Gurung

“I would like to go and collect keera-jadi and hire someone to drive my jeep if there is an inflow of tourists this year.”

Anil Singh Bisht, an entrepreneur from Pithoragarh District, India, has been part of the tourism industry for almost five years. He owns a jeep by which he drove tourists from the town of Dharchula to Darma Valley, a distance of about 60 km. Bisht used to make 25–30 such trips in a season, with each trip earning him roughly INR 8,000. But when the lockdown was imposed and his savings dried up, Bisht was compelled to look for other ways to earn a living. During the summer of 2020, he joined his friends in the highlands of Darma Valley to collect keera-jadi (the caterpillar fungus, or yartsagunbu). In that season, he was able to make INR 1,20,000. Knowing only too well that the tourism sector relies heavily on external factors beyond his control, Bisht says he is not keen on depending on it for his primary source of income.

Preparing for the tourists to return

A tourism entrepreneur in front of his guest house

Photo: Janita Gurung

“After migrating to cities for employment, tourism finally provided me an opportunity to make a living without leaving my hometown.”

Manoj Kumar Chanyal runs the Kumaun Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) Guest House at Khaliya Top in Munsiyari, India. Chanyal has been working in the tourism sector for over a decade. He began his stint in the city of Jaipur, Rajasthan, and then returned to his hometown, Munsiyari, when tourism took root there.

Tourists walking through the forest of rhododendron trees with blooming flowers

Photo: Janita Gurung

“For a few days during the New Year period, the number of tourists used to be around 2,000.”

Chanyal’s guest house remains open throughout the year. During the tourist season, around 500–600 guests visit or stay at his place every month. But when COVID hit, there were no visitors and no income for an entire year. Chanyal had to let go of many of his employees and among the few who were retained, they were paid only half of their regular salary. Now, two years later as the pandemic is on the wane, the guests are slowly returning and Chanyal is hopeful about recovering his losses.

A silver lining

Shopkeepers cooking local cuisine on open stoves

Photo: Janita Gurung

“When tourists appreciate our culture, it motivates us to work towards developing our destination.”

Tsewang Ngodup Tamang manages a community-run accommodation facility in Limi Valley, Humla, Nepal. He says that despite being the gateway to Mt Kailash, the valley had not been doing well in terms of tourism over the past few years. He says Limi was simply being seen as a transit point on the way to Kailash and no real benefits accrued to the local community. So, the youth of Limi would migrate across the border to China for work. However, in the initial days when the border was closed during the pandemic, they were stranded without work and without the only source of cash.

A woman enjoying the view of Mt. Kailash and the surrounding landscape

Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya

But the crisis soon turned into a great tourism opportunity. The closure of the Chinese border helped Limi establish itself as the vantage point to pay respect to the sacred Mt Kailash. In this change of profile of Limi, the Kailash Yatra (2021) led by “Sadhguru” Jagadish Vasudev, a prominent Indian spiritual leader, played a key role, says Tamang.

A local hotel room with beds for tourists

Photo: Janita Gurung

“During the visit of the Sadhguru, I was involved in the preparations. There I acquired the skills required to attract, lodge, and provide for pilgrims and tourists.”

Tamang says that whilst the pandemic wreaked havoc globally, it provided his Limi Valley, an otherwise less-travelled area, the opportunity to grow as a prime tourist destination.

Growing interest in niche destinations

A hotel made of an igloo-shaped structure providing a unique experience

Photo: Ritesh Garbyal

“The increase in domestic tourism has encouraged the youth to join the tourism sector as entrepreneurs.”

Ganesh Dugtal and Ritesh Garbiyal are part of Climbing Beyond The Summits, an NGO that has built five ‘igloos’ in the Panchachuli Base Camp of Darma Valley. These huts to house tourists began operating in 2017; but during the pandemic, business was affected and the NGO had to release 15–20 of its employees as it had no means to pay their salaries. However, before the second lockdown in 2021, the ‘igloos’ had 200 bookings. This reflects the fact that the Panchachuli Base Camp holds promise as a niche destination and can provide youngsters with a fruitful career in the tourism sector.

Pandemic and coping mechanisms

The global pandemic had a severe impact on the Kailash Sacred Landscape, especially on its small enterprises. The absence of international and domestic tourists derailed the lives of the local communities who depend on tourism for their income. The direct impacts were in the form of loss of employment and income, while the indirect impacts had to do with the loss of revenue along the tourism supply chain.

Women bending down and picking up yarstagunbu

Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya

As a coping strategy, some tourism stakeholders depended on agriculture to compensate for the loss, while some took to labour. Others chose to return to collecting and harvesting caterpillar fungus for money, while most of them depended on their savings to run their households as well as businesses.

A serene lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains

Photo: Jayendra Singh Firmal

However, despite the challenges faced by the communities, the pandemic reduced the environmental burden on tourism destinations. The reduced human mobility provided nature the time to heal with less environmental waste. This allowed the local communities and other stakeholders to comprehend how fragile nature is. It also pointed to the need for concurrent development and conservation activities.

Local woman serving customers with a smile

Photo: Jitendra Raj Bajracharya

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the success of a business shouldn’t only be measured by its economic performance, but also by the extent of its resilience to external shocks. As part of rebuilding tourism, it is important to put the local communities and their benefits at the centre of tourism activities. This study underlines that it is crucial to financially empower the local stakeholders if they are to continue to show their interest in the tourism sector, especially during times when there is a travel downturn.

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