Tourism in Leh facing tough time; hotels' occupancy 50 percent down

Leh: Tourism in Leh is going through a rough phase as tourist footfall has declined by over 50 per cent this year due to a host of reasons like Lok Sabha elections, curtailed flight services and late opening of Leh-Manali road, according to hotel industry players. Jammu and Kashmir's Leh district is among one of the favourite destinations for foreign tourists as nearly 50,000 people from abroad visited the land of high passes last year, tourism officials had said. Leh district, which is part of Ladakh region, houses over 100 hotels and guest houses to cater to foreign and domestic tourists besides trekkers.

"There is a drastic fall in the arrival of tourists to Ladakh this year. There is nearly 50 per cent fall in tourist footfall in these months as compared to last year during the same period," hotelier Amrit Badam said. Amrit, whose company runs hotel and liquor business in Ladakh for the last three decades, blames much delayed opening of Leh-Manali road, security-related concerns in Kashmir, lower flight operations coupled with Lok Sabha elections for the drastic fall in the tourist footfall in Ladakh this year. As compared to 80 to 95 per cent of occupancy of hotels in May last year, there was only 40 per cent occupancy in May this year, he said.

Similarly, there is only 30 per cent occupancy of hotels in first fortnight of June and 60 per cent in second fortnight as compared to 90 per cent in June 2018, Amrit said.

The mountain-locked Leh can be reached via Kashmir and Manali (Himachal Pradesh) through Srinagar-Leh and Manali-Leh highways besides taking aerial route. "Manali-Leh highway was reopened after much delay for vehicular traffic on June 10. Similarly, Srinagar-Leh highway is facing multiple closures at Zojila due to blasting by BRO. They have contributed to low tourist arrivals to Leh," Amrit said. He said that tourism in the region has also been after Jet Airways, which used to operate extensively on the route in summer, stopped its operations.

Besides Lok Sabha elections, security issues in Kashmir and India-Pakistan stand-off also contributed to fall in tourist arrivals this year, another hotelier said. The overall tourist arrivals in 2018 in the Leh district, located at an altitude of 3,524 metres (11,562 ft), also crossed 3 lakh mark for the first time, setting a new record, the officials said. "A total of 3,27,366 tourists, including 49,477 foreigners, visited Leh in 2018, marking an increase of over 50,000 compared to the previous year," a senior official of the state tourism department said.

Tourist arrivals in the district first touched the six-figure mark in 2011 when 1,79,491 tourists, including 36,662 foreigners, visited the district. The feat was achieved a year after sudden floods in August - considered as the peak tourist season - caused by a cloud burst heavily damaged the town. In 2014, the record number of 59,305 western backpackers flocked the area along with over 1.21 lakh domestic tourists.

Ladakh, also known as the cold desert, usually remains cut off from the rest of the country owing to heavy snowfall which blocks 434-km Srinagar-Leh and 490-km Manali-Leh highways for months. Last year, the Centre had approved the construction of the 14.2-km long tunnel project, Asia's longest bi-directional Zojila Pass tunnel at an estimated cost of Rs 6,089 crore, to provide all-weather connectivity between Srinagar, Kargil, and Leh which, when completed, will further give a boost to the tourism sector in the region.

"The tourist arrivals by road remain restricted between April and October, as a result of which other months of the year record a very low turnout," the official said. Last year, he said that 5,665 tourists arrived in January followed by 1,136 in February, 1,298 in March and 11,277 in April when the road connectivity to the region was restored.

As many as 44,583 tourists visited Leh in May followed by 77,041 in June, 70,139 in July, 53,621 in August, 38,049 in September, 20,784 in October, 2,416 in November and 1,357 in December, the official said. The highest number of 13,033 foreign tourists visited Leh in August followed by 12,226 in July, 7,355 in September and 6,209 in June, the official said.

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