Who said lockdown is a bad word? Ask the natives of Spiti Valley – India’s high altitude Himalayan cold desert filled with monasteries, fluttering prayer flags and wilderness adventures.
India went into lockdown on March 24, 2020, to ‘pre-empt’ global pandemic spread, but the people in Spiti didn't panic. The locals, mostly Buddhists, have been used to living in isolation, every winter for decades now; a season that stretches for six to seven months. Instead, they suspended all tourism activities in the Valley and even imposed a ban on tourist entry. It paid off.
The 'self-imposed lockdown' was endorsed by hoteliers, home-stay owners, travel agents, tourists guides, women groups, taxi operators and panchayats. Most villagers had set up their own voluntary youth groups to enforce self-regulated lockdown. “Every child born in Spiti Valley, is groomed in a manner that he understands what 'stay-at-home' means to him during winter when the entire valley is under eight to 10 feet of snow, and the temperature dips to minus 24-25 degrees C. We are quite used to isolation, which is the same thing what people all over India experienced during the Covid lockdown,” says Lara Tsering, a tourism stakeholder at Kaza.
The Spiti Tourism Society, a voluntary organisation, pro-actively worked to see that Spiti was protected from pandemic and no outsiders were permitted to. “A decision to ban all tourism activities was undertaken collectively by stakeholders. Everyone was of the firm opinion that Spiti Valley as a high altitude region with limited medical facilities, under developed infrastructure and extreme geographical conditions, could be highly vulnerable to the virus spread,” recalls Tsering Bodh Sakya. In fact, till September 16, 2020, Spiti did not see a single case of Covid.
The closure of the tourism was certainly orchestrated by the locals, yet reflected the collective decision-making power of the tribals, who are quite enterprising. “We found the lockdown period useful to undertake agriculture operations. Most people here who work in tourism also have land. Despite a limited period (in between snowfalls), the farmers grow cash crops such as green peas potatoes and traditional crops. Some locals have apple orchards," Lara says. He says the Valley has reopened for tourism and the footfall is increasing. "We are going to have a very good season, beginning from April 2022. If the Government of India (GoI) eases travel restrictions and relax Covid norms, Spiti will see the arrival of foreign tourists also, after two years," Lara adds. Over 100 vehicles every day enter Spiti via the Sumdo border. The daily tourist count in Spiti could vary between 400- 500.
Though the water supply at Kaza has not yet been fully restored, an optimistic Sakya says, “the tourist season is expected to pick up in April, and could continue till June-July. The hosting of mega national events like the women ice-hockey championship at the high altitude skiing rink, snow festival and snow marathon, have given Spiti good publicity, and an edge (over other mountainous tourist spots). This will pay dividends as also reopen the Rohtang tunnel."
Spiti is also renowned for spiritual healing, because of places like Key Gompa (monastery) and Tabo–one of the world’s oldest monasteries, founded in 996 CE. “The valley is rich in biodiversity. The population of snow leopards has grown here as per studies done by the state’s wildlife department in collaboration with a national agency. I spotted a pair of snow leopards this week, and for thr second time in one month” informs Ajay Banyal, a wildlife enthusiast and conservationist.
Lahaul-Spiti has attained 100 per cent vaccination, though initially there was a lot of vaccine hesitancy among tribals, including the older population and women. "We involved Buddhist monks and also showed videos of the Dalai Lama to motivate the public to get their jabs. Braving the extreme cold and geographical difficulties the people got themselves vaccinated. Komic, the world's highest motorable village (15,500 feet), achieved 100 per cent vaccination in June 2021," says Pankaj Rai, IAS, and Deputy Commissioner at Lahaul-Spiti. The little Shangri-La is back and has rolled-out hospitality in full swing to the tourists.