The Lahaul Valley in Himachal Pradesh imposed a blanket ban on tourism in the valley after a sudden spike in coronavirus cases.
A deluge of toursists descended on the valley after Rohtang Tunnel opened.
After two persons died of coronavirus about a dozen new Covid-19 cases reported during the past one week, three panchayats of Lahaul next to the north portal of the Rohtang Tunnel, imposed a ban on tourism activities.
“Initially, we have decided to have a tourism lockdown till November 25. If the condition aggravates, we will not hesitate to extend the curbs”, Suman Thakur, Pradhan at Sissu panchayat, told Outlook.
Following the ban, tourists will not be able to book hotels and homestays in Lahaul. The guest houses, dhabas and all hospitality units will also remain shut for tourists in Sissu, Koksar and Khangsar panchayats. “The decision was unanimous”, says Suman Thakur, one of the most proactive panchayat leaders in Lahaul-Spiti.
After the opening of the Tunnel, there was an episodic increase in footfall in Lahaul with more than 700 vehicles crossing Rohtang Pass every day from Manali. This resulted in crowding of small places like dhabas, restaurants and also at the valley side of Sissu, where a natural lake remains the biggest tourist attraction apart from a forest patch along the Manali-Keylong-Leh National Highway.
The panchayat will not even allow skiing and photography. The entry of the tourists to the villages will also be banned.
“As market places and some spots in the Chandra valley were getting crowded due to excess tourist arrivals, we have also told the locals to avoid gatherings. This is the only way to break the chain of corona infection during next 14 days,” said Jeevan Thakur, a local shopkeeper in Tandi.
Deputy commissioner Lahaul-Spiti Pankaj Rai said the panchayats have communicated their decision to the district administration and local block development officer.
“We will declare this area, where a large number of cases have been reported as containment zones. Steps have been taken to take care of the health of the people and also get Covid-19 patients looked after well. Death of four persons, especially two in the recent days has scared the locals prompting them to impose the ban,” said Rai.
The locals allege that Covid cases may increase further in the area during the winters as the tourist influx has already increased as compared to previous months soon after the commissioning of the Atal Tunnel by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 3.
The tourists can drive on National Highway to reach Keylong or elsewhere but their entry to the villages, but they will not be able to stop at dhabas and market places.
‘Save Lahaul‘, a local NGO working for the preservation of the environment, ecology and local tribal culture has been vociferously raising voice against the unrestricted influx of the tourists to Lahaul and Spiti.
“It is a well-known fact that Lahaul remained either a transit for Ladakh or a very less visited destination until the day Atal Tunnel Rohtang opened a passage into this tribal valley of naturally preserved environment, culture and social values,” said C.M. Parsheera, a tribal scholar and director, Institute of Vocational Studies at HP University, Shimla.
He has been asking for a special package from the centre to develop tourism and related infrastructure and also takes steps on the preservation of the ecology and distinctive tribal culture.