Unwelcome Move: Uttarakhand government’s initiative to throw open the state to tourists has left villagers worried and protesting

The tiny village of Lata in Joshimath tehsil of Chamoli district Uttarakhand raises big objections to welcoming tourists into its fold.

Sarah Khan
| Updated: October 6th, 2020

In a bid to boost the pandemic hit tourism sector in Uttarakhand, the state government launched a controversial initiative where it threw open the state to attract more tourists.  The “Tourist Incentive Coupon” scheme offers tourists to the state a discount of Rs 1,000 on their stay in hotels and homestays. In order to avail this scheme the visitors will have to register themselves on the government portal under ‘tourist’ category, upon which they’ll be issued a coupon which they can use during their stay in a hotel or homestay. The discount will be limited to Rs 1,000 or 25% of the hotel charge per day, whichever is less. 

Uttarakhand has lost approximately Rs 7,000 crore due to the lockdown imposed in the light of COVID-19 pandemic. By inviting tourists, the state government hopes to boost the state economy which is largely dependent on tourism.

But, the recent move of the state government has found few takers in the far-flung hilly villages where villagers are opposing the invitation to tourists and trekkers, who, the villagers fear, may carry the novel coronavirus to areas that already have non-existent health services. While the inhabitants admit that most of the tourist season has gone by this year with next to no revenue for them, they fear tourists now will put them at great risk of contracting the virus. What is also worrying the villagers is that the new travel guidelines issued by Uttarakhand government, clearly states tourists will no longer need a mandatory negative COVID-19 report nor the minimum two-days booking at hotels. In case any guest is found to be COVID positive then the hotel owner is expected to inform the local administration immediately.

Lata, a tiny village in the Niti Valley, at the entry point to the Nanda Devi National Park in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, is leading a protest against the recent initiative of the state government. Its residents recently turned away a  group of government officials from GB Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development that came there to trek and the group eventually had to take an alternative route.

Lata, spread over 195.72 hectares, is located 164 km away from Dehradun, the state capital, and 135 km away from Mussoorie, the other famous tourist destination. It has a population of less than 500, as per the 2011 census. It is a popular trekking point and is tourism-dependent for its sustenance with a lodge and a couple of homestays being its main source of revenue. The tourist season has almost gone by and thanks to the COVID-19 situation, people are struggling.

Photo: Pixabay

Kept out of the loop

“A lot of the villagers are upset that they were left to fend for themselves in the initial days of the lockdown. There was no institutional support extended to them,” Narendra Singh who owns the lone lodge in the village along with fellow resident of Lata,  Sunil Kainthola, explained to Gaon Connection. The other two homestays in the village are owned by local residents Balbir Singh and trekking guide Vijay Batula. Despite the fact that their main source of livelihood is tourism, the people of Lata are unhappy about how the decision to open up the area for tourism was also made without keeping them in the loop.   

“When the lockdown was announced, the villagers didn’t allow their own people to return home till they had a COVID-19 negative report,”  Batula told Gaon Connection.  He said the gram panchayat had to step in and some of the villagers’ homes were converted into quarantine centres. “There is a lack of trust,” he admitted. 

While tourists had the privilege of going back to their cities and seeking medical care if needed, the nearest primary health care facility from Lata is at Joshimath, a town in Chamoli district, 26 km away from the village, whereas the COVID-19 testing center is at Gopeshwar, a three-hour drive and 80 kms away, Batula added. The villagers were worried about the expenses they would incur if they tested positive. 

A cautious approach 

Kainthola’s lodge is open to bookings and is accepting tourists as well  as providing trekking activities. “In a limited capacity,” he clarified. Keeping in mind the precautions,  they are not accepting big groups drawn from various parts of the country, put together by tour operators. “We are fine with small groups of eight to ten people where all of them are coming from the same place,” Kainthola explained.  In order to maintain physical distancing norms, Kainthola said they would be setting up one tent per person, instead of the usual three-to -a-tent practice in the past. Kainthola is however treading carefully he says, as the village is a small and close community and he cannot do anything that might bring harm or expose them to danger. He said the lodge would  request the guests to provide a negative COVID-19 report before accepting their booking.