During a normal summer, Joginder Singh and his team of rafting instructors spend their day assisting at least 50 to 60 people while rafting on a 14-kilometre stretch of Beas river starting from Pirdi village in Kullu.
“We hardly get any visitors during the winter and monsoon seasons. Mid-April to mid-June is our earning time, when our group consisting of eight-nine people gets a daily revenue of Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000. We’re all unemployed this year,” Singh said.
Last year, more than 17.25 lakh people had visited Kullu district till June, including nearly 47,000 foreigners, according to the state tourism department. It’s one of the three most popular tourist destinations in the state, besides Shimla and Kangra. In 2018, it attracted more than 30 lakh visitors, the highest among all districts.
According to Anoop Thakur, president of the Manali Hotel Association, a whopping 95 per cent of Manali’s population is directly or indirectly dependent on tourism. “But it’s not the right time to restart tourism here, as there are inadequate medical facilities in the district. Moreover, only the big hotels can bear expenses related to the COVID-19 protocol,” he said, adding that there are around 4,000-5,000 hotels and homestays in the Kullu-Manali area.
The state government has allowed hotels and restaurants to open from June 8, but tourists from outside the state are still banned, and only local residents or those visiting the state for official or business purposes can stay in the hotels. Thakur said that the relaxation offers very little relief to the industry, as local residents do not patronise the hospitality industry, and people coming to the state for work will be limited to industrial areas such as Baddi.
“Local residents also do not prefer to pay for adventure activities, since they can always find someone willing to let them try paragliding, rafting or skiing for free. It’s only outsiders who bring money,” said Nakul Mahant, who runs a paragliding and adventure sports site around 23 kilometres from Manali at Dobhi village.
He said that around 1,000 people, including paragliding instructors, photographers, and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) drivers, work at the site. “Most of them are engaged in agricultural labour these days,” he said.
An alternative to Kashmir
Blessed with natural beauty and a rich culture, Kullu attracts a diverse range of visitors – families, pilgrims, honeymooners, adventure sports enthusiasts, backpackers, mountaineers, travellers on their way to Ladakh, and those lured by easy access to drugs.
According to Ankit Sood, a former professor of tourism at the government degree college in Kullu, the area became a tourist destination in the 1980s, when rising insurgency in Kashmir forced tourists to choose an alternative. “Also, around 1985, the state government started offering capital investment subsidy to the hospitality industry. Lured by the scheme, orchard owners in Manali started building hotels, and after 1995, started leasing these properties to others,” he said. He remarked that excessive commercialisation has resulted in an unsustainable and irresponsible tourism in Manali.
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