Tourism transforms long-hidden Buddhist valley in Himalayas
For centuries, the sleepy valley nestled in the Indian Himalayas remained a hidden Buddhist enclave forbidden to outsiders.
Enduring the harsh yearround conditions of the high mountain desert, the people of Spiti Valley lived by a simple communal code — share the Earth’s bounty, be hospitable to neighbors, and eschew greed and temptation at all turns.
That’s all starting to change, for better or worse. Since India began allowing its own citizens as well as outsiders to visit the valley in the early 1990s, tourism and trade have boomed. And the marks of modernization, such as solar panels, asphalt roads and concrete buildings, have begun to appear around some of the villages that dot the remote landscape at altitudes above 13,000 feet.
“This year is busier than ever,” said Ishita Khanna, co-founder of the eco-tourism agency Ecosphere. By Aug. 29, with at least a month left until the end of the tourism season, there had been 847 foreign visitors to the region in 2016, compared with 726 for all of last year, officials said.
They could not give a figure for how many Indians had traveled to the region in jeeps and buses across treacherous mountain roads, as Indian tourists do not need special permits. But additional district magistrate Jagan Thakur said that 70 percent of the tourists to the region were Indians.
Many of the valley’s 13,000 or so residents — ethnically Tibetan yet long resident in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh — welcome the influx of tourists eager to explore the mountains or simply enjoy the pristine surroundings.
“In years when the climate and roads are good, they flock in together in high numbers,” Thakur said. “Villagers will actually convert their houses into homestays.”
In the hillside village of Demul, with only around 250 residents, people have devised a system whereby half of the residents move in with their neighbors while renting their earthenhut homes to travelers during the summer, and then share the earnings. That income is helping many invest in better schooling for their kids.
“They have a great system in this village ... everybody takes turns,” said British traveler Tom Welton. “They collectively bring all the money together and at the end of the year they
A group of young monks brush their teeth at the Kongri monastery, Spiti Valley, India. For centuries, the sleepy valley nestled in the Indian Himalayas remained a hidden Buddhist enclave forbidden to outsiders. That’s all now starting to change since India began allowing its own citizens as well as outsiders to visit the valley in the early 1990s.