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China cloud on Leh footfall

Srinagar, Jan. 14: In the cold desert, it was minus 40,000 last year.

Tourist arrivals in Leh — not the mercury, just in case incredulous minds cry impossible — went down in 2013 for the first time in years, a fall officials blamed largely on Chinese incursions in the border areas.

Mohammad Shafi Lassu, executive councillor, tourism, Leh Autonomous Hill Development Council, said 1.4 lakh tourists, including some 32,000 foreigners, visited the Ladakh district last year, down 40,000 from the 1.8 lakh in 2012.

“The arrivals declined by 40,000, which is significant. Although there was no impact on foreign tourist arrivals, domestic tourists didn’t come in expected numbers.”

Official sources said they had expected the number to cross two lakh last year but the Chinese incursion cast a shadow. “That perhaps worried the tourists,” said a source.

Border areas in the cold, arid region remained tense last year after several incursions by the People’s Liberation Army, particularly the one in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector where Chinese soldiers intruded 19km inside Indian territory in April and pitched camps.

The 20-day standoff ended on May 5 when troops from both sides withdrew to pre-incursion positions on the Line of Actual Control.

Lassu also blamed media hype for the fall in tourist numbers. “It was projected as if Chinese troops were 20km away from Leh town while the fact is that the border is some 300km away.”

Tsetan Angchuk, general secretary of the All Ladakh Tour Operators Association, said the last time the industry had taken a hit was during the Kargil conflict in 1999. “Otherwise, the sector has shown a robust growth in the last few decades.”

Ladakh — particularly Leh district — was the only area in the Kashmir division that remained unaffected by militancy, and its tourism industry has had a dream run since the late 1980s, when the violence erupted.

Angchuk said skyrocketing airfare was also to blame for the fall in numbers. “The two-way ticket between Leh and Delhi peaked at around Rs 40,000, although it averaged Rs 25,000 throughout the year. That made tourism packages to Ladakh costlier than those to Southeast Asian countries,” he said.