Dzongrila trek Credit: Ugen Tashi Bhutia

Gangtok: It is World Tourism Day, but the tourism sector in Sikkim is taking a back seat on a local level with hubs like Lachung in North Sikkim and Yuksom in West Sikkim closing their doors to tourists till November 30.

Despite being COVID-free so far, these tourist hotspots fear transmission of the novel coronavirus if tourism activities are resumed.

The decision was taken after the state government’s proposed Tourism Unlock 1.0 resuming activity from October 10.

State’s tourism department is scheduled to organise a workshop and training for 50-60 stakeholders from Monday, on the various Standard Operation Procedures (SOPs) to be maintained for reopening of tourism activities for hotels, vehicles, travel agency, tour operators, and for tourists coming to the state.

On September 18, a state-level meeting was convened in the presence of chief minister Prem Singh Golay and tourism minister Bedu Singh Pant on the phase wise re-opening of Tourism in the State.Tourism accounts for a revenue industry with about 15% of the State’s population directly or indirectly depending on it. However, the decision on a local level by two of the most premier tourism hubs, has dented the plans of opening tourism.

Why Lachung said no to tourism?

Lachung, a hamlet at an altitude of 2700 metres above sea level, is one of the biggest attractions of tourism in the state for both domestic and international tourists . With around 150 hotels and homestays among 1,800-plus population, it is one of the most dense tourism induced economies in the state reaching as far Yumthang Valley and Zero Point higher North bordering People’s Republic of China.

Locals in the hamlet comprise mostly of senior citizens with 70% of them in need of medical attention, fearing COVID-19.

On September 25, Lachung Dzomsa issued a statement as part of an emergency meeting with all the tourism stakeholders (hotelier associations and tourist driver associations) and passed a resolution to extend entry of tourists under its jurisdiction till November 30.

Lachung Dzomsa is a special self-governing body dating back to the 19th-century, which takes decision on behalf of the local people through elected or appointed ‘Pipons’ who serve as panchayats in the village.

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The reason as highlighted by Lachung Dzomsa is the proximity to the nearest hospital with only a health sub-centre with one nurse at its disposal. While Health Officials claim there are at least 6 health workers working. The next best option is Chungthang Primary Health Centre, which is further down hill yet the nearest District Hospital in Mangan, is largely considered to be unsound medically, leading to fears of immediate medical attention failing.

Speaking with EastMojo, PiponTenzing Ongpu Lachungpa stated, “If we had good medical facilities at our disposal, then we have no problem in opening tourism. If there is a spread of COVID 19 in our village, which has not recorded cases among locals, we will have trouble dealing with the COVID on a local level. We saw that the State government had opted to open tourism from October 10, knowingly we do not want to destroy what has been protected from COVID for months now. Vehicles bringing in tourists, those tourists staying at our homes and hotels, which pose a threat on our safety. Recently, when our area MLA Samdup Lepcha had come to Lachung, we had requested him that Lachung is devoid of medical facilities fearing COVID. There are no doctors staying devotedly, there are just a few healthcare workers and that may not suffice when there is COVID spread. By the time serious patients are taken to Mangan, they are dead before reaching the District Capital through treacherous road connection”.

Local Hotel Owner from Lachung, Thupden Lachungpa also highlighted the lack of medical facilities being the reason. “We may open for tourists but if the virus spreads among the elderly in the village, there is no immediate medical back up. Winter is approaching, which bring along with cold and flu, if that aggravates due to cold weather, then there is more concern here. Just last night, there was first snow fall on record in the higher regions of Lachung around 16,000 feet. We only have one nurse, other assistants are not well trained or someone with an expertise. There is no doctors at all. When the tourist comes, the population in Lachung increases by almost ten fold. The health workers then may not be sufficient”.

Thupden Lachungpa further clarified, “We are not trying to oppose the decision of the State government to open tourism, but it is purely due to concern at a very local level. If there is a COVID spread in Lachung and we are unable to cater them properly, then the name of Lachung and the State as whole will be tarnished, tourism wise. Furthermore, there was no invitation from the stakeholders and the Tourism Department on the decision taken to open tourism in Gangtok. Places like Lachung take a huge load of tourists during season, there are so many stakeholders here. We must have received some information before the decision. Our point of view has not been considered in the decision taken to open tourism”.

Even if there are 6 healthcare workers, they wont be able to handle huge load of tourists. “Previously as well we have approached the State government in 2017 for better medical attention to Lachung, but there are always excuses ranging from Ambulance not having petrol to run, which are not something we the people of Lachung want to hear during emergencies. The same has led to a sort of distrust that medical attention will never come to places like Lachung”, stated Lachungpa.

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Tourism in places like Lachung are very cluster centric, meaning all the tourists coming will taken to places like Yumthang Valley, which has no proper infrastructure. “The very few potters and locals living in Yumthang Valley have shanty homes with no proper facilities. They are mostly yak herders who have migrate downhill to Lachung if there is a lot of snow. Tourists are mostly taken there in the morning and brought downhill to Lachung by afternoon. There are very few of these shanty yak sheds which serve as makeshift kitchens for tourists during season. It will be the same set of persons meeting different tourists everyday, further increasing the chance of spread. Irrespective of COVID, tourists take time to adapt to altitude, so that is another health concern. Furthermore, most of the tourist workers, drivers and yak herders, are not from Sikkim, they have emigrated out due to COVID. Even before COVID lockdown was induced in the State, Lachung Dzomsa was the very first to impose lockdown since March 12”, stated Thupden Lachungpa.

How equipped is Lachung health-wise

With the allegation being thrown about healthcare not being sound, EastMojo questioned Chief Medical Officer (North) PK Basnett on the reality. She stated, “In Lachung and Lachen we have Primary Health Sub Centres, Primary Health Centre is at Chungthang. As per IPHS norms, a sub centre is to have 3 healthcare workers. But, we have six in Lachung health workers, it is more than what is required. Even in Lachen, we have around 8 which includes appointees from One Family One Job as well. In Lachung Sub Centre, there wont be doctors, there must be only cadre wise multi-purpose health worker and ANM. There are two MPHW male and female, four ward attendants and even peons. In a population that ranges around 1800 people, the PHCs wont have doctors, but those from Chungthang PHC tend to visit once in month. But, most people in Lachung opt for Siliguri as a medical facility, they are being stopped only by the lockdown. Even in District Hospitals, they do not come. In Lachung, if we have Mid Level Health Provider it would suffice. The same has reached other sub centres and PHCs, but most opt out from Lachung and Lachen, with its remotest. The same is being worked out phase wise by the Health Department. If they come, they will be well trained, they are more trained than ANM”.

However, even Chief Medical Officer has not reached Lachung yet, as the roads are blocked due to landslides first and also by the local people to keep COVID at bay. But Medical Officers tend to reach the villages every month.

Why Yuksom said no to tourism?

Following the precedence of Lachung, Yuksom in North West Sikkim also opted to not open for Tourism till November 30. Yuksom is the gateway to the famous Goechela and Dzongrila Pass, form where one can get closest to Mt. Kanchenjunga. People of Yuksom including Gram Panchayat Unit representatives, Police and Health Personnels along with Sub Divisional Magistrates and tourism association and stakeholders held a meeting on September 26 reaching decision to not opt for tourism till November 30.

Yuksom Tourism Development Committee President Karzong Bhutia, speaking with EastMojo stated, “From Yuksom, tourists primarily opt for trekking to Goechela and Dzongrila, which is roughly about 90 kilometres to and fro. Currently, with the Monsoon and incessant rain there is no route to the high passes.Through a lot of hardships people can enter but the same cannot be said for horses, mules, yaks and dzos carrying the equipment, tents and luggage. The major concern currently is with the emergency medical assistance, we have to recover such people and bring them back. We are not directly closing the route but we are suggesting the government to not open the route for tourism at least for this season. Most of the stakeholders who attended the meeting yesterday, were of the view that we can shut down for a month to see how it goes initially. We did finalize yesterday, but there is no government notification to back the same. A core committee has been formed yesterday, there are further deliberation that need to considered”.

On the stand on COVID 19, most of the locals are very weary of the COVID spread. “People may come all clear, with certificates, but their baggage could also be a concern. When they come for trekking and given the long arduous journey, the tourists will not carry their baggage, which again will have to be carried by the potters. These potters will stand at being threat to the local communities once they are exposed. If they contract the virus, the tourism stakeholders will be blamed. We may send them, but service providers like porters will suffer. For some money, we cannot put their lives at stake”, stated Karzong.

Lachung is still a tour package, whereas Yuksom is a trekking route which has to function manually. “Even in normal situation, whenever their fatalities reported, bringing them down to Yuksom is a tough task all the way. In current situation it will tough with the landslides as well. Trekking bookings for Goechela and Dzongrila are carried out by tour operators from Gangtok, Siliguri, Darjeeling, Kolkata and even from Delhi, who may not know the ground reality. In Yuksom alone there are 13 travel agencies registered to tourism department. On a personal note even I had 3 bookings but I canceled. With landslide recently, the bridge connecting Kokchurung with Thangsing has been cut off. The bridge has been washed away and there is no route for even an animal to cross. Even if they trek, Dzongrila is possible, but Goechela is out of bounds. They could opt for Shingalila Trek on the opposite direction but even that seems unlikely as a bridge near Sachen has also been cut off, which is further downhill towards Yuksom. Even when monks had to be taken during Pang Lhabsol in early September for the annual prayer service at Dzongrila, the monks faced a hard time at these junctures marred by landslides”.

So far even Yuksom has not recorded a local spread of the virus, just as Lachung. “Safety measures to COVID are strong, but when COVID comes on a local level we may not be able to handle. But if Pelling opens, people will come to Yuksom. Hence, further deliberation is being considered for today as to from where we must close Yuksom”.

Local Researcher account of recent trek to Dzongrila

Local Researcher with Secure Himalaya Project Ugen Tashi Bhutia, who carried out a biodiversity mapping last week to Geochela, returning to Yuksom on September 25, also highlighted of the route being marred by landslides. Speaking with EASTMOJO, Ugen highlighted, “It is accessible but quite risky due to landslides. The bridge in Kokchurung and also above Sachen is damaged. Crossing these landslides took us a lot of time. The current trail is very risky, even a porter claimed that the trail is the worst they have seen so far, who said it has never been this bad. To open for tourism we might have to repair trails first”.

How have the stakeholders in Gangtok reacted?

All the tourists that tend to visit Sikkim, make a pit stop at State Capital Gangtok. The looming threat of COVID 19 in Gangtok is very high currently, with East Sikkim reporting 1991 cases so far, almost 70% of the State’s COVID tally. Most of these recent cases have been reported from Gangtok, so the threat to Gangtok following the Unlock is even greater.

Speaking with EastMojo, stakeholder and Chairperson of Sikkim Tourism Development Cooperation (STDC) Lukendra Rasaily stated, “The spread of virus could be more in cold areas claim health experts. With places like Lachung being marred by health care facilities, the risk is high. Where quarantine must happen in these places is also concern and we respect the decision taken by the Lachung Dzomsa to close its doors for tourism. It is not our decision, it is their decision. There has been no take on the decision of the Dzomsa from the State Government, it may follow in the days to come. The entire State is a tourism destination, tourists opt for snow so keeping that in mind Tsomgo Lake and Nathula can be considered, since Lachung is out of bounds. On the greener pastures, South and West Sikkim will remain open as there has been no counter decision taken by them. We hope Lachung Dzomsa will discuss with the State government, we might have to wait till October 10 to reach a conclusion. We are in a rush to open tourism as stakeholders have suffered economically, but we do not want to take any chances with COVID”.

Tourism Department may postpone Tourism Unlock

When the meeting happened with the Chief Minister, even then the concern of Lachung Dzomsa was raised aligning with the lack of medical facilities.

Speaking with EastMojo, Tourism Additional Secretary Kapil Meena stated, “We all knew that Lachung and Lachen have not allowed, now they have extended the ban. The matter now is to be looked upon by the Home Department. The demand from stakeholders was that without Lachen and Lachung, the tourism business would not flourish, as tourists tend to frequent these places. If Tsomgo Lake and Nathula are also closed, tourists will have limited options. The matter has been appraised to Home Department, unless there are higher level consultation with Dzomsa, with them being autonomous. Even the stakeholders have taken the consultation directly, as TAAS had mentioned the same to the CM last Friday.”

Earlier, when the COVID surge was happening in other parts of the state, people had opted for their own lockdown at village with barricades. “It is something similar and the Home Department had issued orders to the District Administration to remove considering it to being illegal. Same will be considered with North District Administration now. They have mentioned medical grounds being the reason, but the ground reality of medical scenario in State barring Gangtok has always been trouble. Unless the tourism restart date is postponed, all other places have such issues. Health have their protocol, SOPs have also mentioned, it will be a concern for the Health Department. Our final SOP is with Home Department even currently, it will get notified by Sunday, it will make things clear. As far Dzomsa, we cannot do much. We admit that Dzomsa was not involved in the discussions and meetings, the extend of power they have, we cannot comment anything. But legally also we will have to see”, stated Meena.

On Yuksom taking up the decision, Meena stated, “It appears the meeting did have Panchayats and District Administration in attendance during the decision to close doors for tourism. But, legally speaking that is not correct. Tourism is a sector where we need help from everyone , if the association are against the decision to open, we will have to consult which is what we are planning to know their worries with regards to COVID. The perception needs to be understood, we can have proper system. In the meeting with CM, trekking till Dzongrila can also be allowed. Trekking SOP is good, with those precaution there should not be issue. We can listen and bring forth stricter resolution”.

However, the Tourism official did mention, “There might be a re-think in the proposal to open tourism, even the Tourism Minister is of the view to monitor the situation, since cases are surging despite the lockdown. Around October 4-5, if the COVID cases don’t subside and there is apprehension from the stakeholders, then there might be a postponement pushing the opening date for tourism to later half of October. Dates may change, it can be revised, if the situation is not conducive, it may get pushed to October 15-20. It can be delayed for a few days, which should not be a problem as the department has to consider on training for SOPs”.

Tourism department which will be hosting the first round training for stakeholders on Monday, a lot of discussions and decision are expected.

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