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Luchi In Ladakh? Check...

Luchi In Ladakh? Check...

Author: Arpita Basu
Publication: Outlook
Date: July 11, 2011
URL: http://outlookindia.com/article.aspx?277449

Introduction: Holiday-makers now journey to destinations hitherto the province of adventure junkies

"Hum poochta haai, students haai idhaar aabhi?" The accent is unmistakable. It belongs to an umbrella-shielded Bengali lady enquiring about the 'Rancho school' (the Druk Pema Karpo School in Shey, Ladakh) made famous by the blockbuster 3 Idiots. "Lunch ka time, na," replies a local Ladakhi in confident, though broken Hindi-a tell-tale indication of Ladakh's fast-tracked familiarity with sundry intonations from the length and breadth of Incredible India, thanks to the swelling ranks of domestic tourists.

Till a few years ago, this cold mountain desert in Jammu & Kashmir was monopolised by adventure junkies and foreigners. Today, however, Ladakh appears to be just a Mall Road away from turning into the new Shimla of middle-class tourists.

It's a familiar story in the Andamans and Arunachal Pradesh, far-flung corners where holidaying hordes typically chose not to-or, in the case of the Kashmir Valley, feared to-tread. No longer.

Standing outside Leh's Hemis monastery-abuzz with clutches of summer tourists toting point-and-shoot digicams-Zubair Ahmed, general manager of Gawaling International hotel, says: "What was once an aspirational destination is now within reach, with numerous flights to Leh, abundant accommodation choices and innumerable package deals." He adds: "If 2001's Sindhu Darshan opened the doors for tourists, then 2009's 3 Idiots unlocked the floodgates."

We soon see what he means. Whether in Leh's quaint market square or at the serene Shanti Stupa, the dizzy heights of Khardungla or the stunning Pangong Tso, it's simply impossible to escape the sightseeing troupes, and especially the ones that demand to know just where Aamir stood when Kareena came riding on her scooty (yes, that's the film again).

Ladakh's status as the new mecca of the masses is both confirmed and fuelled by click-a-deal veterans like Make My Trip and Yatra. Both companies have doubled the number of travellers to Ladakh from a year ago. For Calcutta's trusted budget travel company, Kundu Special, this "hot cake" destination has doubled in group size, from 20 to 40-plus, for each trip this year. "When Make My Trip introduced charter flights from Delhi to Leh last May, public response exceeded expectations. We extended operations right up to August, till the cloudburst occurred," says coo and co-founder Keyur Joshi. This year, their charters are taking off from Mumbai and Ahmedabad too. Yatra co-founder and executive vice-president, operations, Sabina Chopra, says: "We have 200 seats a week and they are all filled." Doing the math with delight is Nissar Hussain, assistant director of Leh tourism: "Three years ago, there were under 40,000 domestic tourists here. This year, we expect to touch one lakh."

The cloudburst-apart from the mud caked on mountain slopes and parts of Choglamsar-seems a distant memory.

Elsewhere in the state, another memory is being swept into the distance with relief: decades of unrest and violence. This year, the Srinagar-Pahalgham-Gulmarg-Sonmarg sector is chock-a-block with visitors, many of them from as far south as Madurai and Coimbatore. Vaidhyanathan, chairman of the Chennai-based Akshaya India Tours and Travels, says there is a 60-70 per cent rise in demand for a Kashmir holiday this summer. Rao Travels, the south Indian favourite in Delhi, says they have sent 1,500 travellers to Srinagar since March. "The Valley has been peaceful so far, and with separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani assuring tourists of safety, people are making the most of it," says Vaidhyanathan. They most certainly are: the Valley received 4.85 lakh tourists in 2009. This year, the footfall has already crossed 4.3 lakh-and the season is expected to go on for three more months. Back from an unexpectedly packed Boulevard Road in Srinagar, Soumya T., a software professional from Chennai, jokes: "Dal Lake was so crowded I almost couldn't see the water!" But Abdul Rashid, secretary of the Kashmir Houseboat Association, is not complaining. "The occupancy of houseboats is around 80 per cent. Hotels are packed. Inshallah, it'll only get better," he says.

Hopes are high in picture-perfect Arunachal Pradesh too, though it has only begun to feature on family holiday maps in the past couple of years. Asit Biswas, director of Help Tourism, which operates in the Northeast, credits the region's current political stability for the increasing tourist inflow. "For so long, the Northeast was considered out of bounds, which fostered a great deal of curiosity. Then, when it was included in the Leave Travel Concession scheme in 2008 (like the Andamans before it), it encouraged travellers to discover and spread the word about the region's unspoilt beauty." Better rail and air connectivity and the Incredible India campaign have helped too. Last year, a whopping two lakh-plus tourists journeyed to the home of the cloud-kissed Tawang monastery, not just from Assam but also West Bengal, Maharashtra, Delhi and even Tamil Nadu.

The numbers are on an upswing in the Andamans too, as the erstwhile haunt of honeymooners is now welcoming visitors by the planeloads. Last December, journalist Smita Sharma was "shocked to find people milling about like ants on Radhanagar beach". It's no wonder that Make My Trip's charter to the archipelago last October was the first of many. For Kundu Special, too, the white beaches and crystalline waters have parlayed into serious business, especially over the past few years, reveals company official Nitai Sengupta. "The Andamans have always been on the Bengali travel radar, but now, there are people from all over India."

About two lakh domestic tourists sunbathed in the Andamans last year-up from one lakh-plus in 2008. P.C. Das of the tourism board says: "In the early 2000s, there were only 25 hotels here. Now, there are 113 hotels and restaurants, with at least two new ones springing up every month." Many of the eateries are vegetarian, says Das, to cater to the sizeable number of "Marwari and Gujarati" tourists. Likewise, in the land of the Kashmiri wazwan, kiosks selling dosas and Bengali fare have sprouted in Srinagar's Lal Chowk. Leh's popular Happy World Cafe offers no fewer than six lassi avatars for north Indian patrons dining on "paneer items". A hotelier in Leh's Changspa area says many Gujarati tourists carry their khakra by the boxful, besides a personal team of cooks to rustle up a mini Amdavad in makeshift kitchens. Even as he speaks, 40-odd Bengali tourists travelling with Kundu Special in Ladakh pick bones out of fish specially ordered from Srinagar, to top off a hearty Bengali lunch of dal, saag and aloo posto. All of it made by cooks from Calcutta travelling with them.

"Even a few years ago, people used to wonder if they needed a passport to come here!" laughs Ahmed, whose seasonal stay in the rarified air of Ladakh has now stretched from four months a year to eight, in keeping with the increased tourist flow. He is also getting used to a different kind of crowd profile, one that is gathering strength in numbers across the country, no matter how distant or trying the terrain-the regular Indian family, kids and grandparents included.

As Sabina Chopra says, "The middle- class tourist no longer saves up for that one big holiday, choosing instead to take as many as three breaks a year. He is looking out for newer destinations as accessibility and affordability increase. Budget accommodation is easily available, and one can get a decent room for as low as Rs. 1,500- Rs. 2,000 a night in most places." A.K. Singh, director of tourism, Arunachal Pradesh, agrees, adding that as many as 20 tourist lodges have been set up in the state in the past two years.

There'll have to be plenty more because the Great Indian Tourist has only just begun. As for those looking to travel down the road less taken, well, you'll have to walk a lot farther than you thought.

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