Culture Versus Tourism in Ladakh


New York, NY — Tourism is an industry that creates trillions of dollars each year around the world. Many people travel for a break from their everyday lives in their home country, to experience new scenery or a new culture and to explore the world. Although many people share this curiosity, usually rooted in innocence, tourism affects people, cultures and economic systems abroad. Ladakh is an Indian territory nestled in the Himalayan, Zanskar, Ladakh and Karakoram mountain ranges. It is home to more than 250,000 people. Once a thriving population rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, the last 15 years have introduced a lot of national development, changing education, agriculture, energy and other sectors in the region.

Traditional Ladakhi Culture

Ladakh’s traditional culture has given the region its title of “Little Tibet.” The nickname results from the region’s roots in Tibetan Buddhism as both religious practice and way of life. This means that in Ladakh, “subsistence agriculture has been a major component of both society and the economy. Pastoralists trade dairy, wool and pashmina goat fibre,” Katharine Sherratt details.

Additionally, Cultural Survival discusses how “Their way of life [was]characterized by cooperation – within the extended family and throughout the village… Life in Ladakh [was]infused with great stability and peacefulness. Crime and poverty [were]virtually unknown.” This reveals how traditional Ladakhi culture was one that thrived and was able to have a stable economic and cultural system which largely led to little crime and poverty.

From Agriculture To Capitalism: How Tourism Has Affected The Region

Tourism in Ladakh has thoroughly transformed this once flourishing region in many different ways. In fact, tourism was closed off from Ladakh for many years. It was not born as a popular industry in the region until the 1990s. Therefore, in the last thirty years, floods of tourists curious to see a piece of “Little Tibet ” and its “utopian” lifestyle led to Ladakh’s dramatic change. The tourist industry led many Ladakhis to seek money by catering to tourists selling traditional, or replications, of Tibetan Buddhist clothing, jewelry and other aesthetic aspects of their culture. This monetary influence has led to a deviation of Ladakhis from their traditions. It has profoundly affected their culture, society and economy.

The most profound illustration is in Cultural Survival’s report on Ladakh, where they detail; “during one of her earliest visits to Ladakh, a young man gave her a tour of his village. Impressed by the size and beauty of the houses she saw, she asked him to show her the poorest house. He proudly informed her that there were no poor houses there. Recently, she overheard the same man imploring a tourist, ‘If only you could do something to help us Ladakhis. We are so poor.'” The woman being discussed is a Swedish linguist who has been spending time in Ladakh since 1974. She has therefore seen first-hand the tremendous changes and deterioration of tradition. Additionally, in 2008, 31.3% of Ladakhis live below the poverty line. This marks a significant portion of the population.

Fighting Back For Preservation

Despite tourism’s slow destruction of traditional Ladakhi culture, there are efforts fighting back to culturally reconnect the people as well as alleviate poverty in the region. For example, The Ladakh Ecological Development Group (Ledeg) is a registered nonprofit. It works toward sustainable development which incorporates and respects the traditional culture of Ladakh. This effort is essential for the preservation of culture. It is also important in creating new beginnings and opportunities in the attempt to transition out of a tourist-riddled and subsequently impoverished region.

Additionally, Cultural Survival also describes how Ledeg “sponsors educational and cultural programs and demonstrates and disseminates appropriate technologies, especially renewable energy technologies.” This is also important. The effort for renewable energy emphasizes the need for a new, green energy source. It also simultaneously connects back to traditional Ladakhi agriculture.

Tourism in Ladakh has led to both destruction of culture and increased poverty rates. Ledeg presents an important initiative to drive out tourism and reconnect with Ladakhi traditions. Although supporting Ledeg means supporting a reconnection with tradition, it also means supporting a new Ladakh in the modern era. This is a fight for cultural preservation and basic human rights, and every effort should be made to achieve such.

Sebastian Fell
Photo: Wikimedia Commons


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