Bad connectivity dims lure of Himachal Buddhist circuit

By Vishal Gulati, IANS, July 26, 2008

Shimla, India -- Bad roads and poor air connectivity are hampering tourism in the tribal districts of Himachal Pradesh, popularly known as the Buddhist circuit.

The trans-Himalayan Buddhist area comprising Kinnaur, Spiti and Lahaul has a treasure trove of monasteries. These include Tabo, which is over 1,000 years old and is also called as the Ajanta of the Himalayas, Dhankar, Gungri, Lidang, Hikim, Sagnam and Nako.

Tourists to this circuit start coming by July-end and depart with the onset of winter. Opened to foreigners in 1992, the circuit has however failed to get a good response due to lack of infrastructure.

The bumpy and uncomfortable drive on the National Highway 22 connecting Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti districts in Himachal Pradesh to Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir is a motorist’s nightmare. The national highway remains closed at one place or another most of time during the tourist season.

“The condition of the roads has become so bad that landslips are frequent, upsetting the itinerary of foreign tourists to remote areas,” says Naresh Bragta, a Shimla-based travel agent.

He says the national highway near the Malling nullah in Kinnaur district is prone to landslides even in times of clear weather but the government is not taking any precautionary measures.

Travel agents say tourists prefer to take the Manali route to the Buddhist circuit in stead of going from state capital Shimla.

Himahcal Pradesh attracts globetrotters throughout the world, especially from Israel, Germany, Britain and several other European countries, not only for nature-based activities but also for exploring historic and ancient monasteries.

But secretary of the Manali Hoteliers Association Anil Kumar says tourist destinations in remote districts are facing a major slump, as a large number of tourists prefer the Ladakh region in Jammu and Kashmir.

“We have been experiencing about a 20-25 percent decline in tourists, especially with foreigners, because the violence in Jammu and Kashmir has gone down (attracting visitors to that state instead).

“Of course, poor air connectivity between New Delhi and Himachal has also forced tourists to change their itinerary,” he says.

Says M.C. Thakur, who runs a trekking agency in Manali: “The state government has not geared up to tackle natural calamities. In case of emergency, the state has to depend upon the army. The communication network is also poor.”

Ram Subhag Singh, managing director of the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation, admits that poor road network is hampering the movement of tourists but says the government has plans to start heli-taxi services to attract high-spending tourists.

He says the air travel cost between Delhi and Himachal Pradesh is also quite high as compared to Delhi-Leh (Kashmir).

“Once the runways at Shimla and Bhuntar airports are expanded, air connectivity will increase, reducing the airfares too,” he says.

Last year, more than 8.8 million tourists, including 339,000 foreigners, visited the state. Kullu-Manali has emerged as a favourite tourist destination among tourists. Last year, around 100,000 foreign tourists visited that area.