|Homestay in Tso Moriri Lake|
Ladakh is a unique trans-Himalayan region in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Situated at an altitude of 4595 meters above sea level in this region lies the brackish water lake of Tso Moriri. Tso Moriri is spread over an area of 120 sq.km. with a maximum depth of 40 m. and is one of the world’s highest lakes and the largest brackish water body in the Indian Changthang (Chang means north and thang means plains) region. Changthang is part of the Tibet’s vast northern plateau land.
The lake represents a unique wetland type in the trans-himalayan biogeographic zone and harbours a distinctive assemblage of fauna and flora, significantly, the blacknecked crane (Grus nigricollis). The lake plays a vital role as a breeding ground, particularly for the barheaded geese (Anser indicus) and key staging posts for many other migratory water birds. Tso Moriri is a Wetland Conservation Reserve (Under the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife Protection Act 1978) and was also recognized a wetland of international importance as Ramsar Site in 2002. The lake is part of the Changthang Cold Desert Wildlife Sanctuary declared under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 (WWF India/MoEF).
The Changthang plateau is inhabited by the nomadic Changpa community who moves with its livestock in search of grazing grounds in tune with the changing seasons. However, more and more Changpas are resorting to a settled way of life. A permanent settlement of Changpas exists on the shore of this lake. This is the village of Korzok. There are at present, approximately 149 households comprised of both settled and nomadic communities. Of these 23 households are settled in the village. Among the nomads, the Tigazong group comprises of 80 households and the Phestse group comprises of 25 households. Besides these, there are 21 households belonging to Tibetan refugees. The village also has a 300-year-old monastery (Manoharan et al 2006).
Traditionally, the wealth of Changpa family is determined by the size of the herd they possess. However there is a concern over the decrease in pasture land and the lifestyle of Changpas has also changed ever since the opening of the road connecting this area to Leh and the subsequent increase in tourism.
Tourism has increased drastically in this area and numbers have risen from a few hundred to several thousand today. As a consequence, unregulated tourism has emerged as a conservation threat. Tourists who come with their pack animals—donkeys, mules and horses, are putting additional pressure on the already depleting pasturelands. Vehicles that bring tourists are often washed in the lake and connecting streams. Increased human activity disturbs wildlife and also causes degradation of the ecosystem. Camping of visitors close to the breeding sites of several highly endangered species has adversely affected conservation initiatives. There is also limited accommodation in the area surrounding the lake. At present the village and the lake area can accommodate a total of 35 tourists, through a combination of tents, guesthouses, a resort and the recently started home stays.
WWF India has been working in this region since 1999. The main focus of its work has been to develop a strategy and plan for the conservation of this and other selected high altitude wetlands in Ladakh. During the course of WWF India’s work here it became clear that conservation of this wetland would not be possible without the participation of the local people. In mid 2002, WWF India facilitated the establishment of the Tso Moriri Conservation Trust, which was legally registered under the Trust Act of the Jammu and Kashmir State (WWF India 2000). The idea of the Trust was to support local people to finally take over conservation efforts in the area. The head lama of the local monastery and a retired schoolteacher, both highly respected by the local community, were unanimously chosen by the villagers as the Chairman and vice-Chairman of the Trust.
The Need for A Greater Stake in the Tourism Activities
With the increase in tourism in Ladakh and the Tso Moriri wetland, local people have been increasingly feeling the need for a greater stake in this industry and have been discussing ways and means of doing so with the WWF India team. Until a year ago tourists came to the lake and stayed at the limited accommodation available or camped at the designated campsites. There is one camping site run by a local community member and there is other land that is rented out for camping by other villagers. All in all, there has been comparatively little benefit that the villagers of Korzok got from tourism at the lake. As a result they were also only peripherally interested in the conservation of the lake.
Planning and Capacity Building for Community-based Tourism
It is with this in mind that planning for a greater stake for communities started at Korzok. The first exercise conducted towards this was a set of visitor surveys through questionnaires in 2000-01. The questionnaires were designed to understand the tourist profile and what the tourists’ expectations of hospitality were. The survey revealed that many tourists visiting Tso Moriri came for adventure. Most however came for the aesthetic and cultural experience. Further analysis showed that most tourists felt that the local communities should benefit from tourism and encouraged the development of home stays.
Encouraged by the results of the survey, the WWF India team carried out discussions and groundwork for developing homestays over a period of two years. The women folk of Korzok were in particular, increasingly getting interested in this concept where they could let out a room in their house to tourists and play local host to tourists while also earning some thing from this initiative. The women had heard that this was possible from their relatives who lived in the Rumbak and Markha valleys of Ladakh. The women thus approached WWF India for support in this initiative. Ten home stays were selected on the basis of some basic criteria such as location of the house; cleanliness and space; ability of the women in the house to handle tourist etc.
The homestays were named after birds that are regular visitors to the lake. Each homestay has one room dedicated for the tourist within an archetypal Ladakhi household. The room allocated is meant for two to three tourists and is provided with the very basic amenities like mattresses, blankets etc. Tourists are expected to use the indigenous Ladakhi toilet facilities, which are clean and environmentally friendly. Tourists eat with the host family in the typical Ladakhi kitchen, where the lady of the house serves them a traditional Ladakhi meal or what the tourists ask for. Most of the homestays have a spectacular view of the lake. Overall, these homestays provide the complete Ladakhi experience to tourists, besides of course offering comfortable accommodation at a reasonable rate to enable the tourist to enjoy the lake and its environs.
In the summer of 2006, just before the advent of the tourist season, the team facilitated an interesting capacity building exercise with resource persons who were themselves successfully running homestays in the Hemis National Park in another region of Ladakh. The team from Hemis consisted of four women and one man. This week long training programme was held with the basic objectives of: i) training the owners of the homestays for efficient management; ii) training the women in aspects of cooking for tourist, hygiene etc. iii) training the owners in the financial aspects.
What was distinctive about this training was the fact that there were fellow Ladakhis who conducted the training, increasing the camaraderie and trust between the trainers and the trainees. On the first day, after the introduction, the trainers shared experiences about hygiene, waste segregation, boiling of drinking water etc. On Day 2, the discussion started with how tourists should be distributed among the homestays without clash of interests. Later, a marketing strategy for the Korzok homestays was discussed. On Day 3, the resource persons visited every potential homestay and provided ‘hands on’ experience on cooking and cleaning. Day 4 was spent in working on guidelines for tourists visiting homestays. These guidelines were finalized by the end of the day. Day 5 focussed on the review of every homestay by the resource persons. A discussion was carried out on Day 6 on how to make the village of Korzok and surrounding areas clean. On the concluding day, the finalized guidelines were put up in every homestay. The day ended with a cultural programme.
In a rather unique gesture pertaining to Budhhism called Chuspon, by the end of the training, the trainees and the trainers were bound to each other by a special everlasting relationship. This is a partnership which binds two people through Chuspon where by there always a sharing of gifts whenever one visits the other and each is always welcome in the other’s house. This extraordinary relationship strengthened the bond between the resource persons and the homestay owners and encouraged the homestay owners to be more professional in their approach.
50% of the funds required for the training was contributed by the homestay owners themselves and 50% came from the Trust. Some seed money was given by WWF India. The distribution of tourists is carried out by two homestay owners by rotation. There is a fixed tariff for all homestays, which is very strictly adhered to. At present benefits arising out of this enterprise go directly to the homestay owners. The Tso Moriri Conservation Trust will eventually take over the complete management of home stays. It is foreseen then that there would be a central management of funds and also a common fund to be used for other related activities. Several other management systems will have to be worked out to avoid conflict, which may arise as this initiative grows.
The ten homestay owners take the lead in collecting garbage every month. The non-biodegradable garbage is sent back to Leh at the end of the season. Each homestay also has a register for tourists to provide their feedback to their hosts. This will definitely help in improving the homestay facilities. Feedback from tourists this season has indicated that this endeavour has been highly appreciated by them. Some comments are as follows:
“I hope that the project of homestays will really help the people of Korzok to preserve their village and the marvelous lake. Please pay attention to the garbage disposal and do not use too much cement”.
“What a wonderful way to visit and be part of a (rather exotic) part of a village. Wonderful cooking and extreme friendliness and respect. The homestay was the best guesthouse experience during India travels”.
“Thank you for hospitality and good cooking. We hope very much that the excellent Korzok homestay system will help local people as well as conserve the wonderful fauna and flora of Tso Moriri. You live in a very special place”.
The home stays in Korzok are at a preliminary stage, but have been vastly popular with tourists in the season of 2006. The women who are running these are suddenly feeling empowered and energized. The people of Korzok feel that they are finally getting their fair share from tourism at Tso Moriri. They are also now clearly seeing the significance of the lake and conserving it if the tourists are to continue coming. The head Lama of the local Monastry says that the early tourists that he remembers visiting the lake over 20 to 30 years ago stayed in local people’s homes. There were no other tourist facilities in the area. Looks like things have come full circle at Tso Moriri, with the homestays gaining more popularity.
-This is a significant homestay initiative where the local people themselves came forward to start this enterprise.
-However, the support of an external agency (WWF India) is required to take such an initiative forward particularly in such a remote area.
-Capacity building of the homestay owners is vital and it is best if this is imparted through experience sharing with people from the same region if possible.
-A local institution (The Tsomoriri Conservation Trust) is necessary for the management of such an enterprise and is also important to ensure the equitable sharing of benefits as also to resolve any conflicts that arise.
-Considerable prior planning and consultation is required before starting a venture like this. Any such enterprise cannot happen overnight.
-There is also a need for stringent guidelines followed by regular monitoring of the same to ensure that quality of service is maintained.