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A trip to Chitkul: My quest to be Himalayan for life

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chitkul, Kinnaur

To be born and brought up in the Himalayas is a great privilege not everyone gets. And I am one of those lucky chaps who grew up rolling in mud of the mighty mountains. Exploration is an instinct that grew stronger and stronger as I traded off countryside living for higher education. There is a saying if smell of Himalayas creeps into your blood, you will return to the misty mountains time and again. And this is how my journey to be a Himalayan for life started; my body and mind stopped responding to a mundane life of corporate world and I quit my job to embark on an unforgettable journey with my friend (Sunny) to Chitkul – a beautiful, small village situated at an altitude of 11,320 feet in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh. I still remember biting cold morning of February month when winter was in full swing. My hometown (Shimla) was already shrouded in a thin layer of snow when we booked two tickets to Sangla – 215 km away from Shimla. Temperature was in minus and the idea of travelling on bike was already out of question.

At 7:00 a.m. in the morning, we grabbed a seat in an HRTC bus that took us to Sangla. We reached there at 6:00 p.m. when it was snowing. With great difficulty we managed to find an affordable room at a homestay; spent a night there and woke up in the morning to see the entire village covered in one foot thick layer of snow. It was a great disappointment to know that the traffic had came to a halt and travelling to Chitkul – our ultimate destination which was still more than 22 km from Sangla – looked impossible. We requested a taxi driver and hired him who managed to take us 4km in the snowy road, and finally gave it to circumstances when the car skidded to hover a foot over the edge of the road.

Snowfall at Sangla

Sangla, Kinnaur

Sangla, Kinnaur_1

We paid the brave fellow and decided in a fraction of seconds to move ahead to cover another 18km on foot to reach our destination. We kept walking while leaving our footmarks behind us on the untouched snow. It had started snowing again and all we could hear was sound of fresh snow crunching under our feet in petrifying silence that accompanied us for another seven hours until we reached Chitkul at seven in the evening. Snow, which measured mere a foot in the day, had piled up to two feet by the time we reached our destination.

chitkul

chitkul

chitkul

It snowed for another one hour and suddenly came to a halt while we finished finding a room at HPPWD resthouse. The caretaker, a localite, at the resthouse was more than amazed to see us all draped in snow in time when no traveler dared visiting that region of the state. He was kind enough to offer us warm water for drinking and washing hands and feet, followed by tasty food. As we stepped out in the small courtyard after having dinner (there was no balcony as the building was single floor) to see the weather, we were amazed to see what the Mother Nature had bestowed us with – a million dollar view of the valley shining like a pearl in bright moonlight. We were the only two people, other than natives, to have been offered an opportunity to see a never-before-seen view of the valley, as per the villagers. My camera was out of juice and power supply had already crippled in the village due to heavy snow, all we could do was store all the beautiful memories in hard disks of our minds.

chitkul HPPWD Rest House

Next morning, we did not want to leave that place, but clear weather and sparkling snow invited and challenged us to get rolling on the way back to the zero point. We also accepted the challenge with great courage and courtesy, and started walking back again.

Bad weather, deep silence, bone-chilling winds, hunger, and tiredness were few things we eventually befriended on our quest to be ‘Himalayan for life,’ and, in all certainty, this was one of the best things we ever did.

chitkul

chitkul temple

The way back

chitkul - the way back

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Crisis for Himachal’s Tourism Industry Deepens with Peak Season Washout for Second Consecutive Year

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HP govt no relief to tourism industry
  • Stakeholders of the tourism industry face financial hardships as working capital exhausts completely 

  • Majority of tourism stakeholders not able to benefit from the scheme due to stringent conditions

  • Interest subvention scheme yet to be implemented

  • Biggest hurdle in the scheme is the cut off date of the outstanding balance of the loan

  • Defaulting EMIs ruined the reputation of the stakeholders and bared them to procure financial assistance in future from the financial institutions

  • The Association asks the government to ease down the restrictions and conditions on tourists as the daily cases have declined

Shimla-The tourism industry in Himachal Pradesh, one of the major sources of state economy and employment, is bearing the brunt of the pandemic more than any other sector as Covid related restrictions have brought tourism movement to a grinding halt. The sector has reported an estimated Rs. 1500 crores loss since the pandemic. It’s estimated that over two lakh people associated with the tourism sector are now unemployed. There is no count of medium and small-scale tourism-related ventures in Himachal that are now shut because of the pandemic-induced restrictions.

The cab drivers and transporters, who are an integral part of the hospitality industry chain, are also facing hardships. For several, paying instalments of loans procured to buy cabs/carriage vehicles is the biggest challenge.  This crisis is not only driving them into a debt trap but also causing extreme psychological stress.

Meanwhile, the state government has failed in providing any substantial relief to the stakeholders of affected sectors. In April 2021, the state government had announced a 50 per cent concession on stage carriage special road tax (SRT) for three months from April. A 50 per cent concession on passenger tax on taxis and contract carriage was also announced along with an interest subvention scheme. The stakeholders say that the interest subvention scheme was yet to be implemented. Also, they can’t take loans as they have defaulted on loan instalments last year.

The situation for this sector has grown grimmer as the peak season gets washout for a second consecutive year. The Tourism Industry Stake Holders Association has once again pleaded Chief Minister Jairam Thakur to rescue the sector and its stakeholders from this crisis by providing reliefs.

“Three months of summer make peak tourist season and play a major role in the sustenance of the hotel industry,” says Mohinder Sethi, President of the Association.

“The tourism industry faced a complete loss of summer season last year due to Covid -19 pandemic. This year too, 75% of the season is lost,” he adds.

“The stakeholders of the tourism industry are facing financial hardships firstly because their working capital has completely exhausted and secondly because tourism in Himachal Pradesh has again come to a grinding halt since March 2021,” he further adds.

He further RBI’s restructuring of loans with a condition that the loan account should be standard as of March 31, 2021. However, the hotels have no occupancy for the last three months due to which the stakeholders could not pay their EMIs for March, April and May months.

The tourism industry remained closed for almost eight months last year due to nationwide lockdown. Now this year again just before the tourist season the second wave Covid pandemic has compelled the hoteliers to keep their units closed due to nil occupancy, Sethi says.

Stakeholder Deprived of Availing Benefits of RBI Scheme

The RBI has introduced the  Emergency Credit Line Guarantee Scheme 3.0 to provide relief to the tourism, hospitality and travel sector but the majority of tourism stakeholders could not take benefit of this scheme due to its stringent conditions, Sethi says.

“The biggest hurdle in the scheme is the cut off date of the outstanding balance of the loan, which is 29 February 2020 that also with a condition that the account should not have a default of more than sixty days as on February 2020, Sethi adds.

He argues that the majority of tourism units were compelled to take fresh loans during the past year to meet their running expenses of the units because the state government had extended no assistance last year. 

The Association says that the RBI needs to make amendments by extending the cut off date to March 31, 2021, and relax the condition of the number of days of default of EMI.

“The state working capital interest subvention scheme is still awaited. It has been observed that the process of extending help to the industry takes a very long time which creates a big gap between the ground reality,” Sethi says.

He says that the fear of declaring loan accounts as NPA by banks is a live example of it.

“If the financial assistance were provided on time it would have saved many tourism units loan account from slipping to non-performing accounts,” Sethi says.

He says that the labelling of  NPA accounts has ruined the reputation of the stakeholders and bared them to procure financial assistance in future from the financial institutions.  The tourism industry is worst affected throughout due to pandemic, he adds.

“The stakeholders are helpless because state government provided no financial assistance. On the other hand, there is no inflow of tourists to the state due to stringent restrictions imposed by the government to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.

The Association is now asking the government to ease down the restrictions and conditions on tourists as the daily cases have declined.

“Now the graph of Covid cases is drastically reduced, and the need of the hours is to remove the restrictions like e- Covid pass and compulsory RTPCR negative report for tourists intending to come to Himachal. This will give some oxygen to the dying tourism industry because the tourism units can at least generate some revenue to meet their expenses up to some extent during the remaining 25,% tourist season,” Sethi says.

“We request Chief Minister Jairam Thakur to introduce an interest subvention scheme and remove the restrictions on entering the state in the upcoming cabinet meeting to be held on May 5, 2021, in the larger interest of the survival of the tourism Industry, Sethi said on the behalf of the Association.

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HP Govt Notifies New Paragliding, River Rafting Sites, Plans Floating Restaurant at Tattapani

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HP Govt notified new adventure sports sites in himachal pradesh

Shimla-New sites for adventure sports activities in Himachal Pradesh has been notified by the State Government, informed Director Tourism and Civil Aviation, Yunus Khan, yesterday.

On 23 February the State Government had announced that it was planning to open a floating restaurant at Tattapani in Mandi district. Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur had also inaugurated water sports activities at Tattapani from Shimla.

Additional sites for paragliding and river rafting has been notified. Now tourists visiting the state could experience paragliding at new sites in the districts of Kullu, Kangra, Mandi, Chamba, and Shimla.

New notified paragliding sites in Himachal Pradesh include:

  1. Pandhara to Gadsa and Khargan to Nangabag in district Kullu
  2. Tang Narwana to Khirku  in Kangra district
  3. Darouta to Lahra (Khajjiar) and Lahra to Darol and Raina to Nainikhad Jarei in Chamba district
  4. Prashar and Spenidhar in Mandi district
  5. Tikkar, Junga  to Chauri/Junga in Shimla district

New site for river rafting on river Beas from Nadaun to Dehra Bridge has also been notified. 

Other than the notified river rafting sites, already existing sites in Himachal includes

  1. Shamshi to Jehri and Babeli to Pirdi in Kullu district,
  2. Luhri to Tattapani in Shimla district,
  3. Darch to Jispa and Kaza Bridge to Tabo in Lahaul-Spiti. 

He said that for the safety of paragliding pilots and tourists, the Department of Tourism in collaboration with Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Mountaineering & Allied Sports (ABVIMAS), Manali, has taken the initiative to provide training courses to paragliding pilots, which includes SIV course, a safety training course for Tandem paragliding pilots.

Director said that in the last two years an expenditure of approximately rupees two crore has been incurred on imparting training courses to 749 persons, which includes basic mountaineering course, paragliding course, basic, intermediate and advance skiing course including SIV course for providing training to locals from these newly identified areas.

In addition to these new notified sites, there are many other notified sites in Himachal Pradesh for paragliding for adventure enthusiasts. These sites include

  1. Bir-Billing, Chohla Indru Nag near Dharamshala in Kangra district,
  2. Solang Nalah, Marhi, Talaiti-Talogi, Majach-Shanag in Kullu district
  3. Mauja Rehad to Karganoo in Solan district
  4. Ser Jagaas in Sirmaur district.

State Government had already also notified H.P. Miscellaneous Adventure Activities ‘Amendment’ Rules. The government also said that it would start new water sports activities like a speed boat, water skiing, jet skiing, ski-boarding, water scooter, cruise etc. in various water bodies.

In the Karsog area, the Government had said, popular tourist destinations such as Mahunag Temple, Kamaksha Temple etc. would be developed from a religious tourism point of view. 

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Himachal: Temples, Hotels, Private Bus Services to Remain Closed for Now

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Himachal Pradesh Temples Opening Postponed

Shimla-Temples and religious places in Himachal Pradesh will remain closed for now as the State Government and the District Administrations are yet to issue any Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Though the centre has issued SOPs, Himachal has entrusted Deputy Commissioners to take a decision regarding re-opening of temples. Most of the temples in the State are under the Deputy Commissioners of the districts.

Himachal Pradesh – “Devbhoomi”- has a plethora of temples and places of religious importance like Tibetan Monastery and the abode of Tibetian spiritual leader Dalai Lama. The income of these temples plays a considerable role in the economy of the State. There are towns and regions which financially depend on visitors/pilgrims. A large number of visitors from outside the State, especially from Haryana, Chandigarh, Punjab and Delhi, West Bengal visit these temples or arrive for pilgrimage.

But from March 17 – the day temples were shut down and tourists were prohibited to enter the State-there is no income. Salaries of priests and others employed at these temples are paid from their income.   

Also, the Language, Art and Culture Department of Himachal Pradesh Government is supposed to issue guidelines in this regard.

So far, DCs have not issued any notification in this regard and are of the view that the staff at temples, shopkeepers around these temples and other traders need to be trained and sensitized to ensure safety.

Though the State had announced re-opening temples and hotels and restaurants from June 8 for only residents of Himachal Pradesh, it would require a great amount of effort from the district administration to filter visitors and ensuring that no person from outside the State is lining up at temples. The State borders are open for movement of traffic and a large number of people have already returned and would continue to return to their native places in the State for a while.

With the return of these people, the State has witnessed a big spike in the number of COVID-19 cases. The state has reported over 410 cases so far. Of this total, over 350 cases have been reported May 3, 2020, onwards – the day boarders of the State were opened for returnees. The cases continue to rise with several cases being reported every day.

Therefore, the State Government need to be very careful while opening temples. Lack of social distancing, screening, sanitizations of temples, proper preventive measures to save temple staff and shopkeepers could turn temples into hotspots of COVID-19 spread within no time.

“We are in no hurry to open the temples to the public. We will take a call at an appropriate time once all precautions are put in place and staff at the temples are fully trained for implementation of the guidelines,”

said Deputy Commissioner Kangra Rakesh Prajapati.

Kangra, Una, Hamirpur and Bilaspur districts have famous temples and shrines which the pilgrims from all over the country especially Haryana, Punjab and UP visit every year.

Kangra district alone receives lakhs of pilgrims and visitors every year as it houses famous temples like Jawalamukhi, Chamunda Devi, Bagalamukhi, Brijeshwari etc. Dharamshala is famous for its Monastery and because of the residence of Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama.  

“Once we open the access of the public to the temples, it will be difficult to differentiate between the locals and those reaching the temples from outside as a lot of people have already come to their homes from outside during the lockdown,”

said Prajapati.

To implement SOPs, the District Administrations in these districts are likely to conduct training of staff, priests, guards and shopkeepers around the temples during the current week. There is a possibility that some of the temples would be opened for the people of the State for paying obeisance.

However, religious gathering and events would remain prohibited.

Hotel and Restaurant Owners Want to Remain Closed

The hospitality industry, which is worst hit due to the lockdown in wake of the corona pandemic, is also reluctant in opening hotels and restaurants. Hoteliers were asked to re-open from June 8, but they declined to do so. Various associations of hoteliers from various districts had held a video conference with the State Government last week.

Also Read:‘Quarantine Tourism’ and Opening Hotels in Himachal Bad Idea: Hotel Associations

They had told the Government that before the hotels could be opened, the staff would need to be trained properly, which would take time. Also, as the entry of tourists is still prohibited, the hoteliers are preferring to remain closed.

Private Operators Remain off the Roads

The State Government had decided to re-open public transport after the end of phase three of the lockdown, and the HRTC had resumed the services on a conditional basis like plying with only 60 per cent of seat capacity, regular sanitization before and after every tour, ensuring social distancing etc. However, private operators have declined to run buses and demanded a hike in fares in order to start operating at 60 percent passenger capacity.  

Also Read: Private Bus Operators in Himachal Refuse to Start Operating from June 1 Unless Govt Provides Relief

 

 

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