New Delhi, India – Even as the standoff between the Indian and Chinese armies has continued in the Himalayan region of Ladakh for eight months now, the decision of the local administration to reopen Lake Pangong Tso to tourism has become a beacon of hope for the local residents.
The administration of the newly created Federal Territory of Ladakh opened the world’s highest saltwater lake on Sunday, nearly a year after it was closed to tourists due to COVID-19 restrictions, followed by the military standoff along the disputed border between the two Asian giants.
The two sides accuse each other of having penetrated across the loosely demarcated de facto border, known as the Actual Line of Control (LAC), with Pangong Tso, located 4,270 meters above sea level. in Ladakh, being one of the flash points.
The stalemate began in May of last year after a a fight broke out between Indian and Chinese troops at the lake, 11 soldiers were wounded on both sides. A video shot by an Indian soldier and shared on social media shows soldiers from both countries engaged in fist fighting and stone throwing at LAC.
The military standoff escalated a month later when 20 Indian soldiers and an undisclosed number of Chinese soldiers were killed in melee on June 15, 2020 – the the worst clashes between the two forces in decades.
The LAC that divides the two nuclear-weapon countries crosses the 135 km (84 miles) long boomerang-shaped landlocked lake, which is 6 km (3.7 miles) wide at its widest point. A third of the lake falls under Indian territory while the rest of the area is under Chinese control.
The western end of Pangong Tso is located 54 km (33 miles) southeast of Leh, the main town in the Ladakh region.
Welcome, say the locals
“The majestic Pangong Lake was reopened to tourists from January 10. So get an Indoor Line Permit (ILP) and visit this spellbinding lake, ”the local administration said in its announcement on Sunday.
The move has rekindled hope among locals for a good upcoming tourist season in the Himalayan region.
“This is very good news because Pangong Lake is one of the most visited places by tourists in Ladakh. It will certainly help the local tourism industry, ”Kochak Stanzin, an elected councilor from the region, told Al Jazeera.
Stanzin, who represents Ladakh’s Chushul constituency, where Lake Pangong is located, said 60% of Leh’s population is dependent on tourism. He invited tourists to visit the frozen lake before the end of winter.
Although tourism has been hit worldwide due to the coronavirus pandemic, its impact has been felt harder in Ladakh where the tourist season is limited to a few months, mainly from April to mid-October, in due to the freezing winters in the region.
Delex Namgyal, a tour operator and tour operator in Leh, told Al Jazeera over the phone that the timing of the lake’s reopening to tourists couldn’t have been better since January and February are the months when reservations for the summer season begin.
“The timing is good. This will give a positive message that Ladakh is opening up to tourists, ”Namgyal said, adding that nearly 80 percent of Indian tourists arriving in Leh visit the lake.
While only a few thousand tourists visit Ladakh during winters, Namgyal said that number can reach over 250,000 during summers.
Tsewang Yangjor, a hotelier from Leh, told Al Jazeera that 2020 has been a “disastrous year” for the local tourism industry and that they are “happy that things are improving and that the lake has been opened to tourists ”.
“I think the situation [along China border] could be normal now and that’s why they decided to give a permit [to visit the lake],” he said.
But the situation along the ALC is far from normal, with both sides deploying large numbers of troops along the Himalayan border. Several rounds of military and diplomatic talks between the two countries failed to end the stalemate.
The decision to reopen Lake Pangong Tso came a day before India returned a Chinese soldier apprehended along the lake’s southern shore after transgressing on the Indian side.
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said on Tuesday that relations with China had been “Deeply disturbed” after last year’s deadly border shock.
China and India fought a war in 1962 and continue to be involved in several disputes along the 3,488 km (2,167 mile) border they share. Still, the two countries have remained focused on expanding trade relations despite the tensions.
Although pleased with the Ladakh administration’s decision to reopen the lake along the tense India-China border, tour operator Namgyal has a word of warning: “The deadlock may still have an impact. negative [on tourism] if the situation worsens.