Author – Ankit Naithani
The coronavirus has taken a deathly grip on the whole world and has created a major economic crisis. People fear the worst and experts foresee many people losing their jobs if this lockdown continues.
The trekking industry is not much different as this is entirely dependent on travel and tourists. A reduction in the number of tourists anticipated after the lockdown, makes for a tough few months. Trekking, as well as associated industries, are already feeling the brunt of this pandemic.
However, the effect is felt the most at the grassroots levels. A large population that lives in the upper Himalayas depend completely on trekking. These include guides, cooks, helpers, mule men and porters all who make a living from trekking. Almost all of them work on a daily wage basis and are nervously anticipating the next few months. The ones who are employed with bigger companies are also facing an uncertain future as many fear paycuts or worse no salaries, till things return to normalcy.
People in the mountains in the past have been known to live in the moment and not anticipate and plan for the future. This might now be hurting them. People might argue that these people survived even before trekking picked up (in the last 5 to 6 years) and should be able to sustain.
The only way to survive when trekking is not happening is to get into agriculture. Many have started to now focus on their farms and fields. However, what most of us won’t be aware of is that most trekking staff are young (less than 30 years old). Since they have got into this profession only recently, they are not very skilled in this field. On more than one occasion, we have had families of these trekking staff talk to us about the inadequacy of their boys in the fields. Even if some manage to work in the fields, many are scared about their harvest. Erratic weather patterns and unpredictable nature of the monsoon have caused major harvest losses in the recent past, making farmers across the Himalayas nervous about their returns.
The only other option that remains for these people is to become dependent on forest produce. The Himalayas are rich in medicinal herbs and plants, which fetch a decent price when brought to the markets. However, this will suddenly increase the volumes of people who are mainly dependent on the forests, burdening the forests.
It is just not the local staff that is taking a hit, even trek leaders, backend staff and photographers are facing a similar predicament. With no treks happening, work has greatly reduced which could eventually result in paycuts.
It is just not the trekking business that stands to lose if no treks happen. Many other sectors like transport and hotel industries are dependent on treks and are thus also at a loss. With no tourists visiting the hills, thousands of cab drivers are to be rendered jobless, many of whom are still struggling to repay their loans. Many had recently bought new cars after observing the promise in the industry. The hotel industry also have a similar story to tell, especially smaller hotels at trek base villages.
In this situation, it is very easy for people to blame trekking companies for not taking care of their staff, and maybe they are right. However, one important fact that is neglected here is that in the last three years, trekking has become a cost-driven industry. With the increase in the number of trekking companies, the competition has risen many times over. Because of this, profit margins are not sufficient for them to keep supporting the staff in such uncertain situations. With no new bookings taking place, they cannot even help their staff in advance.
These times are very difficult for the locals and the companies who are based out of the Himalayas. Ideally, the trekking season should have picked up from March 15, which means we have already lost a month. One would have to be very optimistic to believe that things would normalize and treks would start again before the monsoon hits, meaning the companies would have already missed on their premonsoon season. Trekking in many sections of Himachal and Uttrakhand comes to a hold during monsoons(companies move to Kashmir, Ladakh and Spiti in the monsoon), meaning the season can now start only post monsoon. Given the circumstances, one can anticipate a very tough and unpredictable future for the trekking industry.