Tourism - Bite more than one can chew
With little tourist footfalls in the early twenties the Union Government had launched “The Incredible India” campaign. The primary objective of the campaign started in 2002 was to promote India as a tourist destination to both domestic and international travellers. That year in total only about 40 million tourists both domestic and foreign travelled in the country- a very small number considering India’s size and poten- tial.
Two decades later with a phe- nomenal rise in tourists’ numbers post pandemic, the industry itself has earned many connotations- Revenge Tourism, Mixed Tourism, Instant Tourism and so on and so forth. But accompanied by all its ills, over tourism or excess tourism has taken a heavy toll on the spots they travel and places they stay.
Himalayas with all its tourism potential is naturally affected by this new trend of tourists. With more tourists visiting Himalayan region, its many places are becoming densely overcrowded, straining all the local resources. The negative impacts of mass tourism is causing pollution and damage to the places. The impact of over-tourism can be social, eco- nomic, as well as environmental.
“With growing economic reforms there is rising disposable incomes. Young population and growing interest in adven- ture activities are driving tourism demand. It also has boosted the economy of the country and spe- cially the local people are immediately benefited”
According to studies, major prob- lems associated with tourist over- crowding include alienated local residents, downgraded tourist expe- riences, overloaded infrastructure, damage to nature, and threats to culture and heritage. It is an absurdity that tourism is supposed to nurture all the same elements.
Interestingly, the picture postcard Himalayan states are witnessing more tourist arrivals than their total local population! Jammu and Kashmir recorded 1.88 crore high- est tourist arrivals in 2022, the uppermost number in the past three decades. The state which shares the maximum border with Himalayas has a population of approximately 1.25 Crores. In Himachal Pradesh tourist arrival reached 1.51 crore in 2022, a 62 percent increase from previous year against the popula- tion of 77.56 Lakhs. In neighbour- ing Uttarakhand, it was worse.
In the same year, close to five crore tourists, 3.8 crore. Apart from this Kanwar yatris and 45 lakh Char, visited the hill state against its total population of only 1.20 Crores the same year. But at the same time the question arises why and how this unprecedented jump in number of tourists both inbound and out- bound. With growing economic reforms there is rising disposable incomes. Young population and growing interest in adventure activ- ities are driving tourism demand. It also has boosted the economy of the country and specially the local peo- ple are immediately benefited.
In 2022, the contribution of the travel and tourism sector to India's econo- my was worth Rs 16.5 trillion with nearly seven percent share in GDP. The industry employs about 50 mil- lion people and provides saucers to many more who depend on it. Secondly, with the expansion of roads, railways and airways, visiting tourist places has become easy.
Even a few years ago most people had to trek to reach important tourist places like Kedarnath, Amarnath and Vishnu Devi. Nowadays all the approach roads are full of buses and cars and heli- copters fly like autorickshaws. Thirdly, earlier people used to go with nuclear families but now the trend is with whole family, friends and groups which also costs cheaper and better. Lastly, many are also mixing tourism with leisure with adventure and even spirituality. But all comes at a cost. Spiritual or religious tourism seems to have cost the biggest dam- age to the hill environment than anything else.
Pilgrimages and festi- vals in sacred sites in protected areas result in huge non-biodegrad- able waste inside forests, create noise, pollute water and in long- term damage the fragile forest ecosystem, notes several studies. Apart from the sudden increase in noise and use of bright lights in the core areas of the forest during festi- vals and pilgrimages that disturbed wildlife. Several animals are killed on roads in accidents since they are not habituated to such seasonal mass human movement. There are reports of animal sacrifices in a few places in the name of religion.
Moreover, many trees and plants are uprooted to facilitate makeshift camps. The head of WWF’s Beliefs and Values Programme, Chantal Elkin said that faith-based conservation messages from religious leaders have the potential to galvanise peo- ple to protect India’s threatened habitats and wild species as a mat- ter of religious responsibility and devotion. For instance, if the pil- grims are asked not to defecate near the river due to water pollution, the concerned authorities in the temple or the forest administration need to provide adequate toilets and wash- ing areas.
Elkin shared an exampl, where providing free food and drinks for devotees is considered as a noble act but greatly harms the environment in the long term because of use of plastic utensils. But “Green Pilgrimage Management Committees” were put in place for proper disposal of all waste and minimise plastic inside the reserve. It worked best even while feeding thousands of tourists and pilgrims.
The best example is our next-door neighbour, Himalayan Kingdom Bhutan which reopened its territory for international tourists but tripled its Sustainable Development Fee. The fee is ploughed back to sustain- able tourism. When it comes to sus- tainable tourism the small country has always stayed ahead of the curve.