Bengaluru: The PATA Travel Mart, which took place in Bengaluru recently, gave Karnataka the firm push it needed toward developing tourism as an economic model. Much was said about relaxing the Coastal Regulation Zone laws and single-window clearances for investors. Incidentally, the Coastal Regulation Zone notification bans construction within 500 metres of the shoreline. After a chorus of protests from the tourism industry, this was relaxed to about 200 metres. If it is done away with completely, local fishing communities, which are already struggling to survive, will simply have no place to go. Age-old customs and traditions, that have been shaped around the geographical conditions of an area have been forced to die out as the number of tourists and their demands continue to grow.
The first National Tourism Policy was drafted by the Government of India in 1982 and the country began to look at tourism as a sector in itself. In 1985, Paul Gonsalves, who would go on to found Equitable Tourism Options (Equations), attended a conference on tourism in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The far-reaching effects of a development model that affects millions of lives in terms of economic well being, culture, society and the environment were making ripples by the 1980s. Gonsalves was so inspired by this that he returned to Bengaluru and began thinking of ways in which the impact of tourism could be studied and understood. “Places like Goa were beginning to feel the effects of tourism and at the start, Equations was about understanding this model,” said Aditi Singh, Director, Equations. “That's something we’re doing to this day,” she added.
By the time liberalisation rolled around in 1991, tourism was being projected across the world as a sustainable, lucrative model for economic growth. “That’s the framework through which we began, really - understanding development through the framework of tourism.” In those early years, much of Equations’ work was to do with tackling problems as presented themselves. “In 1991, the Coastal Regulation Zones were brought in,” said Singh. “It was also when tourism was booming along the coasts,”
It was Freddy Peats, an Anglo-German philanthropist who ran an orphanage in Goa, who brought the underbelly of tourism exploding into the limelight. In April 1991, police unearthed an international sex racket that had been running, unnoticed for several years. “Suddenly, the issue of children and tourism became an issue,” said Singh. Child and Tourism remains one of the core concerns of Equations - the relationship between tourism and child abuse has been making itself known since.
The organisation has worked extensively in this area, tracking the rise of prostitution and human trafficking in destinations like Kerala and Goa for sex tourism. Since 2005, Equations has been a formal member of End Child prostitution, Child Pornography, and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purpose (ECPAT) International, which is a network of organisations that looks at eradicating the sexual exploitation of children.
Sex tourism is one of the murkier aspects of a booming industry, which has a number of other longstanding effects. Tourism as a model for development is widely propagated, backed by scores of figures and statistics. Does establishing a five-star resort in a rural tourism destination actually trickle down to the local communities? “One of the biggest arguments people throw at us is that tourism brings in employment,” said Singh.
“There are a lot of numbers and figures available, but where do they come from? How are these statistics calculated? Who benefits from tourism, really?” Ownership within the tourism industry stems mainly from the big cities, while most destinations themselves are located in rural areas. “It gives rise to a whole lot of complications - land issues, for one,” Singh explained. “Land is sold at marginal rates and erstwhile land owners are forced to work in the hotels that have sprung up in the area,” she added.
This they tackle through corporate responsibility. “CSR activity is all very well, but how does it matter if your core business is harmful?” she asked. Equations concerns itself with the teeming informal sector - people who work without any form of social security or contracts. “In India, the informal sector comprises 90% of the population. Even if you were to reduce this to 70%, that's still a huge number,” said Singh.
Smaller homestays employ people on a need-basis - staff are asked to come in only if and when a guest arrives. “They don't know when they will get another chance to earn and when they do work, they're pulling 14 hour shifts. The informal sector and the local communities are the two major groups that have no say in the policy space, despite the fact that the impacts of tourism are felt most significantly by them. Policies don't really include the smaller establishments,” said Singh. “A token mention is given or none at all. The big voices are the ones dictating the schemes,” she added.
The repercussions on the environment are both plentiful and much-talked about. Little consideration, however, is given to the eco-systems of a particular destination and how they will be hit by commercialisation. “Small time fishermen are the biggest casualties, because their daily catch has reduced drastically. Construction along the coastline also prevents access to the sea,” Singh said. Fishermen who have, for generations, hauled their boats up onto the shore find they have no space anymore. “It's about responsible tourism,” Singh remarked.
In the Andamans, where local communities suffer from a perennial water crisis, swimming pools in five-star hotels line the coasts. “A local, on the other hand, gets drinking water once every two or three days,” she said. Tourism depends greatly on the specificity of the location. Waste management, sewage and local livelihoods are Equations' main areas of concern as far as the environmental impacts of tourism are concerned.
Much of this rests on policy. Gram panchayats have been touted as the models for self-governance, but they have little say in the larger decisions. “We interact with the Gram Sabhas, but they rarely have discussions on tourism. It doesn't occur to them to be concerned,” said Singh. “They don't think they have the right to decide whether or not a five-star hotel comes up in their village, even if they are the ones being affected by it,” she added.
Broadly speaking, tourism affects local communities in terms of livelihood and lifestyle, too. However, certain groups are affected more than others. “These are largely marginalised sections, be it women, children, the LGBT community or certain caste-based groups,” explained Singh. Women are faced with constant objectification - their roles rarely extend beyond housekeeping or front office jobs within the thriving hotel industry. Child labour, abuse and prostitution is an issue in itself and indigenous communities are forced to give up lifestyles that have been adapted, over centuries to the land on which they live.
“In Ladakh, travel agents refuse to recommend homestays that don't have western toilets,” said Singh. They have always faced a water shortage in the area and use dry pit toilets, where waste falls down a hole and is converted, in time, to manure. “Western toilets are water-intensive, but the people have no choice but to build them, no matter how difficult they are to sustain,” she added.
Where does the onus of responsible tourism lie? In the policy making powers, for starters, but also in the individual tourist. “We're trying to make tourists more aware of what is happening and encouraging them to support local communities in the places they visit,” said Singh. This is done through many ways and sometimes, it’s as simple as encouraging restaurants in Goa to sell rice and fish curry, or not having swimming pools in the Andamans.
“Tourism is being talked about in terms of infrastructure and ease of doing business, but very little is said about how it affects people at the grassroots level,” said Singh. The wheel of development progress continues to turn, inevitably so - and in a world where GDP is the sole measure of success, the happiness of the human being is either ignored or forgotten entirely.