The tourism industry is booming throughout the world. Over the last few years, many Asian countries, which until now were unknown to the world, have suddenly become travellers' favourite destinations. More and more people are exploring new places. Famous travel destinations such as Jakarta, Bangkok, Seoul, Auckland, New Delhi and Ho Chi Minh, are struggling to cope with the massive influx of tourists.
This over-tourism, which simply means there are too many tourists at a given destination, can have some devastating consequences on the environment. The new visa rule has made travel easier and one can expect thousands of people flocking to Asia now. But how does one travel responsibly and make tourism sustainable without abusing nature or leaving a trail of trash behind.
The nomadic lands
The Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, which were a part of the famous Silk Route, have remained untouched by the travellers. Home to vibrant cultures and many beautiful monuments, Central Asian countries are slowly making their way into the list of many tourists.
Travel blogger and author Shivya Nath, who recently visited Uzbekistan and Tajikistan says that we live at a time when many spectacular places around the world are plagued by over-tourism. “Travellers are alienating local communities instead of supporting them. Well, Tajikistan is at the other end of that spectrum. Most people would have to Google where exactly it sits on the Central Asia map,” says Shivya. Just like India, many parts of these countries are inhabited by nomadic communities. It is imperative that the authorities make sure these communities are not hurt in any way as tourism increases. Seema Bhatt, honorary vice-president of Ecotourism Society of India, an NGO promoting environmentally responsible tourism, emphasises on the need of involving the local communities. “We have to protect these communities, because they are unaware of the modern tourism industry and the way it functions. We can't have thousands of people showing up one day in those countries and impose tourism on them. There has to be a lot of consultation with the locals before taking any decision. So if there are nomadic communities, be it India or the Central Asian countries, the authorities need to first approach them through a local organisation, explain to them the pro and cons of tourism. Only if they agree, should the authorities proceed.”
Not too long ago a photograph showing a conga line of mountaineers waiting to approach the summit of Mount Everest, queued up on a knife’s-edge ridge, went viral on the Internet.
Nearly a dozen climbers died, with guides and survivors arguing that overcrowding at the world’s highest peak was a primary cause. “It is important to put a cap on the number of travellers that can go to a particular destination each year. A good example of such a tourist destination is Bhutan. The country functions on a low volume-high value tourism model which curbs the number of visitors annually yet generates high tourism revenue,” says Shivya.
Overcrowding = Disaster
Well-known travel-blogger and influencer Prakriti Varshney adds, “There are a few steps that the government can take to curb excessive tourism. For instance, there has to be a limit on opening hotels and restaurants. If you visit Manali, you'll find hotels in every corner. Though I have one thing to add, tourism has made it easier for locals to earn a sustainable economy. The government provides basic necessities if they see boost in tourism at particular places. In Leh – there are roads, mobile connectivity, bus services and what not. The place, being a cold desert used to receive very minimal rainfall, but since a decade, the rainfall has been increasing every year.”
Explaining about various ways to handle overcrowding at famous destinations, Roopesh Rai, founder of award-winning agro-travel initiative Green People, says, “The carrying capacity of the famous Jim Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand is around 2,000 people. However, nearly 10,000 people visit Jim Corbett. We need to create awareness about more places that are scenic and affordable. There are thousands of ghost villages in Uttarakhand, from where people have moved to bigger cities to earn a livelihood. If utilised properly, the excess tourists from Jim Corbett can be routed towards these villages.”
Rupinder Brar, additional director general (Tourism), Ministry of Tourism, India says that they are working on a number of circuits across the nation. “We want to ease the pressure off famous tourist destinations. Ladakh, which falls on the Silk Route, has a very fragile ecosystem. It is a famous tourist destination. To make sure we don't disturb the communities there, we have reached out to the locals with our plans,” Brar says.
Cleanliness is next to godliness
The Himalayan region has an important spiritual meaning for Hindus. According to a NITI Aayog report, till the middle of the 19th century, the number of pilgrims who went to Badrinath and Kedarnath was relatively low — after 30 days of walking, about 5,000 to 10,000 pilgrims reached Badrinath each year.
With the expansion of roads and improved accessibility, by the middle of the 20th century, Badrinath could be reached from Rishikesh within one and a half day by bus. Since then, the number of pilgrims and vehicles arriving in Badrinath and the whole Indian Himalayan region (IHR) has increased dramatically. In 2019, approximately 12 lakh people visited Badrinath.
Despite the tragedy at Kedarnath shrine in the year 2013, there has been a constant rise in the number of pilgrims. Nearly 10 lakh people visited Kedarnath in 2018 alone (Data source: badarikedar.org).
Vikas Lamba, a professional mountaineer says that many people leave a lot of waste behind them. “The place near Gangotri, which is the origin of river Ganges is very dirty. People leave behind plastic, old clothes and other stuff. While in cities there is some scope of the garbage being picked up by the municipality, up in the mountains these things remain for years. They pollute the river at its origin, the land and the animals who live there.”
Mass tourism, has put severe stress on the ecology and ecosystem of the Himalayas. Over the years, trekking, mountain climbing, and nature-based tourism in the IHR have been gaining popularity. They pollute the pristine Himalayas. Recently, 11,000 kg garbage was removed from Mt Everest in a two-month long cleanliness drive. The garbage — empty oxygen cylinders, plastic bottles, cans, batteries, food wrappings, faecal matter and kitchen waste was flown to Kathmandu in army helicopters.
“Mountaineers are taught to not leave any garbage behind them. We pick whatever garbage we find on our way down. During my last expedition to Uttarkashi, I found a lot of garbage on the way back. Trekkers and mountaineers have to deposit some amount before starting the hike with the authorities and get refunded when they bring back their trash. However, no one checks what we carried up and what we bring down,” says Lamba.
Search for Solution
With travelling becoming more and more accessible, many people have started exploring these destinations. Additional commissioner of Income Tax and avid traveller Mala Paropkari emphasises on the need to educate people about being sensitive towards nature. “Many Indians throw their garbage at tourist locations. We need to educate ourselves about environment before we start travelling. The government should take appropriate action against people who litter.”
Sharing a few tips about how people can be environment conscious, Prakriti says, “I think everyone can start with small steps while travelling, like stop littering at any cost even if it is biodegradable. Say no to one-time plastic. Choose the destination during the off-season and always try and stay with locals than hotels.”
Resonating the same, Rupinder adds, “The tourism ministry has many projects in place to make sure that tourist locations are tidy and clean. We even have a scheme called ‘Adopt A Heritage’ where we entrust heritage sites/monuments and other tourist sites to private and public sector companies and individuals for the development of tourist amenities.”
Air travel is one of the biggest causes of pollution worldwide. Planes are far more carbon-intense than cars. In 2018, commercial airlines burned 94 billion gallons of fossil fuel globally. Aviation alone also accounts for at least two percent of global carbon emissions. The guidelines by United Nations: In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development SDG target 8.9, aims to “by 2030, devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”. The UN encourages the promotion of investment in sustainable tourism, including eco-tourism and cultural tourism.