Tourism in India: With travel booming again, should India worry about over-tourism and balancing livelihoods with local concerns?

When Ishita Khanna started working in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh some two decades ago, the remote high-altitude region with its stark and beautiful landscape had just begun to open up to tourists after giving up permits for domestic visitors. Khanna, who has a background in development and conservation, started the social enterprise Ecosphere with the idea of ​​creating livelihood solutions for the local community. At the time, she recalls,

Spiti had a single government establishment providing accommodation for visitors. Spiti has now undergone a transformation. “There are around 100 hotels in the city of Kaza alone, with 20 to 25 more to come. Water was already scarce, but with more hotels, the pressure on the resource is enormous. During the season, they buy water daily from water tankers,” says Khanna. Domestic tourist numbers have increased since it opened from 2021, but while more tourists meant more revenue, it also led to more waste. Khanna says, “Previously, tourists were more attentive, but people coming now expect the same facilities as in Shimla or Manali, which is very difficult in a remote area like Spiti.”

Concerns in the union territory of Ladakh, about 340 km away, are similar, the only difference being that it started to feel the pressures of mass tourism earlier.

“Ladakh has a very fragile ecosystem and environment,” says Paras Loomba, founder of Global Himalayan Expedition, an impact tourism company. It used to be a destination for trekkers but the success of 3 Idiots (2009), with its climactic scene shot near the surreal waters of Pangong Tso, opened the doors to mass tourism, amplified by social media. “The population of Leh is said to be around 30,000, but it received 4 lakh tourists a year,” says Loomba. After a pandemic lull, tourism in the region has come back to life, raising the question of how much stress it can tolerate.

In Goa, bars and beaches are once again buzzing with tourists returning in force. “In absolute numbers, Goa is doing quite well, with hotels already charging seasonal rates, which are sometimes up to 50% higher than pre-Covid rates. Four and five star hotels are seeing 90-100% occupancy,” says Nilesh Shah, Chairman of the Goa Tourism Association.

But it also meant a problem of abundance. “We are indeed facing a problem of over-tourism,” says Nikhil Desai, director of tourism in Goa. “The fact remains that there is pressure on the infrastructure, there are traffic jams, and when people come on vacation, if the beaches are overcrowded, that takes away from the experience. But we can’t just tell people not to come.

The dilemma facing popular destinations like Ladakh, Spiti and Goa echoes global tourist hotspots such as Venice and Barcelona: More tourists means more post-pandemic revenue, but at what cost to locals and society? region itself should this be? The pause provided by the pandemic has sharpened both sides of the debate – as incomes have taken a huge hit, it has given locals a chance to see what life would be like without the constant rush of traffic or selfies. As holidaymakers pack their bags again, the question is whether India needs to put in place measures to tackle over-tourism before it’s too late.

Traveling for pleasure is a relatively recent phenomenon in India. But rising disposable incomes, improved infrastructure and connectivity and social media have put tourism on the fast track, with the sector peaking just before the pandemic. In 2019, the number of foreign tourist arrivals in India was 10.9 million with an annual growth rate of 3.5%, while domestic tourist visits to all states and union territories were 2.3 billion, with an annual growth rate of 25%, according to the Ministry of Tourism. The industry is estimated to have directly contributed 2.5% to India’s GDP and 6.7% to employment, generating around 34.8 million active jobs in 2019, according to a September 2021 report from the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER).

The factors that have fueled the growth of the sector, be it better connectivity or the spread of social media, are also those that unwittingly contribute to over-tourism. Suman Sukumar, co-founder of Knowhere Travel Co, which promotes mindful travel, cites the Atal Tunnel, which opened in 2020, as a recent example. The 9 km tunnel provides year-round access between Manali and Leh and reduces travel time. Although this is a boon for the remote region, it has also brought a greater influx of tourists.

“Leh was already struggling with overtourism, but now it’s out of control,” says Sukumar.

Likewise, when the new Goa International Airport opens next month, it will increase the number of tourists.

“This is good news for the hospitality industry, but it will only make the problem worse,” says Desai.

Then there are the travel influencers who increase the popularity of certain spots, in particular by geolocating the places. “With all due respect, influencers have been responsible for destroying some pristine places around the world. You can do your job without disclosing the places,” says Sukumar.


Pandemic break

With tourists returning, the question is whether and how to prevent overtourism while protecting incomes and livelihoods. The NCAER report estimates that 14.5 million jobs were lost during the first lockdown alone. In Himachal Pradesh, the average annual tourist attendance of 1.75 crore dropped to 32 lakh in 2020 and was around 57 lakh in 2021, according to state tourism director Amit Kashyap. The sector contributes more than 7% to the GSDP, which translates to about 12,000 crore—so we have to be sensitive to its concerns, says Kashyap. “The last two years have been pretty bad. Our policy during this period was survival, then revival of tourism.

For others, it was a time to see what life could be like without an unhealthy addiction to tourism. Malika Virdi, founder of Himalayan Ark, which offers homestays in Sarmoli village in Uttarakhand, says the lockdown and other pandemic curbs have ratified the organization’s long-standing belief that tourism in the region would only have value if rural lifestyles existed. “Hotels were hit hard by the pandemic, but we could get by because other livelihoods were there,” says Virdi, who is also Sarmoli’s sarpanch. Stephan Marchal, who runs Himalayan Ecotourism, a social enterprise focused on sustainable development through tourism, has a similar perspective. “The villagers have understood that they cannot rely on tourism for their livelihood. Many of them were proud that despite a global economic collapse, they were still enjoying life, with grain and vegetables from their fields, wood from their forest and milk from their cows,” he says.

Globally, cities and countries are experimenting with different models, from Venice banning large cruise ships from entering the historic city center to Bhutan increasing daily fees to be paid by tourists during their stay in the country. India’s latest draft tourism policy states that its vision is to make the country “one of the best destinations for sustainable and responsible tourism” and mentions that “carrying capacity” and “visitor management to avoid over-tourism” will be the priority areas for the master of tourism. plans although caps on number of visitors etc. are not specified.

A common suggestion is to first estimate a place’s carrying capacity, that is, the maximum number of people the area can “carry” and support, especially ecologically fragile regions. Desai says the Goa government has started working on this, with an ongoing study, led by KPMG, to develop carrying capacity models across the state. “A policy is being developed to regulate overtourism, without directly banning anyone from coming to the state,” he says. Parag Rangnekar, a naturalist, ecotourism entrepreneur and member of the Goa Tourism Board, says it is important to consider local concerns when estimating carrying capacity, instead of focusing only on infrastructure: “Popular areas are a lost cause but we should at least execute measures in the hinterland.


The current focus in Himachal Pradesh is to revive tourism, but Kashyap says the government has launched a program called Nai Raahein, Nai Manzilein (New Routes, New Destinations) to reduce crowds in four to five places like Shimla and Manali. “The focus is on building infrastructure for tourists in unexplored destinations so that they diversify in those places.” To ease traffic congestion in the capital Shimla, a 1,546 crore ropeway project has been sanctioned.

“In India, especially with state tourism boards, we urgently need to redefine what a successful tourist destination looks like. Currently, policies are largely based on increasing the number of visitor arrivals, which unsurprisingly leads to over-tourism, increased pressure on natural resources and negative externalities. for local communities,” says Shivya Nath, writer and sustainable travel consultant. A starting point for attracting the right kind of visitors, she says, will be integrating responsible tourism into state tourism policies and providing training to travel agencies, accommodations and tourism management institutes. .

While measures to tackle overtourism are needed, Loomba says it’s important to get local buy-in for any measure. “Stakeholders in Leh and Ladakh must decide that action needs to be taken. Until there is local ownership of the issues, things will not change. Conversely, if no action is taken, Ecosphere’s Khanna fears things will only get worse. “With strained groundwater and haphazard construction, Spiti could become like other hill stations.” And in places where overtourism is not yet a problem, sustainable tourism stakeholders believe it is only a matter of time. Virdi says that although Munsiyari, where Sarmoli is located, is not as crowded as Manali, locals enjoyed it during the high season. “It’s a problem in perspective.”

Reversing the harmful impact of overtourism will likely take longer than it took to get there, Rangnekar says. “But we have to start somewhere.”


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