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Several tourist places in India have exceeded their carrying capacity

Tourism is a significant contributor to global warming. While many tourist hotspots have managed to keep pollution and resource degradation within check, most are struggling and getting polluted and degraded

Chandra BhushanChandra Bhushan   25 Oct 2019 7:22 AM GMT

Several tourist places in India have exceeded their carrying capacity

What if I tell you that we need to restrict the number of pilgrims to religious places like Amarnath and Vaishno Devi? What about limiting the number of tourists to hill stations like Shimla, Mahabaleshwar or Gangtok? Many would contest this as an infringement on their right to freedom and their religious rights. But the fact is, to save these places, we will have to restrict the number of tourists. Let me explain.

In June this year, the tourist rush in Manali was such that thousands of vehicles jammed all major and minor roads. The gridlock led to hundreds of tourists getting stranded for many hours, including for a night, from Kullu to Rohtang. People were defecating in the open, and the air pollution levels had increased significantly. A situation like this is likely to happen at all major tourist hotspots. The reason is simple: as we become wealthier, we will have extra money to spend, and tourism is attracting that money. This is the reason why the travel and tourism sector in India is one of the fastest-growing industries. In 2018 its contribution to the economy was around Rs 17.5 lakh crore (about 9% of the GDP). But this growth is coming at the cost of environmental and ecological destruction.

Tourism is a significant contributor to global warming. The carbon footprint of the Indian tourism industry is estimated to be more than 250 million tonnes CO2 equivalent per year or about 10% of total emissions, and this is multiplying.

The problems of pollution and resource depletion and degradation are more local. While many tourist hotspots have managed to keep pollution and resource degradation within check, most are struggling and getting polluted and degraded. The Himalayan region is now the epicentre of unsustainable tourism.

Several tourist places — especially hill stations, pilgrimage sites and wildlife sanctuaries — in India have exceeded their carrying capacity. Pic Swati Subhedar

Take the case of Ladakh, a cold desert with a limited supply of water. Residents have adapted to living with less than 25 litres of water per day, but tourists consume 75–100 litres/day. There are close to 700 hotels in Ladakh, hosting about 2.5 lakh tourists (close to the region's population) each year. This puts intense pressure on water resources. The town of Leh gets water by digging into the Indus riverbed and boring into the aquifers. The increasing number of borewells directly affects the springs on which the local population depends for drinking water and agricultural use. Ladakh cannot sustain such intense tourism pressure for a long time.

Other iconic places are being subject to similar ecological destruction. In Kodaikanal, for instance, tourists grew four-fold in the last ten years. This rapid growth has caused water scarcity, added to sewage mismanagement, worsened air pollution and led to the cutting of forests to make more roads. A key concern has been the growth of plastic pollution due to the use of single-use plastic products like plates, spoons, straws and bottles. Tourism in Kodaikanal today is not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination.

The domain of environmental science tells us that every place has a carrying capacity, defined by its availability of resources and the ability of its governance systems to manage those resources. Once the carrying capacity exceeds, ecological destruction and environmental degradation ensue.

Several tourist places — especially hill stations, pilgrimage sites and wildlife sanctuaries — in India have exceeded their carrying capacity. At many places, carrying capacity has been exceeded not because of physical limitations, but mismanagement of resources.

In 2018, the travel and tourism industry's contribution to the economy was around Rs 17.5 lakh crore -- about 9% of the GDP. Pic: Swati Subhedar

Take the case of Amarnath. An Environmental Impact Assessment of the Lidder Valley (Amarnath Ji shrine is located at one end of the valley), done by Mohammad Sultan Bhat, Head, Department of geography and regional development at Kashmir University, found that the area has a carrying capacity of only 4,300 pilgrims per day. But on an average, more than 12,000 pilgrims visit the cave every day during the first months of the Amarnath Yatra. Global warming is already impacting the glaciers surrounding the shrine, and the human pressure is adding to this impact. The result is that the lingam of Lord Shiva (a naturally formed stalagmite) has been steadily reducing in size every year and is completely melting much before the end of the Yatra season. This is self-defeating; in a few decades, we might not have the lingam to go and pray.

There is, therefore, an urgent need to limit the number of tourists and improve the governance at these places. We can learn some lessons on how to do this from our neighbour Bhutan.

Bhutan has controlled the number of tourists by promoting high-value tourism. Every guest to Bhutan pays a minimum tariff every day, which depending on the season varies from Rs 14,000 to 17,500 per day. A part of this tariff goes into environmental protection and community development and to promote community-based tourism to enhance livelihood opportunities for the local population.

The carbon footprint of the Indian tourism industry is estimated to be more than 250 million tonnes CO2 equivalent per year -- about 10% of total emissions -- and this is multiplying. Pic: Swati Subhedar

But we can do better than Bhutan. To ensure that there is equality, especially to visit religious sites, we can allocate a significant number of permits to the economically weaker section of the population. To manage the sites well, we can charge hefty fees from the wealthy.

The bottom line is that current tourism practices, accompanied by their burgeoning carbon footprint, are unsustainable. Hard actions, including limiting the number of tourists, will be required if we want to sustain these places in the long run.

The fact is tourism is crucial, and people must have the option to visit their religious sites and experience other cultures and ecosystems. The reality also is that the tourism industry relies on a pleasant environment to attract tourists. No one wants to visit a dirty and polluted place. But the current practices are destroying the very environment in which it survives. We all will have to become more responsible if we want to continue enjoying this magical world of ours. But for this, we will have to promote 'real' sustainable tourism.

(Chandra Bhushan is an environmentalist and a researcher, writer and campaigner for sustainable development. He was honoured with Ozone Award by the UN-Environment in 2017)

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