As travel booms again, should India worry about over-tourism and find a balance between livelihoods and local concerns?

When Ishita Khanna began working in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, about two decades ago the remote, high-altitude area with its stark, stunning landscape had just started opening up to tourists after dispensing with permits for domestic visitors. Khanna, who has a background in development and conservation, set up the social enterprise Ecosphere with the idea of creating livelihood solutions for the local community there. Back then, she recalls,

Spiti had a single government establishment offering accommodation to visitors. Spiti has now undergone a transformation. “There are around 100 hotels in the town of Kaza alone, with another 20-25 coming up. Water was already scarce, but with more hotels, there’s huge pressure on the resource. During the season, they buy water daily from tankers,” says Khanna. The number of domestic tourists zoomed since it opened up from 2021 but while more tourists meant more revenue, it has also led to more garbage. Khanna says : “Earlier, tourists were more mindful but people who are coming in now expect the same facilities as in Shimla or Manali, which is very hard in a remote area like Spiti.”

The concerns in the Union territory of Ladakh, about 340 km away, are similar, the only difference being that it began feeling 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. Earlier, it used to be a trekkers’ destination 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 would be around 30,000 but it was catering to 4 lakh tourists a year,” says Loomba. After a pandemic lull of, tourism in the region has roared back to life, raising the question of how much stress it can tolerate.

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In Goa, bars and beaches are again abuzz with tourists returning with a vengeance. “By sheer numbers, Goa is doing quite well with hotels already charging season rates, which are at times up to 50% higher than pre-Covid rates. Four- and five-star hotels are seeing 90-100% occupancy,” says Nilesh Shah, president, Goa Tourism Association.

But this has also meant a problem of plenty. “We are indeed facing an issue of over-tourism,” says Nikhil Desai, director of tourism, Goa. “The fact remains that there is pressure on infrastructure, there are traffic jams, and when people come on holiday, if the beaches are overcrowded, that takes away from the experience. But we cannot just tell people not to come.”

The dilemma faced by popular destinations like Ladakh, Spiti and Goa is an echo of global tourism hotspots such as Venice and Barcelona: more tourists mean more revenue post-pandemic, but at what cost to the local population and the region itself should that be? The pause provided by the pandemic has sharpened both sides of the debate —while revenue took a huge hit it gave the locals a chance to see what life would be like without the constant rush of traffic or selfie-takers. As holidaymakers pack their bags once again, the question is should India needs to put in place measures to tackle over-tourism before it is too late.

Travelling for leisure is a relatively recent phenomenon in India. But increasing disposable incomes, better infrastructure and connectivity and social media put tourism in the fast lane, 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 was 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 an estimated 34.8 million active jobs in 2019, according to a September 2021 report by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER).

The factors that fuelled the sector’s growth, be it better connectivity or the spread of social media, are also those that are, unwittingly, contributing to over-tourism. Suman Sukumar, cofounder of Knowhere Travel Co, which promotes conscious travel, cites the Atal Tunnel, opened in 2020, as a recent example. The 9 km tunnel provides all-year access between Manali and Leh and reduces travel time. While this is a boon for the remote region, it has also meant a greater influx of tourists.

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

Similarly, when Goa’s new international airport opens next month, it will bump up tourist numbers.

“It’s good news for the hospitality industry, but it will only compound the problem,” says Desai.

Then there are travel influencers who drive up the popularity of certain spots, particularly by geotagging locations. “With all due respect to them, influencers have been responsible for destroying some pristine spots across the world. You can do your work without disclosing locations,” says Sukumar.

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Pandemic pause

With tourists now returning, the question is whether and how to prevent over-tourism while also protecting incomes and livelihoods. The NCAER report estimates that 14.5 million jobs were lost just in the first lockdown. In Himachal Pradesh, the average annual tourist footfall of 1.75 crore plummeted to 32 lakh in 2020 and was about 57 lakh in 2021, according to the state’s tourism director, Amit Kashyap. The sector contributes over 7% to GSDP, translating into about `12,000 crore —so we have to be sensitive about its concerns, says Kashyap. “The last two years were quite bad. Our policy during that period was survival, and then revival of tourism.”

For some others, this was a period to see what life could be like without an unhealthy dependence on tourism. Malika Virdi, founder of Himalayan Ark, which provides homestays run by locals at Sarmoli village in Uttarakhand, says the lockdown and other pandemic curbs ratified the organisation’s long-time belief that tourism in the region would be valuable only if rural lifestyles existed. “Hotels were hit badly by the pandemic but we could tide over it, because other livelihood options were there,” says Virdi, who is also the sarpanch of Sarmoli. Stephan Marchal, who runs Himalayan Ecotourism, a social enterprise focused on sustainable development via tourism, has a similar perspective. “Villagers have understood that they cannot rely on tourism for their livelihood. Many of them felt proud that despite a global economic collapse, they were still enjoying life, with grains 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’s ban on large cruise ships from entering the historic city centre to Bhutan’s raising the daily fee to be paid by tourists while in the country. India’s latest draft tourism policy states that its vision is to make the country “one of the topmost destinations for sustainable and responsible tourism” and mentions that “carrying capacity” and “visitor management to avoid over-tourism” will be focus areas for tourism master plans though caps on visitor numbers, etc., are not specified.

A common suggestion is to first estimate a place’s carrying capacity, which is the maximum number of people the area can “carry” and sustain, particularly ecologically fragile regions. Desai says the Goa government has begun work on this, with a study under way, led by KPMG, to work out carrying capacity models across the state. “A policy is in the making to regulate over-tourism, 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 take into account the concerns of the locals while estimating carrying capacity, instead of focusing solely on infrastructure: “The popular areas are a lost cause but we should at least execute measures in the hinterland.”

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The current focus in Himachal Pradesh is revival of tourism but Kashyap says the government has launched a scheme titled Nai Raahein, Nai Manzilein (new roads, new destinations) to reduce crowds in four-five locations like Shimla and Manali. “The focus is on building infrastructure for tourists in unexplored destinations so that they diversify into those places.” To reduce 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 tourism destination looks like. Right now, policies are largely based on increasing the number of visitor arrivals, which is unsurprisingly leading to over-tourism, more pressure on natural resources and negative externalities for local communities,” says Shivya Nath, a sustainable travel writer and consultant. A starting point to attract the right kind of visitors, she says, will be to incorporate responsible tourism in state tourism policies and provide training to travel companies, accommodations and tourism management institutes.

While measures to tackle over-tourism are necessary, Loomba says it is important to get buy-in from the locals for any measure. “The stakeholders of Leh and Ladakh must decide that action needs to be taken. Until there is local ownership of issues, things will not change.” Conversely, if no action is taken, Ecosphere’s Khanna worries that things will only worsen. “With groundwater under stress and haphazard construction, Spiti could become like other hill stations.” And in those places where over-tourism is not yet an issue, those involved in sustainable tourism feel it is only a matter of time. Virdi says that while Munsiyari, where Sarmoli is located, does not get as crowded as Manali, locals had a taste of it during peak season. “It’s a problem in the offing.”

Reversing the detrimental impact of overtourism will probably take more time than it took to get there, says Rangnekar. “But we need to start somewhere.”

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