Rethinking Himalayan tourism
It is time to turn the pandemic into an opportunity by looking at tourism in a different light and redesigning the current business model into a long-term sustainable and resilient industry
In the past few years, the Union Ministry of Tourism had undertaken a few initiatives to develop a strong visitor economy, such as the Incredible India 2.0 campaign, PRASHAD and Swadesh Darshan.
The aviation sector, which once contributed 2.4 per cent to Indian GDP, is also struggling to survive. The Indian aviation industry could see losses of up to $3.6 billion during April and June 2020, according to the Centre of Aviation. The travel ban has hugely impacted tour operators and travel agencies, affecting not only present but future bookings as well. The hotel, aviation and travel sector may incur losses of about Rs 8,500 crore due to travel restrictions imposed on foreign tourists according to the Indian Association of Tour Operators. This would further deteriorate the condition of small to medium-sized enterprises.
Government agencies and ministries have recommended various measures for the survival and revival of the travel and tourism sector. These include extended moratorium, waiver of statutory dues, stimulus packages, reduction in goods and service tax, direct cash support, low-interest loans and funding forces among others.
But these are just short-term avoidance for major economic losses. Indian tourism has, for a long time, just focused on creating more and more tourist destinations in the name of economic upliftment of local communities, rather than striking a balance between the needs of the host, visitor and the environment.
It is time to turn the pandemic into an opportunity by looking at tourism in a different light and redesigning the current business model into a long-term sustainable and resilient industry.
The rural Indian Himalayan Region (IHR) has rather been hit hard because of its limited and seasonal livelihood options, mainly consisting of agriculture and tourism. The towering peaks, majestic landscape, rich biodiversity and cultural heritage of IHR has for years drawn visitors from the Indian subcontinent and across the world, making tourism the key driver of socio-economic development of the region.
Apart from pilgrimage tourism, which has been an important feature of the Himalayas, other forms of tourism like adventure, trekking, mountain climbing, camping, recreation, aesthetics, ecotourism and agri-tourism have been gaining popularity.
Over-tourism, surpassing the carrying capacity of a destination, has always been the key issue of tourism in IHR. Every summer, the mass inflow of tourists towards the hill stations has often led to specific negative externalities such as inappropriate and dangerous construction, poorly designed roads, inadequate waste management, air and water pollution, loss of natural resources and biodiversity, vehicular traffic and an increasing carbon footprint, among others.
These are cumulatively affecting the long-term tourism development prospects of IHR. COVID-19 has now provided a rare opportunity for the earth to heal, which has rejuvenated the mountain ecosystem after a very long time.
It provides a great scope for the remodelling of the tourism sector as 'Green Tourism', so as to make it inclusive and sustainable, thus contributing to the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goals (particularly SDG-8 and SDG-12). As sustainable cities and communities (SDG-11) gain attention and investment in India, efforts to strengthen, protect and safeguard our natural and cultural heritage is becoming inevitable.
The current model of tourism in the IHR is viewed as a source of environmental degradation. The impacts of mass tourism and disregard for the carrying capacity of the mountains has led to serious concerns among policy-makers, local communities (hosts) and visitors (tourists).
While there is a great potential to harness the tourism assets of the region, there is an increasing realisation that the tourism development pathway post-pandemic needs to be different and build on the principles of sustainable development.
The tourism recommendations need to be articulated in alignment with the four pillars namely, environmental sustainability, social inclusiveness, economic prosperity and cultural safety.
It is important to design and implement eco-labelling tourism standards so that the transformation happening in the IHR landscape – climate change, youth outmigration, drying of springs, forest fires, degradation of natural and cultural resources, can be assessed and minimised.
Monitoring and evaluation on a regular basis will ensure that the good practices are incentivised and bad ones are penalised. Thus, for the green economy to surface, a performance-oriented incentive mechanism can be beneficial.
The existing institutional and governance pattern in the IHR needs to be updated and oriented towards the green economy. The financial commitment and social responsibility of the IHR states could help in the maintenance of certification standards and inclusive development norms for the community's benefit in the long run.
A step towards green tourism can be taken through establishing:
Sustainable tourism fund
Sustainable development task force
Sustainable tourism label and certification system
Awareness campaign and promotion
Social inclusiveness and co-governance.
Tourist destinations in the IHR are reporting disturbing trends of drug abuse (psychedelics), exploitation of labour and uncontrollable land sales, despite states having put stringent norms in place for outsiders.
The COVID crisis has given a chance to reflect on the current tourism policies and plans, and rethink tourism against the backdrop of socio-economic assessment of the mountain community and associated environmental threats for a sustainable future.
Looking ahead for the revival of the economy, the measures adopted today will shape the tourism sector of tomorrow. Our country is marketing the rich natural and cultural potential of the Himalayas at a very low price.
The success of green tourism can be understood with examples like the Blue Yonder (India), the Living Tisza Trademark (Hungary), Transhumance (Poland), Hostetín – model village (Czech Republic), National Ecotourism Strategy (Botswana, National Tourist Council (Bulgaria), etc.
Local prosperity and community well-being, along with visitors' fulfilment have to be balanced with environmental integrity so that the revenue earned from tourism is ploughed back in the sustainable development of the region.
When tourism development focuses on the actual needs of the local community — preserving their traditional knowledge and practices and providing them with the basic necessities of life — it automatically creates a sustainable system worth visiting and conserving at the same time.
The writer is a research scholar at Wildlife Institute of India. Views expressed are personal