The acknowledgement by policymakers, host communities, and even some travellers on the negative effects of mass tourism have led to formulation of policies on sustainable tourism
The sudden onset of the coronavirus pandemic, also known as Covid-19, caught the world off-guard. The unexpected spike in the spread of the virus has led to several containment measures being imposed globally, including in India, most notably in the form of lockdowns and strict travel restrictions. The impact of the pandemic was felt across the global and national economy, and continues to do so, with local businesses including travel agencies, tour operators in the hospitality sector, and all kinds of transportation services such as aviation, railways, shipping and roads, along with many more, being severely affected. The Indian tourism industry, which is dependent on travel, trade, and hospitality has been a significant contributor to India’s GDP (6.8% in 2019) and as a labour- intensive sector, it generated around 39 million jobs, equivalent to 8% of the total employment of India in FY 2019-20.Naturally, the sector was not immune to job losses and salary cuts inflicted due to Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions. According to the Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism & Hospitality, about 3.8 crore people in the country faced unemployment due to the pandemic. A study by CII-Hotelivate suggests that the entire value chain of India’s tourism industry could face losses up to ₹5 lakh crore ($65 billion). Globally, the tourism industry suffered losses to the tune of $460 billion in the first half of 2020, with the Asia-Pacific region seeing the highest decline in tourists (around 72%).
As countries move towards easing restrictions imposed due to the pandemic and getting economies back on track with recovery measures and stimulus packages, the tourism sector is bound to pick up gradually. With Indian travellers unable to freely take a trip overseas for tourism, the only option is domestic travel in line with the Ministry of Tourism’s initiative - Dekho Apna Desh - to promote domestic tourism across plentiful tourist destinations ranging from mountain tourism, cultural and religious tourism, wildlife tourism, adventure tourism, and heritage tourism. Sustainable tourism is not just an option anymore, but a pre-requisite with a large proportion of travellers favouring holidaying with organizations that inculcate a commitment to greener, environmental and socially friendly practices. Although the pandemic has adversely affected economic activities, the nature and the environment has thrived sans human interference amid lockdowns. Numerous reports have highlighted how nature has been healing – from drastic decline in air pollution, increasing visibility of the Himalayan Ranges from cities such as Jalandhar and Saharanpur, which are located in the plains, the reappearance of birds and animals in urban spaces, to minimal to zero waste and litter across popular tourist spots. The main challenge, however, lies in sustaining these unprecedented positive impacts on nature and environment, especially since the economy is slowly opening up and most of the Indian states have done away with major restrictions. Moreover, after enduring months of isolation, tourists would capitalize on the opportunity available to them to travel to popular destinations as well as less unexplored or commercialised places. The hospitality sector, which lost out on considerable peak season business, would also welcome the influx of tourists. While this may be beneficial for business and recreation for tourists, the recovering natural landscapes and local resident communities may not just be ready yet to receive unregulated tourist entrees. For instance, Rishikesh, which is popular for river rafting, received more than 8000 tourists within a short time of reopening. Similarly, the recently inaugurated Atal Tunnel connecting Manali to Lahaul has generated much curiosity among tourists, leading to traffic jams and accidents in the tunnel, and created issues of overcrowding, littering, and even instances of crime in the quaint, remote valleys.
Is sustainable tourism the answer?
Sustainable tourism or eco-tourism which builds on basic principles of local procurement while assimilating local culture and bringing livelihood opportunities to local communities without causing harm to the natural environment has gradually found space in the Indian tourism sector. The acknowledgement of the negative effects of mass tourism by policymakers, host communities, and some travellers have led to formulation of policies on sustainable tourism as well as to several initiatives that promote conservation principles among tourists. Ecotourism, defined by The International Ecotourism Society, as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education’ (TIES 2015), may be the way forward in a post-pandemic era. Involving the host community and creating opportunities for additional livelihoods while preserving nature and culture could create a niche for low-impact high-value tourism, in areas that are ecologically fragile.
How to facilitate eco-tourism?
Promoting ecotourism needs concerted efforts from all stakeholders. The government could come out with guidelines and directives to address a host of issues such as developing alternative tourist destinations, regulating and penalizing illegal construction activities, promoting theme-based tourism (adventure, nature, cultural, heritage, religious, wellness, etc.), imposing restrictions on tourist entry into ecologically sensitive areas, capacity building of tourism service providers, among others. Locally owned guest houses and homestays could be promoted over large hotels that contribute to additional carbon emissions. Waste management measures also need urgent attention from relevant authorities as it not only stands to harm the environment and wildlife, but also reduces the aesthetic value of places. Building a stance towards circularity of plastic waste and pollution in tourism can lend a positive impact towards health. Keeping in mind the importance of prioritizing health, considering COVID-19, hygiene and safety standards must be specified and enforced in tourism businesses, including sanitized living spaces and kitchen, cooking with organic produce, making provisions for open kitchen, first aid and basic medical training, developing touch-less washrooms, etc. Further, successful eco-tourism initiatives from states like Odisha and Sikkim could be studied to understand what works and what does not work, with respect to the specific conditions and needs of a particular landscape. In the long-run, the health infrastructure in tourist spots may be appended and adequate capacity built for any COVID-type eventuality.
At the same time, it is also incumbent on tourists to make smart choices that are commensurate with conserving the natural environment and respecting local sensitivities, while enhancing their travel experience. While choosing accommodation, travellers can opt for homestays and local tourist camps/lodges instead of business hotels. While these may not offer too many luxuries, it would help generate livelihood for the community in a sustainable manner. Similarly, tourists can be encouraged to reinforce local value chains through the procurement of local produce and handicrafts which help augment social economic benefits for the local communities.
There is still an opportunity to develop up-coming and unexplored tourist destinations such as Miyar Valley and Pangi in Himachal Pradesh or Darma and Vyas valleys in Uttarakhand, Western Ghats, and several pristine places in India's North East among other locations across the country in a sustainable manner as these places are yet to be subjected to mass tourism. With improved road connectivity to the most remote places, and the opportunity to improve livelihood as observed by locals, it would not be long before such untouched places start following the same path as popular tourist spots. The hospitality sector, in addition to relying on government interventions, should focus on improving its business model given the impending changes in people’s social behaviour. Investing in safety and hygiene protocol is of utmost importance since this would reassure customers in availing the tourism services. Making use of technology to make tourist areas digital and paperless, contactless food deliveries, information on places, and mechanisms for waste management, among others can be the way forward. Furthermore, engaging communities, including women’s self-help groups and local youth groups to promote local experiences among tourists, conserving the landscape and keeping vigil, could be effective in preserving fragile ecosystems while providing livelihood opportunities to the people. In this regard, lessons may be drawn from women managed community tourism in Meghalaya, to effectively adopt local socio-cultural gender norms into a sustainable livelihood intervention.
Overall, the idea of tourism, emerging from innocent curiosities about alien lands and people leading to exhilarating experiences with nature and cultural exchange resonates with the traveller’s personal growth. Communities that open their homes and landscapes to visitors stand to gain from additional livelihood opportunities, upgrading skills, exchange of knowledge and bringing in development to the region. However, when development turns reckless and travellers do not respect local environment and culture, the novel idea behind tourism spirals into disaster. Eco-tourism in todays’ conditions, thus becomes the only way to adopt and promote travel, for long-term sustainable outcomes.
The article was originally published in the Electronic Newsletter on Renewable Energy and Environment (eNREE) of the ENVIS Resource Partner on Renewable Energy and Climate Change.
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