Joshimath crisis: Tourist influx in Himalayan states adding to ecological burden

Tourism infrastructure in Hindu Kush Himalayan region poorly planned, 2019 ICIMOD report found

By Bhagirath
Published: Tuesday 17 January 2023
Unbridled tourism in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region has become a cause of trouble for the local environment. Photo: iStock

The Joshimath tragedy in Uttarakhand indicates the larger crisis in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region. Uninhibited tourism in this ecologically sensitive area has also put tremendous pressure on the environment. 

The region is home to about 240 million people, said a 2019 study, The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessmentby knowledge sharing centre International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). 

Read more: Better governance needed to fix water crisis in Himalayan towns: Study

The region is the birthplace of ten river basins that benefit 1.9 billion people directly or indirectly. A crisis in HKH region will affect millions dependent on its resources, not just those in the area. 

Unbridled tourism in this ecologically sensitive area has become a cause of trouble for the local environment, which is losing its natural form and being distorted by continuous commercial activities.

In India, the Himalayan region is 2,500 kilometres long and 220-330 km wide. It is spread over 11 states and two union territories. About 50 million people live in this region of the country.

Tourism in most of the HKH region is poorly planned or even unplanned, the ICIMOD report said. The development of infrastructure such as recreational facilities, guest houses, camping sites and restaurants often negatively impacts the mountain environment significantly. 

Tourism has also contributed to ecosystem degradation, it added. 

Some countries in HKH region have benefited from tourism since the 1970s. However, China and Bhutan limited the number of tourists in their territory, even if it was for political reasons.

Tourism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal has also declined over time due to political instability and conflicts, but it has again picked up in the last few years.

Side effects of tourism

A report Environmental Assessment of Tourism in the Indian Himalayan Region was submitted by the Govind Ballabh Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment (NIHE) on the orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The paper reviewed the adverse effects of tourism in the region.

Read more: ICFRE-ICIMOD’s REDD+ Himalayan programme extended till 2020

The Himalayan region gets 7 per cent of its GDP from tourism. For the tourism-dependent Uttarakhand, the share of the revenue was as high as 50 per cent between 2006-07 and 2016-17, the report said. 

Sikkim spends 1.9 per cent of its total expenditure on tourism, while in the rest of the Indian Himalayan states, this expenditure is less than one per cent. 

Managing this sector is challenging, looking at the given capacity of available facilities and infrastructure, the report said. Tourism has developed rapidly in the last few decades, creating many problems in the area, the paper added. 

These issues are inadequate management of solid waste, air pollution, degradation of water resources, depletion of natural resources, loss of biodiversity and loss of ecological services. 

For example, Ladakh is a water deficit area. It depends on water released from melting glaciers or snow and the Indus River. Here, a local resident consumes 75 litres of water per day, whereas a tourist consumes 100 litres per day.

The urban areas of 11 states of the Indian Himalayan region generate 6,346 tonnes of solid waste per day, amounting to 2.31 million tonnes of solid waste every year.

The most amount of garbage is generated in Jammu and Kashmir — 1,792 tonnes, followed by 1,528 tonnes in Uttarakhand. Tourism is a significant source of this waste. 

Influx of tourists

When Ladakh was opened for tourists in 1974, about 527 tourists visited it. Of these, about 500 were foreigners. In the last two decades, the number of tourists visiting Ladakh has increased manifold and in 2021 has crossed 300,000. 

Himachal Pradesh received 14.9 million tourists in 2011, whose number increased to 17.2 million in 2019. Tourist visits continued even in 2020 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and over three million tourists visited the Himalayan region. 

Read more: How climate change has ravaged India's Himalayan states

Popularly known as Devbhoomi, Uttarakhand is the centre of religious tourism attractions. About 25 million tourists visited the state from 2012-16. There were more than 35 million domestic tourists in the state in just 2019. 

Sikkim, which has a population of about 600,000, has also seen a significant increase in tourists in the last decade. In 2011, 552,000 domestic tourists visited. In 2019, these tourists increased to more than 1.4 million. 

This trend of the rising number of tourists has been seen in all Himalayan states. While there have been economic benefits to this rise, it has also caused irreparable damage to the local environment.

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