Safety from numbers: Tourism in the Himalayas is not uniform; its impacts though are detrimental

Over-exploitation of some Himalayan towns due to huge influx of people and vehicles can be dealt with by developing more tourist spots and through targeted afforestation and solid waste management measures

By Jagdish Chandra Kuniyal
Published: Thursday 09 March 2023
Safety from numbers
The Himalayan region offers conditions suitable for several 
activities, including recreation, adventure or religious pilgrimages. However, some areas suffer due to mass tourism, while others have not fully reached their tourism potential The Himalayan region offers conditions suitable for several activities, including recreation, adventure or religious pilgrimages. However, some areas suffer due to mass tourism, while others have not fully reached their tourism potential

The Indian Himalayan region, with its rich biodiversity, glaciers, water resources and cultural diversity, attracts a large number of visitors from all over the world.

According to government think tank NITI Aayog, as of 2018, West Bengal sees the highest inflow of tourists, while the northwestern and central Himalayan states and Union Territories (UTs) of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Assam, Meghalaya, Sikkim and Tripura also record large numbers. Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland have a relatively lower inflow.

The Himalayan region offers conditions suitable for several activities, including recreation, adventure or religious pilgrimages. Tourism is also an important source of income and livelihood for people living in these states and UTs.

Ensuring that these activities take place in a sustainable manner, from the grassroots to the top levels, is not a difficult but certainly a challenging task. Over the last year, the Union government has laid emphasis on promoting sustainable tourism in the Himalayan region.

In June 2022, the Union Ministry of Tourism launched the National Strategy for Sustainable Tourism and Responsible Traveller Campaign in a summit organised in partnership with UN Environment Programme and the Responsible Tourism Society of India.

The strategy document focuses on promotion of environmental, economic and socio-cultural sustainability; protection of biodiversity; capacity-building and governance among other aspects.

There is also recognition on need for greater investment in green infrastructure with more efficient transport facilities, reduced air pollution, conservation of heritage sites and open spaces.

In July, guidelines released for Swadesh Darshan 2.0, a centrally sponsored scheme for development of theme-based tourist circuits in the country, include a vision to set up sustainable and responsible tourism in various projects and initiatives in the Himalayan region.

Some challenges, however, need greater focus. In the Himalayan region, there are areas that suffer due to mass tourism, while some others have not fully reached their tourism potential. Even within states, there are regional disparities; some circuits see mass inflow.

Seasons also play a role. Major tourist activity is confined to just a few months in a year—during the peak summer season, largely from April to June, and in winter from the last week of December to February, or sometimes mid-March, depending on the snowfall.

More visitors are seen during the summer than the winter, which translates to greater anthropogenic pressure on existing infrastructure and local resources during the hotter months.

Higher density of native and floating populations in a small area has impacts like more generation of solid waste, ambient air pollution, water pollution and deforestation.

In winter, the influx of people and vehicles and other allied activities also contributes in the shift seen in snowfall and melting patterns due to climate change-related impacts. As a consequence of all these adverse pressures, local communities and resources of the Himalayan region are at great risk.

Reduce mass tourism

One way to reduce the threats of excessive tourism is by inculcating a spirit of conservation. Regional disparities can be minimised by promoting ecotourism (which involves responsible travel and safeguarding of local environment and ecosystems), alternative or green tourism. This includes decentralisation of tourism activities based on the available resources in any place.

There are two points to note here—first, tourist spots developed so far exceed municipal limits as well as carrying capacity thresholds or the maximum load of people an infrastructure in an area.

Second, tourist systems are yet to be developed in northeastern states that have great potential for ecotourist activities. Addressing these two points will help understand the localised tourism potential.

Assessing carrying capacity prior to development works in a small or saturated would go a long way in reducing pressure on the environment, decreasing pollution, maintaining the pristine ecology and improving the quality of life of both residents and visitors.

Next, to reduce mass tourism, it is important not just to decentralise existing facilities within states and tourist spots but also develop new destinations. This would allow even far-flung, remote areas to be brought under mainstream development and provide livelihood and income opportunities for residents, thereby reducing migration.

At the same time, tourists would also be able to access the benefits of the largely untouched environment in these remote areas. But here too, development should preferably move forward after conducting carrying capacity assessments and determining a sustainable threshold for tourists.

Combat pollution

The Himalayan regions note indiscriminate generation and throwing of solid waste within and around tourist destinations. Studies by the Govind Ballabh Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment, Almora, indicate that in the hill spots, biodegradable solid waste comprises 65-80 per cent of the total waste, while non-biodegradable waste largely prevails in trekking and expedition summits.

Hence hill spots can practice microbial biocomposting, the best way of natural disintegration and decomposition of waste under aerobic process, with biodegradable waste under controlled conditions (25±5ºC).

Just as we get curd or yogurt through fermentation of milk through bacteria (Lactobacillus), psychrophilic and mesophilic bacteria which grow in moderate to cold conditions break down the biodegradable waste into biocompost.

One can obtain 267 kg of biocompost of 500 kg of raw material. While in the summer, the final product can be obtained in 55±5 days, in winter it takes 65±5 days.

Ambient air pollution, on the other hand, is high in areas with high vehicular influx. The pollutants may include particulates such as PM10, PM2.5, PM1.0 (below 1 micron), black carbon (0.5 micron) and ultra fine aerosols as well as gaseous pollutants like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and surface ozone.

Studies indicate that during tourist season, permissible limits of these pollutants are breached slightly, while in the lean season these pollutants remain within the threshold. At the same time, if any of the destinations is pristine, it may also be adversely affected through transport of pollutants through air masses moving towards destinations outside the region.

The Indo-Gangetic Plain, Thar Desert, West Asian countries or Sahara desert are some regions from where these pollutants are sometimes transported up to the foothills or higher in the Himalayan region. The pollutants can also be deposited over the glaciers, increasing their rate of melt.

o combat this, one measure could be planting of locally available, broad-leaved species such as banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora), ring-cupped oak (Quercus glauca), kafal (Myrica esculenta), utish (Alnus nepalensis) and ginkgo (Gingko biloba) to develop a green belt or parks within or around tourist spots.

Similarly, palash (Butea monosperma), neem (Azadirachta indica), gulmohar (Delonix regia) and bakain (Melia azedarach), which have compound leaves, would help in removing dust particles suspended in the air.

Plants with simple leaves also help in reducing dust, smoke and other pollutants; these include deodar (Cedrus deodara), peepal (Ficus religiosa), banyan (Ficus benghalensis), teak (Tectona grandis), sal (Shorea robusta), mango (Mangifera indica), kachnar (Bauhinia variegate) and kadamba (Neolamarckia cadamba).

Introducing electric vehicles, using non-conventional energy sources like solar, geothermal and wind power and introducing water mills (which can also be used for micro-level hydroelectric energy) could be some other measures implemented to control local or regional-level ambient air pollution.

Pine needles are an abundant raw material in forests and nearby tourist destinations that lead to and enhance fires; they can be used to make bio-briquettes (used as a substitute for biofuel) and purify water resources.

Involve communities

Any sustainable approach undertaken should involve the local communities. There is a need to encourage skill- and capacity-building programmes to spread awareness among different stakeholders on sustainable and economic solutions.

Visitors, residents and other stakeholders in the Himalayan region should learn the rules and good practices to be adopted while travelling through these areas and using its facilities and resources.

Acknowledgement of these aspects and actions in view of resolving them will result in implementation of the best forms of alternative, green, ecotourism or village tourism. The benefits also need to reach the host communities so that they can become self-sustainable.

(Jagdish Chandra Kuniyal is Scientist-G and Head, Centre for Environmental Assessment and Climate Change, Govind Ballabh Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment, Almora, Uttarakhand. The author acknowledges the Director of the institution for providing relevant facilities. All views expressed are of the author and not of his organisation)

Pressure points

Tourism in the Himalayan region is not uniform; however, its impacts are detrimental to the mountain ecosystem
  • Mass tourism is seasonal and prevalent in just some areas. To reduce the excessive load in these spots, decentralise tourist activities and sustainably develop remote areas with ecotourism potential.
  • Tourist regions see indiscriminate solid waste generation, a large amount of which is biodegradable waste. Use bacteria that can survive in low temperatures to break down the accumulated solid waste into compost.
  • Ambient air pollution is high in areas with more influx of people and vehicles in peak tourist seasons. Develop parks or green belts using locally available tree species that can help reduce dust, smoke and remove pollutants suspended in the air. Introduce clean modes of electricity and transport to prevent vehicular pollution.
  • To involve local communities in identifying and implementing solutions for sustainable tourism, conduct skill- and capacity-building campaigns and spread awareness on good tourist practices for the region.

This was first published in the February 16-28, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth

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