Mumbai: Of late, Shimla has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. The looming water crisis has severely impacted tourist arrivals and crippled the tourism industry – flights and hotel bookings are down by about 30 per cent compared to last year; hotel occupancies in the region may not cross the 60 per cent mark this season. Locals are brandishing “Tourists Go Back” placards on all roads leading to Shimla.
Changing monsoon patterns and government negligence have been attributed as the primary reasons for this hopeless situation. That we must focus on better governance of our water resources if we have to avert a water crisis like the one seen in Shimla is a no-brainer.
However, the moot question being left out to ask is “whether Shimla can handle so many tourists?” Is overtourism to be blamed for some of our most sought-after destinations ageing so fast – Darjeeling, Mussourie, Jaipur, Ooty, Munnar, Dharamsala, Varanasi, Agra or Goa.
It is only in the last decade that we have started discussing overtourism and negative impact of indiscriminate growth in tourism at international forums. Across Europe, local residents are coming together to protest overtourism – Barcelona, Amsterdam, Venice – this summer season is surely heating up.
The grouse is that overtourism is harming the landscape, damaging beaches, putting infrastructure under enormous strain and pricing residents out of the property market. Few destinations have shown exemplary prudence by restricting tourism and driving sustainability.
The world flocks to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda to watch the Mountain Gorilla. By doubling the entry fee Rwanda managed to achieve three things: restrict number of visitors; ensure patronage of premium travel segment and generate more revenue from lesser number of visitors and use the extra revenue to improve other national parks as well.
Greed while addressing need for enhanced governmental income in the short run is certain to ruin the destination’s unique charm, its premium value and long-term sustainability to remain in business.
While India has laws with teeth for environmental protection and safeguarding resources like forests and water, there are no laws to tackle the evils of tourism. Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, should enforce counter measures to minimise impact and benchmark with model destinations around the world in terms of enacting regulatory frameworks for addressing the negatives.
By establishing behavioural rules and restricting access to special interest groups, a destination can harness the positives of tourism without impacting sustainability
A good case in point is Norfolk in the UK which is very much like Kerala with its estuaries and is doing well with regard to Responsible Tourism (RT). Based on research, they have enacted laws to protect their destination from overtourism.
Since accommodation is the primary demand of tourism industry, construction of hotels and resorts is the first outcome which lead to destruction of the delicate ecological balance. Hence, Norfolk only offers bare minimum comforts using locally available materials. This avoids room for one-upmanship between hospitality players.
It’s a level playing field. The administration has studied and established a carrying capacity for next 50 years and is allotting projects on first-come, first-served basis. The operators have to strictly adhere to government norms.
This guarantees host community consensus and avoids indiscriminate exploitation of a destination for short-term tourism gains. In my view, talking about MICE in Coorg (Karnataka) or building a 200-room property in Auli (Uttarakhand) is a crime.
While tourism brings in foreign exchange to fire the national economy and generates employment for the local youth, it is also a mass activity which if unregulated can turn into a Frankenstein’s monster.
Today, more people visit Goa than the population of Goa. Recent utterances by the political leadership of the State and the term ‘good tourist’ assume significance.
A habitat comes alive around a water source, fertile land and host community. A habitat once it becomes a tourist destination does not cease to be one. Any visitor and infrastructure created for a visitor, will add a degree of burden to the existing resources of the habitat.
Till the point of diminishing returns, the host community is happy to accommodate this sharing of resources as it generates revenue and employment. When greed overtakes this basic need, resources are stretched, economy is plundered and ecology left in tatters. Local residents are certain to question the invasion by tourists and the usurping of their resources.
Shimla far exceeded its carrying capacity. Tourism has become deeply commercialised there with indiscriminate hospitality infrastructure development over the years in the name of tourism. The government looked away because tourism was generating employment and earning income through tax.
Lack of any decent sustainability study and the absence of safeguards have invited Shimla’s decay, a mere warning sign of which is the water crisis. Shimla has been abused and misused in the name of tourism for long. A tad late to course correct, but urgent steps to regulate tourism is the need of the hour.
By establishing behavioural rules and restricting access to special interest groups, a destination can harness the positives of tourism without impacting sustainability. Does a government have the right to invade a community in the name of tourism development? Communities are unitedly questioning the indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources, adverse influence on social norms and loss of privacy, in the name of tourism.
When livelihoods and homelands are held under siege for private profits, it is but natural to see local communities react to safeguard their interests. This has led to widespread ‘tourist-phobia’ – first described by anthropologist Manuel Delgado Ruiz more than a decade ago as a mixture of repudiation, mistrust and contempt for tourists.
Central and State governments must set up RT advisory boards involving eminent environmental activists, tourism industry investors, hospitality professionals and civil society influencers to deliberate and develop a RT Policy benchmarked on global best practices. RT cannot be merely a campaign or cliché, it has to be enacted into law and enforced with an iron hand.
The author is a hospitality industry veteran with over four decades of standing having served in various senior leadership roles with the Taj Group of Hotels. He is the founder director of Turnstone Hospitality LLP.