While celebrating massive tourist foot-fall, spare some thoughts for fragile environment too
Tourism is not considered an economic industry anywhere in the world except in some Middle East countries. It is a compensatory initiative and we should treat it as such
After a pause of more than two years, Kashmir is witnessing a tremendous surge in tourism for the past several months. These days, most of the houseboats in the Dal Lake, and hotels, guesthouses, government accommodations across the Valley are packed with the tourists.
Tourism, which contributes five to six percent to Jammu Kashmir’s GDP and provides livelihood to the lakhs of people in the Valley, had come to a complete halt due to the post-August 5, 2019 situation – when Article 370 was abrogated situation – followed by the pandemic outbreak in 2020.
However, the recent tourist arrivals have generated hope for the people whose livelihood is directly or indirectly dependent on Kashmir’s tourism sector. As per the official data, Valley saw 340,000 tourist arrivals in the first three months of this year —January, February and March.
In March alone, as many as 1, 79,970 tourists visited Valley, breaking the record of the past ten years; besides, more than 360,000 visitors including local residents turned to Asia’s largest tulip garden in Srinagar. The stakeholders are expecting a high tourist influx, setting an all-time record, in the approaching summer.
In the meantime, the officials expect this year’s Amarnath pilgrimage – being held after the gap of two years – ‘much bigger’ than ever before. Secretary, Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry, Apurva Chandra recently said that the administration is preparing to welcome about 8 lakh pilgrims to the Amarnath this year. Clearly, the heavy footfall of tourists and pilgrims is expected to boost the local economy which has been dented due to the post-August 2019 and Covid lockdowns.
However, environmentalists and experts are ringing the alarm bells, saying that unplanned and unregulated tourism beyond a certain limit will take a toll on the fragile environment and natural resources. They insist that tourism should not be encouraged beyond the carrying capacity of the tourist destinations in the Valley. They suggest hosting tourists in a phased manner and emphasize on balancing environmental conservation and economic considerations by issuing do’s and don’ts for both the host community and the visitors.
What could be these ‘do’s and don’ts’? Which parallel environment-friendly initiatives should be taken to ensure the environment and the natural resources in the Valley are safeguarded while hosting a huge tourist influx in near future? And, how could we balance our environmental conservation and economic considerations in the given circumstances? To know the answer to these questions and to hear the suggestions from the experts, KASHMIR IMAGES spoke to some of them.
Here are the excerpts:
We know as a matter of fact that the tourism industry does not add more than 6.5 percent to our GDP and it is fundamentally true that mass tourism has some environmental costs as well. Had our ecologically sensitive areas like Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonamarg and so on, been receiving the number of tourists as per the mandated master plan, there was nothing to worry about. But unfortunately, it is not the case.
In 2014-15, the experts from Kashmir University, who were working on preparing the master plan, assessed the carrying capacity of Gulmarg. They recommended five thousand visitors a day to the tourist destination. Imagine, when fifty thousand people throng this tourist destination a day, how much excessive pressure would be there on this tiny place and its natural resources.
Take another example: We have a landmark judgment by the Hon’ble Chief Justice of J&K, stating a complete ban on vehicular moment inside Sonamarg’s Thajiwas glacier area, which is also a wildlife sanctuary. We know as a matter of fact, that people do not hesitate to go into the area in their vehicles. Alone in March, 66,820 tourists visited Sonamarg. Plus, there is a local population of one lakh people. Imagine how many people would be going into the core sensitive wildlife sanctuary annually.
Putting ecological assets under stress is complete madness. This madness will be disastrous, and will definitely cause ecological catastrophe sooner or later.
Now look at the various categories of tourists: In Kashmir, we have religious tourism, spiritual tourism, recreational tourism, adventure tourism, and so on. Of these, the most eco-friendly tourism should be tracking and hiking. But, that too has turned up into a disaster. We found it when we did a study on Drangabal, where a company has vandalized the pristine high altitude lake. We have got an FIR registered against those companies. This is not only about Gangabal Lake. More than 50 high-altitude lakes across Kashmir valley are facing same fate. A couple of FIRs stand registered against some of the companies that are responsible for creating such disasters.
This tells us that even the least carbon-neutral activity like adventure tourism too is turning disastrous in this part of the world not to talk of general tourism. An apparent example is the Dal Lake. Look at the lake. We have been flushing our garbage from this water body for the past five years, yet we are not able to declare it a plastic-free lake. This clearly indicates the level of garbage in the lake.
I can pledge on record that the local tourists, those who fall in the general tourist category are the polluters of our tourist destinations.
The government must do a fundamental scientific carrying capacity analysis of not only the tourist destinations across the Valley but all the important tourist places so that it will be able to set a benchmark for allowing the specific number of tourists to these destinations. Unless we do so, we will not be able to set up our benchmarks for the greener or the cleaner destinations down the line. We must set up a benchmark for allowing tourists to the destinations and follow it religiously in the larger interest of the sustainable development in Jammu and Kashmir. Also, we must have a convergence of policies on climate, environment, and tourism in J&K.
The tourist influx may be good for Kashmir’s economy, but beyond a certain limit, it is not good for the fragile environment of the Valley. We must understand that Kashmir is a highly eco-sensitive region. To protect the fragile ecosystem, we have to be cautious about several things. For instance, setting up an industry here demands a lot of clearances from various agencies. The same is true about infra projects. However, it is sad to see that when it comes to tourism or Shri Amarnath Yatra, all the precautionary measures are set aside.
As per my considered opinion, the environmental fragility of the region demands the number of tourists and pilgrims visiting Valley should be restricted to some limit. Any environmentalist can confirm the fact that the heavy footfall damages the highly sensitive paths leading to the Holy Cave of Amarnath and it also has an adverse impact on the glaciers.
We ought to be taking care of the fragility of all the tourist destinations across the Valley. But the fact is that we are failing to do so. Last year, during my visit to Gulmarg, I was shocked to see land erosion has already started occurring at several places on the upper reach of the place. I also saw how huts and stalls have been causing damage to the environment at Kongdoori. I would suggest that a restricted number of tourists should be allowed to Phase-II of Gulmarg Gandola on daily basis, otherwise we will cause irreparable damage to this beautiful place.
Also, I think the unnecessary restrictions in Gulmarg are also causing damage to the environment. For instance, enter Gulmarg, visitor’s vehicles are asked to take a detour —a roundabout route spread over additional few kilometers. This adds to the air pollution load of the area. As far as the ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) deployed in this destination are concerned, they too are not helping. The fuel consumption (of 500 CC) of ATVs is very high. I am not sure whether these ATVs are checked for Pollution levels or not.
Take another example: We seem to be hell-bent to destroy Doodpatheri as well. This is relatively a new tourist destination, which people mostly locals, visit in the summers. Since most of us do not have a civic sense, we are polluting this beautiful place by throwing garbage and left-overs everywhere here. Sadly, the concerned Development Authority, which is supposed to monitor and take care of the place, is failing to fulfil its responsibility. The number of visitors to this place too should be restricted.
Lest I forget to tell you that restriction on raising new buildings at tourist destinations in the Valley is a lie. Take a look at Pahalgam and you will see a number of fresh constructions have come up during the past few years. The river bed approaching Phalgam tells us a dismal tale of such restrictions.
Furthermore, I would say that we need not connect all destinations with roads. For example, what was the need to make a road to Bisaran in Pahalgam? Or to Nilnag in Yousmarg? These roads have exposed the concerned delicate regions to limitless footfall —open to damage. We can see a good number of vehicles running on these routes every day.
This is an established fact that tourism adds to Greenhouse Gases by up to 5 %. This is also true for our highly eco-sensitive regions like Alpather Lake, Bisaran, Chandanwari, Sonamarg, Doodpatheri, Yousmarg, etc.
We have a lot to learn from the regions that have seceded to balance environmental conservation and economic considerations in terms of tourism. For instance, in Himachal, an Eco-Tax is levied on tourists, and the collected money is used for the revival and protection of the tourist destinations. Here, we have even removed that from Aru in Pahalgam. So, levying such a tax on tourists, even pilgrims may not be a bad idea in such places. The money collected could be used for the protection of the region.
To conclude, I would say that environmental protection should rise above politics, religion, or business. If we don’t act now, it may be too late, or is it too late already!
We have a Development Authority for every tourist destination in Kashmir, yet we have not had any Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) or carrying capacity study conducted at tourist destinations. Though the impact of mass tourism footfall is not known yet, there are clear indicators of it taking a heavy toll on the fragile environment and sustainable tourism.
The studies are imperative for making an assessment of our capacity and potential of hosting visitors and putting necessary infrastructure and regulations in place. For instance, we know that we have around 1500 bed capacity in Gulmarg but we do not know the exact carrying capacity of the place leading to overcrowding during peak tourist season. Moreover, the presence of hundreds of horses on regular basis in Gulmarg compounds the problem by way of their excreta falling over roads and meadows every day. Not to talk of human waste. We do not have even proper drainage and sewage system in place at this tourist destination. How long can this area bear the brunt of overcrowding, is a million-dollar question. The same is the situation with all other tourist spots as well. We are literally ruining these tourist destinations with mushroom and unplanned growth of hotels/guest houses and unregulated tourist footfall.
The lack of accommodation at Gulmarg and other tourist destinations puts pressure on Srinagar which has to bear the brunt. Srinagar serves the base of tourists for completing their itinerary through making daylong visits or overnight stays at Pahalgam et el. Srinagar with a large area and huge inventory of more than 65000 beds play a perfect host to tourists without giving a feeling of overcrowding.
As per the approved Master Plan – 2035 of Srinagar Metropolitan Region, the city is supposed to have an infrastructure to accommodate 70 lac tourists. It is a tall order in terms of infrastructure. As per the available records, we have the infrastructure for about 40 lac tourists in the hospitality sector. However, the question is: Is it advisable to host so many tourists? Have we done sufficient studies and assessments to gauge the real tourism carrying capacity in Srinagar? The answer is NO. Dal Lake and other water bodies, which are the main tourist attractions, are deteriorating day by day and if the process continues, we will lose the kind of attraction.
Therefore, we must understand that before we talk of receiving 70 lakh tourists here, we must first pay attention to protecting Dal Lake, other water bodies and the green cover.
We need to learn from the people of Ladakh. They cater to a large number of tourists but at the same time, they pay exemplary attention to the conservation of the environment. I have seen taxi drivers carrying trash bags in their vehicles in Ladakh. They don’t let the tourists throw garbage on the roads. But in our city and other tourist destinations, even the degradable garbage is dumped everywhere. I am afraid that we might lose both the attraction of our tourist destinations and tourism in the near future if we continue to be negligent towards environmental concerns.
Tourists, anywhere in the world, are found not well aware of the importance of environmental conservation. It is the responsibility of the government and the stakeholders, especially the tour operators to frame required rules and norms for the visitors to ensure they, while visiting the fragile zones, do not end up causing damage to the environment. In the case of Kashmir, we do not have set ‘dos and don’ts’ for the tourists. Sadly, we have been allowing the flow of visitors to the tourist destinations much beyond their carrying capacity for years, and eventually, the continuous process has adversely impacted our forests, water bodies, glaciers, and so on.
It is an established fact and true for every part of the world that mass tourism causes frequent human intervention in the mountains and ecologically rich areas and eventually makes irreparable damage to these natural resources.
In Kashmir, we have witnessed that glaciers are melting at a fast pace and more than fifty percent of water receding during the past thirty years. One of the reasons could be unregulated tourism during all these years. The scarcity of water has eventually caused a chain of impacts on the various dimensions of life. For instance, we do not have sufficient water for irrigation in comparison to what we had some two-three decades ago. The water shortage has forced people to convert their paddy land into apple orchards causing huge damage to the agriculture sector.
As if all this was not enough, the government, over the years has allowed unabated construction at tourist destinations and on the hill stations, causing damage to forests, water bodies, and so on.
We must clear our misconceptions about the tourism sector of the Valley. Some people call tourism the backbone of Kashmir’s economy, which is not a fact. Tourism can never be a reliable source of economy. In fact, it is not considered an economic industry anywhere in the world, except in some Middle East countries.
Tourism is largely considered a compensatory initiative, and we should treat it as such. It should not be our main economic industry. We must focus to develop our agriculture and horticulture industries further, which already contribute more than 70 percent to our GDP.
Also, we must understand that we will lose our tourist destination if we continue to overcrowd them. It is painful to see traffic congestion in the places like Doodhpathri where local people throng on weekends. The concerned department has failed to put a limit on the number of visitors there.
I do not say that we should shun tourism in Kashmir. But have to learn balance and manage the ratio of visitors. We need to adopt an integrated approach to ensure our tourist destinations and resources are not destroyed. Also, the government should not try to extend mass tourism destinations further. Unexplored or less explored potential tourist destinations should be kept intact and protected for future generations. Though we must promote nature tourism —birdwatching, photography, stargazing, camping, hiking, fishing, and so on.