Travel: India’s tourism is booming, so why the worry?

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on July 10, 2018.
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TRAVELLING Chinese citizens are changing the world. Taking about 145 million overseas trips a year, the middle class is spending more than that of any other nation: In 2016 they accounted for US$261 billion overseas, a fifth of all sales by international tourists, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

To the south, India’s own swelling, monied middle class — 250 million smartphone-toting young professionals out of a population of 1.3 billion — is starting to emulate its regional rival. In less than 10 years, the World Travel & Tourism Council expects India to become the fourth-largest travel and tourism economy behind China, the US and Germany. Although more people are visiting India than ever before — two decades ago about 2.4 million international tourists came to India a year; in 2017 there were five times that — the real boost is coming from domestic travel. Almost 90% of travellers in India are Indians. For the last three years, their most popular destination has been the southernmost state of Tamil Nadu, thanks to pilgrims eager to visit its many temples.

Tourism in the subcontinent generated more than US$230 billion in 2017. India offers myriad options: 36 world heritage sites and 103 national parks, plus the Taj Mahal in Agra, Rajasthan’s hill forts, the holy city of Varanasi, and everything else in between the mountains of the Himalayas and the beaches of Goa. Add in its jungles with tigers, elephants, and the last of Asia’s lions, and no other country is better suited to take advantage of an adventure travel market that is expected to grow to US$1.3 billion (RM5.24 billion) by 2023.

“Indians are discovering their own country,” said Ahmed Chamanwala, the founder of the Fringe Ford, a five-room lodge in Kerala state, which sits on a 527-acre (213.27ha) forest home to more than 400 kinds of animals. “Over the years we have seen an increase in the domestic weekend travellers from the major cities in India. Now the business is more dependent on the Indian market.”


The paradox

Unchecked growth can threaten stakeholders in the fragile places supported by the surge in visitors. In India, steered by government subsidies and tax incentives, five regional budget airlines debuted 100 far-flung routes last year, helping fuel citizens’ desire to explore. The country’s natural beauty is part of its marketing campaign, and wildlife is a huge draw. But one concern being discussed in hushed tones, Chamanwala said, is that the country’s weak infrastructure and stretched bureaucracy could allow certain areas to lose what makes them special before they ever reach their potential. In some areas, tiger reserves no longer have tigers, and nature safaris can feel like crowded parking lots.

Fringe Ford is already taking steps to limit tourism’s impact. The resort is staffed with locals to keep the community involved as stakeholders. Chamanwala plans to invest in adjacent plots to create a buffer that will encourage forest growth and conservation. These worries are most pronounced in the high-altitude Himalaya desert of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir, a region on the extreme northern side of the country where dramatic peaks and native snow leopards have created a tourism explosion. For years, the presence of the Indian army kept this region protected, but now almost 2.5 million visit annually, eager to see landscapes featured in Bollywood films.

Road construction here, in a region long cut off from the rest of the continent, is a defiant message to neighbouring China. As the one major broken link in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the new roads are a directive to citizens: Travel. Throughout the Himalayas, the glaciers walling off the world’s tallest mountains from human encroachment are melting, opening more land for development. Right now, there are about 650 hotels and homestays in a district with 4,300 households — too many for the land to support. There is talk of capping visitors, but no standard regulations, and no one wants to turn off the money machine. “I really hope they don’t expand their capacity,” said Misty Dhillon, the founder of the Himalayan Outback, who leads tours throughout Ladakh and greater India.


The other catch

Tourism in places such as Ladakh hinges on a pristine environmental image, but visitors produce thousands of pounds of trash each year. More than 30,000 plastic water bottles are dumped in open-air landfills in Ladakh each summer. On Mount Everest, in neighbouring Nepal, there is an estimated eight to 10 tonnes of everything from empty oxygen canisters to tents and even bodies on the mountain. Waste is a problem throughout the Himalayas, and much of it is made by domestic travellers. “The trash problem is a big concern, because our domestic tourism is a huge part of it,” Dhillon said. “People are seeing all these tourists coming for snow leopards, and locals are thinking, Why shouldn’t we do it?”

Wildlife too is getting harder to spot. Glacial melt is speeding up the desertification of the Western Himalayas and increasing erosion, and trekkers hiking the mountains do not give alpine valleys a chance to recover. David Sonam, a co-owner of the Snow Leopard Lodge in the Ladakhi village of Ulley, has been instrumental in implementing a resident programme that levies a portion of each visitor fee to conservation, helping get locals involved. The lodge is run by Tsewang Norboo, who once hunted snow leopards with his grandfather before turning his home into a hotel that has earned an outsize reputation. But no leopards means no tourists, a worry dictated by those same tourists. It is the same issue that could happen in Varanasi, where gallons of untreated sewage flow into the Ganges every day. The thing keeping the industry going threatens to crash it down.

“The land is changing,” Sonam admits. “And it’s changing because there’s just too many people.” — Bloomberg