Death By Tourism (I)

Mr Vir Sanghvi has just sealed the fate of Mashobra, a once idyllic Shimla suburb where I live after my retirement. In an article last week he claimed that Mashobra was ” the new Maldives” of India. Now, Mr. Sanghvi must be having thousands of followers and fans, and if even half of them take him at his word and decide to visit Mashobra then we, the domicile residents of this suburbia, are doomed.

I am perplexed at how he came to this conclusion: he never stayed at Mashobra but at Wildflower Hall, a seven star Oberoi hotel near Kufri; it appears from his article that he didn’t even visit Mashobra. My guess is that he looked out from his window at Mashobra sprawled out far below, framed by the deodar forests and the snow-capped ranges behind it, counted the unending number of tourist vehicles on the roads, and concluded ( like all birds of passage experts ) that it made alliterative sense to compare Mashobra with Maldives. It also made good headlines. Unfortunately, he was wrong. He was right in only one respect- that Mashobra, like the Maldives, is also drowning. But whereas the Maldives is gradually drowning in the rising waters of the Indian Ocean, Mashobra is drowning in the rising numbers of tourists and mounds of garbage, and will go under much quicker than the former. Along with the rest of Himachal, thanks to a somnolent state government and utter lack of vision or planning.

Mashobra, not Maldives (Photo by the author)

Tourism was always an uncontrolled blight for the state, but in the post- lockdown phase, it has become almost as destructive as the pandemic itself. According to the government’s own figures the state’s main destinations are swamped by the sheer numbers of tourists: 2.57 lakh vehicles entered the state in just the last two weeks, 10000 came into Shimla in just one day, 9000 into Kufri. Even worse, 7500 vehicles crossed the Atal tunnel into Lahaul in 24 hours ! This is tourist Armageddon, for we have neither the roads nor the parking or other related infrastructure to cope with such humongous numbers. There are hours- long traffic jams everywhere- Parwanoo, Kasauli, Kufri, Mashobra, Mcleodganj, Atal tunnel.

And the typical north Indian tourists we are favoured with are perhaps the worst specimens of tourists anywhere in the world. They have no civic sense, enter into frequent brawls with the cops, park wherever they want to, litter the forests with their waste, are aggressively loud and foul-mouthed, show no sensitivity or responsibility towards local cultures and traditions. They consider it an adventure sport to trespass into private properties to pick flowers and pluck apples: in Lahaul there are reports of potato bags stored by the roadside by farmers being pilfered ! The permanent residents of the state, especially in the rural areas, are a harried and besieged lot, and resentment is building up against their vandalising behaviour. Earlier their depredations were confined to the towns, but now with rural homestays becoming popular, this pestilence is spreading all over the state. The hitherto tranquil and pastoral ambience of the state is taking a hit.

The state Tourism department needs to get a handle on this soon. Tourism is a very important economic activity in Himachal: it provides about 7% of the GDP and one in ten jobs. It is further destined to grow significantly in the post pandemic phase: with international destinations difficult to access, domestic tourism is bound to grow; more people will now prefer to avoid the congestion of urban areas and opt for rural settings. Ironically, these are precisely the areas where the uniqueness and beauty of the state reside, and therefore need to be protected from the ills of over-tourism. To do this, the state government has to be pro-active in developing a vision and a strategy for making tourism sustainable. It needs to study the international experience and learnings in this sector. Its present business-as-usual approach will no longer work. It needs to concentrate on, and formulate plans, in five broad areas: control the numbers of tourists, disperse the tourists away from urban centres, protect its natural assets, regulate the industry with an even but firm hand, and ensure that the tourist pays proportionately for his ever enlarging footprint. The state has to consciously move away from destructive mass tourism and graduate to high-paying, quality tourism. Otherwise the cost-benefit analysis will not favour the state, its natural environment, or its residents. In fact, it will be hugely detrimental to them.

The pandemic, and its attendant lockdowns, restrictions and fear, had briefly given us a beautiful picture of a world without tourism ! That was, however, too good to last and now “revenge tourism ” is making a comeback. But for about fourteen months we were given a glimpse of how the world would look without the rampaging hordes, how quickly natural landscapes and wildlife recovered from the earlier depredations of 1.40 billion international tourists and ( in India’s case) 1600 million domestic tourists. Many countries are learning lessons from this and rethinking their tourism policies and objectives. Himachal also had fourteen months to do so, but it has squandered the opportunity. If it does not wake up even now, it will soon be in worse shape than before the arrival of Covid.

[To be concluded in Part II.]

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