With its towering peaks, majestic landscapes, and rich biodiversity and cultural heritage, the Himalayas has attracted visitors and pilgrims from the subcontinent and across the world. The Himalayan region has attracted those who seek vistas, adventure, cooler climates in summer, sport, spiritual solace, peace and the many cultural assets of mountains – built to take advantage of the natural grandeur it manifests.
Tourism is being considered as the major engine driving the economy of Himalayan states. Himalayan states are behind other states when it comes to states’ share in total GDP, which is undoubtedly because of harsh terrain that restricts infrastructure development. But tourism, over the last few years, has provided valuable economic and livelihood opportunities to the locals in the Himalayan states and revenue and profits for the state governments.
According to the 11th Five-Year Plan of India’s Planning Commission, “Tourism is the largest service industry in the country. Its importance lies in being an instrument for economic development and employment generation, particularly in remote and backward areas.” Tourism can stimulate faster, sustainable and inclusive growth.
As per the latest World Tourism Barometer of the United Nation’s World Tourism Organization (2017), international tourist arrivals touched 1.2 billion in 2016, 46 million more than in the previous year. Various initiatives have been taken by the Government to promote tourism. Recent measures include the introduction of the e-Visa facility under three categories – Tourist, Medical and Business, launch of Global Media Campaign for 2017-18 on various international TV channels, launch of ‘The Heritage Trail’ to promote the World Heritage Sites in India, launch of Swadesh Darshan and PRASAD (National Mission on Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual, Heritage Augmentation Drive) scheme and celebration of ‘Paryatan Parv’.
Apart from foreign tourists, the Himalayan states are receiving heavy flow of domestic tourists too as the per capita income of people rises and so does the rise in luxury and recreation time. As a result, traffic congestion and air and noise pollution, overbooked hotels, non-availability of parking places, and local water and energy security are becoming recurrent problems.
With the increasing trend in tourist footfall to the Himalayan states, it is likely that environmental and social trends along with standards will be subjected to change. Apparently, these developmental trends and activities in the Himalayan states have direct or indirect causes and effects such as pollution, over exploitation of natural resources, food insecurity, ill-planned urbanization, traffic congestion, loss of indigenous culture, natural disasters, increase in municipal sewage and so on are bound to impact the Himalayan ecology.
Sustainable tourism should primarily focus on waste disposal. Cold climate in the mountains also restricts faster decomposition of garbage, thus often leading to their draining into rivers, which contaminates aquatic life downstream and degrades the quality of the river water on which depends a large population, for multiple uses.
Himalayan states are becoming top destinations for tourists and given their fragility, efforts should be taken to deal with various types of pollution in there. Efforts of NGT in limiting the number of vehicles crossing Rohtang Pass in a day, banning stone crushers near water bodies in Himachal Pradesh and ordering the state government to take actions against illegal dumping of garbage should be some.
Himalayas form one of the most fragile ecosystems, given the huge diversity of flora and fauna there and the threats around them, due to rising population and carbon footprint. Its eastern part is also one of the Ecological Hotspots in the world.
Increasing and unregulated tourist footfall, urbanization, haphazard infrastructure and construction without taking into account the ecological cost has already unleashed disaster in this region. Places like Shimla are already battling with water crisis and outbreak of water borne hepatitis because of improper sewage and garbage management.
Economic growth is necessary for boosting local employment and at the same time, population control in the near future is going to be difficult. Under such circumstances, efforts should be made to harmonize economic activities and ecological conservation. Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) should be done for every development project in such regions. Involvement of multi-level stakeholders especially villagers and youths in generating awareness can create better acceptance of the need of curbing pollution. Protecting Himalayas has also been prioritized under India’s National Action Plan for Climate Change.