Mass tourism in Himachal is slowly but surely decimating the natural beauty of the state and turning its once idyllic towns into urban nightmares. It is also imposing an unbearable burden on its infrastructure-roads, water supply, transport, waste disposal systems- thereby degrading the quality of life of its permanent residents. The state govt. so far has been going on an unplanned expansionist mode, happy that the numbers keep going up every year. It has done little to regulate or guide this human tsunami; to the contrary, by misconceived and populist moves such as regularisation of illegal constructions it is only encouraging mindless concretisation of the state. It is time for it to sit back, take a hard look at the damage being caused and take some remedial measures to limit the adverse effects of this model of tourism which may be acceptable in the plains but is totally unsuited for a mountain state like Himachal.
The numbers tell their own story. The state was visited by 17.53 million tourists in 2015- almost three times its own population!- and the figure is growing by 7.5 % per annum, thanks largely to the unrest in Kashmir. It is an important contributor to the economy of the state, providing 400,000 jobs and generating about Rs. 1200 crore, which is between 8% to 10% of the state's GDP. But there is a hidden story beneath these numbers. First, only some parts of the state benefit, not the entire state. Almost 50% of these tourists visit only three locations: Kullu ( 33.15 lakhs), Shimla ( 32.65 lakhs) and Kangra ( 24 lakhs). The tribal districts of Kinnaur( 1.80 lakhs) and Lahaul Spiti ( 1.76 lakhs) are badly neglected. The implications of these figures is twofold: not only are the monetary benefits of tourism badly skewed, the three favoured towns/districts are unable to bear the burden of these huge numbers and are turning into Dharavi type concrete slums. Their permanent citizens live under a constant siege, their roads, open spaces, markets, parking all taken over by the hordes from the plains, prices of everything hiked, water supply being rationed to cater to the visitors. Their towns are being ruined by ever increasing construction to meet the needs of these millions of visitors- hotels, restaurants, parking structures, roads- most of them in violation of the building bye-laws; the green areas are being systematically depleted: the illegal massacre of 450 deodar trees in Tara Devi last year, right under the nose of the state govt., is an illustration in point. I believe only a patwari was punished!
Second, the revenue earned by the state- Rs. 1200 crore- is a pittance compared to the huge number of people coming to the state: on a per capita basis it is little more than Rs. 600 per tourist. Any proper cost benefit analysis- factoring in social, economic, environmental, health costs- would reveal that the benefits to the state from this kind of low-cost mass tourism are minimal. And this is happening because the state has been consistently unable to attract the high-end tourist. A study carried out by AC Nielson Org-Marg in 2011-2012 underpins this dismal finding. It gives the percentage of tourists visiting Himachal, income slab wise:
INCOME BETWEEN RS. 100,000 - 200,000-----------------12%.
INCOME BETWEEN RS. 200,000 - 500,000----------------- 84%.
INCOME ABOVE RS. 500,000--------------------------------- 4%.
This table says it all. The overwhelming percentage of tourists to the state are budget tourists who drain the state's public resources and despoil its natural assets but contribute very little to its economy. And we have got into a vicious cycle: as their numbers keep increasing more and more of this second grade( if not substandard) infrastructure is created for them, more and more of the natural landscape is being destroyed. As a result, the space for higher priced, premium tourism keeps shrinking even more. The govt. has shown no initiative in breaking out of this "chakravyuh"- to the contrary, by its inability to provide helicopter services to major towns or to resolve the imbroglio with the Oberois' Hotel Wild Flower Hall in Kufri, it has ensured that reputed hotel chains have stayed away along with their customary high paying clientle.
There have been some policy initiatives in the past, to be fair: eco-tourism, home-stays, ropeways; these are too few, however, and too sporadic. What is now required is a paradigm change of the very model of tourism, not just tinkering around.
The mass- tourism model is gradually getting discredited throughout the world and citizens/ residents ( if not yet governments) have begun to oppose it precisely because of its adverse cultural, landscape and infrastructural impacts. Large scale protests by local populations have been held in Barcelona, Venice, Thailand, even Nepal and Bhutan( which has imposed a cap on the number of tourists). We need to learn from this and accept that Tourism too is an Industry and, like all industries, has to be regulated. Given the ever increasing numbers, the old laissez faire attitude will no longer do. We do not need any more evidence of the damage being caused by the existing form of tourism in the state: the condition of Shimla, Manali and Dharamshala; the traffic jams on Rohtang; the desecration of Khajjiar and Triund; the mounds of plastic on the railway tracks between Kalka and Solan; the road in Kufri ankle deep in horse dung ; the 67000 "shradhalus" defecating all the way to Manimahesh lake, the regular hours- long traffic jams on all major highways: the govt. has to be blind to need more evidence of a state collapsing under the weight of tourism. Its only answer is to build or widen even more highways ( the Parwanoo- Shimla and Kiratpur-Manali National Highways being prime examples of this myopic vision: all they will do is increase traffic exponentially and destabilise the hills for the next twenty years).
Urgent and innovative, out- of- the- box ideas are needed to control numbers and shift the trajectory to high-end, quality tourism. These could include: stop registration of new hotels/restaurants/resorts in urban areas already saturated; impose higher taxes/cesses/parking fees in these towns to divert the flow to smaller towns; provide special incentives and concessions ( like those made available for eco-tourism and home-stay units) for tribal areas to encourage visitors to go there; impose a strict cap based on carrying capacity at natural landscape areas such as Triund, Chandrata, Beas Kund, Prashar and Saryolsar lakes, Bhrigu lake, Hatu and Shali peak( this is only an illustrative list); impose heavy fees for visiting these locations to keep the numbers in check and generate resources for their maintenance; STOP BUILDING ROADS to every conceivable place- there is no surer way of destroying the ambience and natural beauty of a place; engage the big hotel chains in a dialogue for coming to Himachal and resolve the dispute with Wildflower Hall to instill confidence in them. Yes, this will make a trip to Himachal more expensive, but that is the nature of the beast. If one wants a premium product-and Himachal is one such- then one must be prepared to pay more for it, just as for any consumer goods or services. Diluting the standard or quality of your product to attract more customers is not a sensible business model. We need not be apologetic about it- come to this state if you can afford it, or else you can go to Murthal, Karnal, Badkal or Garhmukhteshwar.
This is only a wish-list. Much more needs to be done, and quickly. I give it only ten years before we reach the irreversible tipping point from which there can be no return to the Himachal we have all lived in and loved with a passion which almost hurts.