Incredible India and its struggles with domestic tourism

Bengaluru: In Alappuzha, a much-pinned destination on Kerala’s backwater maps, former houseboat operator Tommy Joseph is waiting for a turnaround he cannot bet on. Joseph owned eight houseboats and operated several others on lease until Covid-19 forced a shutdown. Tourism is returning to familiar form in the southern state but the revival has not been reassuring enough for him to open shop. With the market offering no certainty, Joseph would rather play safe, and watch.

The pandemic halted tourism in India in one grim sweep, leaving behind stories of livelihood losses and mass worker migrations – stories familiar for their underlying distress. The story of recovery, however, is playing out without patterns.

A big post-pandemic tourist influx in Jammu and Kashmir is mounting pressure on infrastructure and ecology, while Meghalaya is mulling curbs to keep tourism sustainable. In Rajasthan, time-honoured ethnic traditions of conservation are put to the test by unchecked tourist activity. Local communities in Karnataka’s popular destinations, meanwhile, are left on the fringes of the tourism economy.

Domestic tourists are driving the numbers. New learnings and new business models are emerging, but how much of this resurgence is helping dependent communities return? For an industry that created seven crore jobs in 2021-22, is tourism engaging enough with local workforces? The lull forced by the pandemic also coincided with heightened concerns over climate change, underlining sustainable tourism practices. As the industry picks itself up in wobbly little steps, is the time right for a hard reset, a policy-backed intervention for tourism that is community-centric and responsible?

The big challenge lies in resistance from the larger tourist community and an extremely competitive market. Rinzing Lama, assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Tourism and Travel Management (IITTM), Noida, argues that sustainability, as a practice, is largely inconsequential in India’s domestic market. “Look at Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, or Uttarakhand where tourism has steadily picked up. The hosts and the tourists themselves are not concerned about climate change – it comes down to the price at which the operator is selling the package. This reflects in the job market as well; companies that pay less end up with under-qualified professionals,” Lama said. IITTM is an autonomous institution under the Ministry of Tourism.

In Karnataka, local communities do not always find their due share even though the state is ranked among India’s top five destinations. A case in point is Hampi —  the World Heritage site in Vijayanagara district. “People living near Hampi, Kamalapur, Anegundi, Kaddirampura, and other villages are not benefiting from tourism. The locals run no homestays, resorts, or hotels,” said Gopal V, president of Sri Vidyaranya Tourist Guides Association. In the 1960s and 1970s, locals who provided affordable accommodation and food to foreign tourists played a key role in promoting the destination.

Now, Hampi has no place for them, Gopal said. The locals have limited livelihood opportunities, most of them as street vendors or tour guides.

M S Diwakara, Vijayanagara Deputy Commissioner and Chairman, Hampi World Heritage Area Management Authority, said the administration was following High Court orders to demolish “illegal homestays and resorts” within the vicinity of monuments. The courts have since issued orders that conditionally allow homestays and resorts at stipulated locations.

“Large corporates dominate the hospitality industry as locals are unable to compete with them,” said Basavaraj Gowda, whose four-room farm-stay was demolished by the administration twice in the last six years. 

Mangalsing Teron and 15 others belonging to Assam’s ethnic Karbi community have seen business at their Karbi food centre pick up after its post-pandemic reopening. Choran Ahem, the food outlet in Natundanga village, is located about 26 km from the Kaziranga National Park and Tiger Reserve, home to the world’s largest one-horned rhinoceros population, and Assam’s biggest tourist attraction. 

“When Covid kept the park closed, survival was a struggle. Many even left Assam for work but after the park reopened in 2021, the Forest Department and World Wide Fund for Nature-India helped us restart,” Teron said. The number of visitors has increased but business is not growing due to a lack of online presence and publicity, he added. 

Natundanga has about 70 Karbi households and most of the villagers are wood collectors or daily wagers. School dropout rates are high and girls are married young. For instance, Teron attended school till Class 11. Kaziranga remains open between October and March but closes during the monsoon months. The number of visitors at the park increased from 2.5 lakh in 2022 to 3.26 lakh in 2023. Over 1.80 lakh tourists (most of them domestic) visited since October 2023.

In the Western Ghats too, tourism is growing but without benefiting tribespeople, says Jayanand Derekar, a community leader from Joida in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district. The majority of the resorts and homestays in Joida and neighbouring Dandeli are run by outsiders. “The government should encourage locals to get trained as naturalists, guides and industry professionals who do not harm nature,” he said. 

Kodagu has also witnessed this alienation. “Finding locals to run our homestay or prepare Kodava food has become difficult,” Shashi Monnappa, who runs one of the first batch of homestays in Madikeri, said. 

Anil H T, a senior journalist, notes that of Kodagu’s 38 resorts, only five or six are run by locals. There are distressing signs of tourism over-exploiting natural resources. The district, which receives some of Karnataka’s highest amounts of rainfall, is facing a water crisis. Lama draws a parallel to the water scarcity in another high-rainfall region, Darjeeling in West Bengal.

Depleting resources is the recovery story’s bleak spin-off. J&K saw record tourist numbers in 2022 and 2023 — 1.8 crore and 2.02 crore respectively. Generating around Rs 8,000 crore annually and accounting for about 7% of the region’s GDP, tourism has also helped the union territory integrate with the rest of the country and generate substantial investment. The industry provides direct or indirect employment to around 70,000 people.

The tourist surge, however, has also set off environmental issues — untreated sewage from hotels pollutes water bodies even as the push for more hotels and restaurants aggravates encroachment and deforestation. Overcrowding and unchecked construction, particularly in the Himalayan hill stations, are blemishing the landscapes and raising new concerns over solid waste disposal and increased energy consumption.

It is estimated that tourism accounts for 8%-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with carbon emissions from the sector predicted to double within 25 years. In J&K, a significant increase in traffic has caused large-scale emissions of compounds like sulfur dioxide that have contributed to acid rains, severely affecting landscapes, natural vegetation, and agro-based industries.

The seasonal character of tourist activity in the UT, largely concentrated in a small number of locations, and irresponsible tourist behaviour continue to pose problems, despite a series of government-led conservation efforts over the past decade.

Lessons in sustainability

The Bishnoi sect of Rajasthan, founded by Guru Jambeshwar in the mid-15th century, has showcased its unique ecological ethos in life practices and adapted to the tough desert life with unique coping strategies. Bishnois, considered the world’s first environmentalists, are spread over the districts of Jodhpur, Pali, Jalore and Sirohi.

Unregulated tourism and the resultant environmental degeneration challenge the sect’s environmental ethics. The sect detests the use of plastic and endorses a conservation model envisioned to preserve ecological sanity.

“Bishnois believe that biodiversity is managed not by human isolation but by active human participation. Their ecological livelihood as a cultural tourism model can serve as a unique avenue of environmental restoration,” Neekee Chaturvedi, Assistant Professor at the University of Rajasthan, said. Chaturvedi’s recent research project is titled ‘Engaging Bishnoi Community for Cultural Tourism in Rajasthan’.

“The structures of Bishnoi villages are a manifestation of their ecological commitment. The water-harvesting structures, the protected groves called orans, the huts, the bird feeds, animal water tanks, and dried vegetables are all crucial in coping with the desert ecology and contain important lessons for present-day environmental problems,” Chaturvedi said. 

Post-Covid tourist inflow has increased to Meghalaya where the tourism industry is the second-biggest employment provider. Rothel Khongsit, Chairman of the Meghalaya Rural Tourism Cooperative Federation, said the government was mulling a shift to “controlled tourism” to safeguard the destinations’ ecological balance. 

“A new policy will shift the focus to high-end tourism so that people earn more and the business remains sustainable,” he said. The federation has 52 villages as its members. Khongsit runs Kongthong Travellers’ Nest, a rural tourism unit in Kongthong village. In Kongthong, every resident has, apart from a regular name, a “musical name” — a short, distinct tune composed by  their mother.

Tourism remains the biggest job creator in Rajasthan. In major centres like Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Bikaner and the Shekhawati region, tourism accounts for the livelihood of almost every third person. “Efforts are on to put into practice eco-friendly initiatives. There is also a focus on inclusivity, to involve local communities and increase their economic opportunities, and to enable cultural exchange,” Khan said.

In J&K, the administration has shifted several families living around the Dal Lake in Srinagar to a colony being established on the outskirts of the city. A physical and chemical analysis of the lake water is done every month, as directed by the J&K High Court which monitors the conservation efforts. 

The challenge, however, will be in complementing the efforts to attract more tourists — F4 car shows are on, and the administration has also earmarked 75 destinations for spiritual tourism — with policy guardrails to ensure sustainable practices.

Kerala ranks high among India’s Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions (MICE)and wedding destinations. The state has also adopted innovative models like the women-friendly programme, a Responsible Tourism Mission (RTM) initiative that envisions jobs for 30,000 women. Around 15,800 women tourists have already traveled through the mission’s networks. “The number of units under RTM was 18,000 before Covid; now it is around 25,000,” Rupesh Kumar K, mission coordinator, said.

The RTM programmes are aligned with global climate resilience models. In India, change has been incremental. Lama backs on-ground initiatives like sensitisation of tour drivers and points to Sikkim, where more drivers are carrying bags in their vehicles to collect plastic discarded by the tourists.

Lama’s research has focused on sustainable tourism in Sikkim through community empowerment. The marginalisation of local communities could be addressed with a more decentralised approach, he said. The west Sikkim town of Yuksom may have some of the answers. The local authority and an NGO help craftspeople, artists, and tour guides in the region find employment.  Lama notes that the system does not allow a few to tie up with the tour operator and monopolise activities — “Tourists are assigned to homestays run by the locals and they try to make it inclusive and fair so that everyone gets work.”

(With inputs from Arjun Raghunath in Thiruvananthapuram, Pavan Kumar H in Hubballi, Rakhee Roytalukdar in Jaipur, Sumir Karmakar in Guwahati and Zulfikar Majid in Srinagar)

(Published 23 March 2024, 21:33 IST)

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