‘Rethinking Tourism’ Must be Centred on People and Environment

    GovernanceDisaster Management‘Rethinking Tourism’ Must be Centred on People and Environment
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    ‘Rethinking Tourism’ Must be Centred on People and Environment

    Tourism needs to be transformed as a means for equitable growth, where the unheard voices of vulnerable groups can be heard. People living in tourist destinations, especially the marginalised communities, must directly benefited from tourism.

    By Jyoti Shukla

    United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) will commemorate the year’s World Tourism Day today. The occasion, this year, is themed on ‘Rethinking Tourism’. This theme is intended to allow us to pause, rethink and reflect on tourism. This has become an imperative after the pandemic and an opportunity to rethink and redesign tourism which could be for the benefit of local communities.

    A churning is expected across the world through various events and other intellectual discussions in keeping with this theme. The tourism industry’s contribution of Rs. 194 billion to India’s GDP in 2019, providing 8.8 per cent of total employment in 2019 seems impressive from a perspective of business as usual. Of course, this is a pre-pandemic data. But the moot question is – what percentage of this earning and employment has benefitted local communities?

    This must be asked in the backdrop of the government’s huge financial expectations from tourism in the country. On 20 September 2022, tourism ministers met in three-day national conference of state tourism ministers and adopted the ‘Dharamshala Declaration’, which mentioned that the Indian tourism industry is targeting to contribute USD 1 trillion to the Indian GDP by 2047.

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    However impressive they might be, such targets, increasing numbers, or even tokenism are insufficient to ensure inclusive development in tourism. Though the ‘Dharamshala Declaration’ dwelled upon the plans for the expansion of the Indian tourism industry in terms of the sector’s economic contributions and infrastructural development, it largely remained silent over the voices of the people and impacts on the destination sites.

    Troubling examples

    The question of adverse effects on local residents of tourist destinations cannot be passed over in favour of the growth in GDP. There are various other impacts, many of these intangible in the immediate aftermath. Take for instance the depiction of a Jarawa girl by a tourist. The objectionable video filming of the Jarawa girl from a primitive and vulnerable tribal group was met with dismay globally. Besides, the incident raised severe concern over national and international tourism platforms.

    Similarly, the issue of coral extinction and other environmental problem due to the influx of tourism activities in Phi Phi Island of Thailand. The islands are running out of drinking water because of too many tourists. The tap water was contaminated with wastewater from the tourism industry and samples showed harmful and dangerous heavy metals, according to a study by the Kasetsart University.

    Besides issues around drinking water, pollution too has been troubling the islands’ local environment. Plastics, often because beach bars offer drinks in plastic cups and broken shards of glass are common.

    In Philippines, sewer and waste management systems were unable to cope with the influx of large numbers of tourists in the Boracay islands. Tourist arrivals between 2011 and 2017 swelled by 160 per cent, well beyond what the island could bear The sewer and waste management systems of the island eventually gave way as wastewater and solid waste from commercial establishments and residences created more than just a stink. In 2018, Boracay was temporarily closed to visitors for environmental rehabilitation.

    Impacts on communities

    Closer home again, the impact of the Uttarakhand flood calamity in 2013 on the tourism sector is no secret. Can anyone argue that the floods that had wiped away entire villages and small census towns and destroyed entire roads, cutting off large areas, as well as hotels and businesses and major pilgrimage centres like Kedarnath and Badrinath had nothing to do with the environmental exploits in the region? Travel agencies were left scurrying to rescue stranded and mass cancellations in the other hill stations of the state was followed by diversion of tourists to destinations in South-East Asia. Such financial repercussions certainly were avoidable if there was some attention to the limits of burdening the environment.

    Little has been learnt. The obsession with creating GDP-oriented infrastructure in the hills continues, as the disaster in Amarnath this year reiterates. The association of these disasters with uncontrolled tourism development cannot be ignored. The disasters have left it to the local people to resettle their lives.

    Moreover, the issue of displacement of tribal communities from protected areas, the conflicts over resources between the locals and tourists, the fragile ecosystem of mountains and the coastal regions with the influx of tourists and the issue of economic leakages in the tourism industry, especially in vulnerable communities are the unavoidable issues to be readdressed. Yet, if the ‘Dharamshala Declaration’ is the document to be trusted, this is being brushed under the carpet. Why, even the Atal Tunnel which connects Manali and Leh, has led to unprecedented number of tourists into the fragile ecosystem.

    Himachal Pradesh’s tourism ministry has initiated a new scheme called ‘Nai Raahein Nai Manzilein’ or ‘New Paths; New Destinations’. But there is no indication of sustainable pathways or of environmental and community centred goals in the government’s project.

    Boon or bane?

    SouthAsia is going through a turmoil due to diverse reasons from political to natural. Yet, planners see the region as one waiting for a revival of its tourism potential.

    There lessons here that planners in SouthAsia could replicate. Having realised that poorly planned and managed tourism has proven to have negative impacts on host communities and the environment, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is working to make tourism more sustainable. ASEAN has plans to shift to more sustainable forms of tourism with the ASEAN Tourism Strategic Plans for 2016–2025. Indeed, sustainable tourism is also among the broad strategies under the ASEAN Comprehensive Recovery Framework Implementation Plan, the grouping’s “exit strategy” from the pandemic.

    Tourism needs to be transformed as a means for equitable growth, where the unheard voices of vulnerable groups can be heard. People living in tourist destinations, especially the marginalised communities, must directly benefited from tourism.

    Historically, the tourism industry appears to be a boon for a few and a bane for the communities in the region. This year’s World Tourism Day is an important reminder to rethink the tourism industry as a symbol of inclusive growth, where the practical application of sustainable tourism development principles is put into practice.

    In words of the Secretary General of the World Tourism and Trade Organisation: “tourism’s relevance has never been clearer. The time is now to seize this opportunity to rethink how we do tourism”.

    With its emphasis on ‘Rethinking Tourism’ this World Tourism Day should be an opportunity to rethink the tourism industry in the context of the varied social and environmental impacts associated with the sector and clearly articulate the carrying capacities of the destinations. Let us not forget there is a term called ‘sustainable tourism’ and that it bears enormous meaning.

    The existing policies and processes to promote tourism need to be conscious about the nature, implications, and dependence of a community on tourism. As an Asian proverb goes, “Tourism is like a fire, you can cook your meal with it, or it can burn your house down”.


    Jyoti Shukla is associated with the New Delhi based Environics Trust. She is also pursuing her doctorate on tourism and its impacts in a village in Meghalaya.

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    1. It’s a revealing article about the disastrous affects of completely unplanned expansion of Indian tourist destinations specially in the hills…


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