In so many years of travel-blogging, I have rarely used this space to glorify the joy of travel or urged people to get on the road more often. Here are some reasons why.
It is nearly 8 years since I have been travel-blogging. I took to pursuit of travel much earlier, perhaps sometime in 2002. That was a time when I found myself with a disposable income that allowed me to be on the road frequently. But a burning desire to explore existed from a time in the past that I can’t remember.
In those years when I began my geographical discoveries, I was an upstart traveller who always wanted to be on the move, see new places and then simply forget about them. There was no greater goal to travel but to travel. There was no intent towards deeper exploration of a place nor a purpose of inner exploration of the self. There wasn’t any aspiration to learn from my journeys, but to simply live the pleasure of being in a new place. I did not think much about the way I travelled, things I learnt or the footprints I left behind at the places I visited.
Perhaps everyone has to go through stages of evolution. Mine began when I started India Travel & Photography Blog as a means of documenting places I visited, which I might have otherwise simply forgotten. But as time progressed, writing became a significant part of my journeys. I worked to improve my writing, and in the process, read a lot of popular and eminent travel writing. This in turn gave a new dimension to my journeys and allowed me to see the process of travelling with a new outlook.
In my readings, I learnt about the spirit of adventure and simple living from Jon Krakauer(Into this Air, Into the Wild). I learnt the joys of deeper immersions and cultural explorations from Pico Iyer(Video Nights in Kathmandu). I discovered the pleasures of slow travel, keen observation and immersing in nature from Stephen Alter(Sacred Waters). I experienced the simple joy of being in the moment with Ruskin Bond(Rain in the mountains). I felt the fulfillment of research and thorough understanding of a place and its people from William Dalrymple(City of Djinns). More importantly, I learnt the futility of meaningless travel from the journeys of Paul Theroux (The Great Railway Bazaar).
Reading these veterans allowed me to ponder more about my journeys, know and understand more about the people and places I visited. I also started contemplating on the ecological footprint and cultural impact of my journeys. Travelling was now beyond just seeing new sights.
When I pondered on these things, I often saw travellers bringing prosperity to a destination and changing the economy of the place. I saw places where much of the population depended on tourism for their living. But I also saw how tourism damaged the local ecology and environment, and how it sometimes altered the indigenous culture. The learning that came from reading the works of veteran travellers allowed me to experience and enjoy my journeys better, but it also opened me up to many downsides that come with it.
The joys, glories and positive impacts of travel at a personal and social level can not be contested. While these good things are often talked about, not much is discussed about the downsides. Here is an attempt to look at the environmental, social and economical impacts of a billion people being on the road every year.
Carbon footprints and environmental impact. One of the biggest impact of travelling comes from the fuel that we burn in the process. International tourist arrivals crossed a gigantic one billion mark in 2012 and is growing by the year. Worldwide domestic travel is probably many times higher. Number of domestic travellers in India alone was close to 900 million in 2011-12. Just imagine the amount fuel we burn in the process and the amount of polluting gases that we release into the atmosphere.
To optimize the time in hand, we more often than not hire personalized vehicles instead of using public transport on a holiday, which compounds the contribution to the pollution. The impact of burning so much fuel on the environment can’t be ignored, and we all contribute to the problem.
Increase in pollution from burning fossil fuels is one of the most obvious negative impacts on the environment, but there is much more. The process of ‘development’ for creation of tourist facilities can alter the land use pattern at a destination. Increased footfalls in eco-sensitive zones can create problems in solid waste management and sewage treatment, unless handled properly.
Examples of such problems can be seen in Yosemite National Park, which gets a huge 3.5 million visitors every year:
The number of roads and facilities have been increased to keep pace with the growing visitor numbers and to supply amenities, infrastructure and parking lots for all these tourists. These actions have caused habitat loss in the park and are accompanied by various forms of pollution including air pollution from car emissions. Environmentalists have reported “smog so thick that Yosemite Valley could not be seen from the air”. This occasional smog is harmful to all species and vegetation inside the Park.
There are many more environmental impacts that may not be so evident. For example, trampling from increased random movement of vehicles is degrading the grasslands in parts of Changthang Plateau in Ladakh. Much of these vehicles are used for ferrying tourists.
Another example of environmental impact comes from the extensive use of firewood in places where it is short in supply. Few decades ago, the mountain slopes around Mt. Nanda Devi were slowly going bare due to unsustainable chopping to facilitate trekking groups with firewood, until the whole region was declared as a protected area.
In places that do not have such protection, problems from burning too much firewood still continues.
Zanskar region in Jammu & Kashmir is a high-altitude arid landscape where very few trees grow. In winter months, when the region is cutoff as the access roads get buried in snow, local people walk on the frozen Zanskar River to travel in and out. The walk used to take three to four days, but is now reduced to two days because of an all-weather road that cuts the distance by half. To stay warm and cook during the nights, when the temperatures may go down to -30C, people take shelter in the caves and burn whatever little wood is available. People have been using this road for centuries and the rate of chopping and burning wood was sustainable as long as the frozen river-road was used only by locals. But in the last decade, the frozen river walk has become increasingly popular with trekking groups and the number of people taking this winter route has suddenly increased manifold. While most trekking groups use kerosene for their own cooking, the porters who accompany them are forced to chop wood for their own cooking and warmth. This increase in movement of people has drastically reduced the already low supply of wood. I was told by a Zanskari that ten years ago when the trek wasn’t so popular, much of the firewood needed was procured from trees very close to the river-path. Now they have to walk more than an hour deep into the mountains and still have difficulty in finding trees for firewood.
Resource Intensiveness. Go to any hill station in summer and observe carefully how the water gets supplied to the city. You will quickly notice that these holiday destinations have an acute shortage of water. Your hotel may be getting water from faraway places using tankers or digging deep bore wells to ensure uninterrupted water supply. Some hotels, especially budget accommodations, may simply warn the guests that water is available only for a specific duration in the day.
In a city like Shimla, tourists can contribute to a third of city’s dwellers in peak summer months. This is also the time of the year when water is short in supply. Residents as well as tourists face the shortage of water, but since the hotels and businesses spend all the money they can do to procure water (which gets into the bills tourists pay), it is the residents who face the problem that is created by inflow of tourists in the first place. On an average summer, Shimla faces a water shortfall of 7 million liter per day, which can go up to 17MLD in a drought year.
The story is no different in other cities like Darjeeling, Mussoorie, Kodaikanal and many other places flocked by tourists. In Kodaikanal, I have seen a tanker stealing water from the city’s tank (most likely illegal) in the early hours before the city wakes up . In Leh, you will regularly see people pushing carts with large drums of water throughout the day. In Leh, residents once used the water directly from a mountains stream. This is no longer potable, thanks to a construction boom an let off from the drains mixing with the stream.
As tourists, we depend on local resources that may not be abundant in supply. While we tourists may come and go for a short period, it is the people who live in these places who suffer the most.
The shortage of resources is not limited to water. With tourism related businesses mushrooming in places with high density of tourists, price of land increases considerably, making it unavailable and out of reach of much of local population. Inadequate of civic amenities and sanitation facilities can further complicate lives of residents in a touristy location.
In several occasions, there probably are sufficient resources to facilitate the local population. But when local resources are pressed into the service of a large number of visitors, a shortfall becomes inevitable.
Cultural Impact. Let me begin this with a story. I travelled to Ladakh for the first time in 2008, a few years before the mountain region saw an exponential tourist boom. I arrived at midnight and had exhausted all my money on the road. There was fifty rupees left in my pocket and the taxi driver wanted Rs.150 to drop me from the bus-stop to the guest house. I agreed, and asked him to take us through an ATM, so that I can withdraw the money needed to pay him. The only ATM in the town wasn’t working and I could not find a way to pay him. He nevertheless dropped me in the guest house cheerfully and agreed to collect the payment next day. He met me in town to collect the money at the place where I was having lunch next afternoon. He had a friendly and cheerful disposition and did not mind one bit on the troubles he had to go through to reach me and collect his due.
Ten days later, I was leaving Leh for deeper regions of Ladakh. I was leaving in the early hours of the morning and could not find the guest house owner to whom I had to make payments. For the ten days that I was staying there, he had not asked me for an advance or a guarantee. Now, since I was getting late to catch my bus and could not find him, all I could do was to leave a note, saying that I will be back in a week and then make the payments. Later in the day, once I reached my destination and had access to telephone networks, I called him to reassure that I wasn’t running away and his money is safe. It turned out I was unnecessarily worried. The guesthouse owner was perfectly fine with the whole thing and hadn’t worried a bit about loosing his money. It was a simple trust he had extended as a matter of fact to another human being.
Eighteen months later, Three Idiots–a blockbuster Hindi movie–showcased the beautiful landscapes of Ladakh to Indian masses. What followed was a huge spurt in the number of visitors to Ladakh in 2010 and subsequent years.
In 2011, when I travelled again to Ladakh, I saw a remarkable difference in everything around. Leh was no longer the quite and peaceful place that I had seen only three years earlier. Almost every house in the town was converted into a guest house. People seemed to be perennially in a hurry. During my ten days of stay in the area, I saw a couple of instances where someone in the travel industry had deliberately breached an agreement in favour of more lucrative deals. On my way back from Leh, the taxi driver I had booked for my journey from guesthouse to the airport was extremely impatient. He had arrived about five minutes earlier than the scheduled time, but refused to wait for two to three minutes that I needed to say good-bye to my hosts. Instead, he would complain loudly about having to wait too long for the ‘little money’ he is going to be paid. In fact, I was paying him at an amazingly high rate of Rs.40 per kilometer when you would have paid about Rs.15 per km anywhere else in the country. Such impatience was something I saw in several instances during this tour of Ladakh. But let me emphasize – despite these experiences, a larger population of Ladakh was still very friendly, very hospitable and at the same time quickly changing.
While this is merely an observation of how attitudes may be shifting with people in tourism industry, the changes are more widespread and deep rooted. The rapid introduction of new cultures by tourists often creates a state of confusion in the local population. What I observed was only a small part of this larger change in Ladakh’s culture. But it is a change that has been going on for a long time since tourists first stepped on this land. In her book ‘Ancient Futures‘, Helena Norberg-Hodge–one of the first foreigners to have ever lived in Ladakh–dedicates many chapters towards the changing culture of Ladakh over the decades.
In one day a tourist would spend the same amount that a Ladakhi family might in a year. Ladakhis did not realize that money played a completely different role for the foreigners; that back home they needed it to survive; that food, clothing, and shelter all cost money— a lot of money. Compared to these strangers, they suddenly felt poor. During my first years in Ladakh, young children I had never seen before used to run up to me and press apricots into my hands. Now-little figures, looking shabbily Dickensian in threadbare Western clothing, greet foreigners with an empty outstretched hand. They demand “one pen, one pen,” a phrase that has become the new mantra of Ladakhi children…
…the sudden influx of Western influence has caused some Ladakhis—the young men in particular—to develop feelings of inferiority. They reject their own culture wholesale, and at the same time eagerly embrace the new one. They rush after the symbols of modernity: sunglasses, Walkmans, and blue jeans several sizes too small— not because they find those jeans more attractive or comfortable, but because they are symbols of modern life.
The attitude of many tourists plays a role in this. Again from Hodge’s book:
At one village I witnessed a trekking group armed with cameras, bon bons, and pens, virtually attack the villagers. Dressed in fluorescent greens, reds, and blues, they poked their cameras in unsuspecting faces without a word and then moved on to their next victim.
As travellers, whether we like it or not, we wield an influence over the local culture and the way of life. A responsible and involving traveller will do his/her bit to reduce this impact. But more often than not, a larger part of the tourists are not concerned, and even worse, not even aware of the impact of their visit.
Strains on Infrastructure. We know about the unfortunate floods that devastated parts of Uttarakhand last week. There are several causes that may have amplified the impact of the floods. This includes rampant deforestation over the last two centuries, large scale mining and rampant construction. Tourism has a role to play in rampant construction. In the mountainous state that is always short of land, every square foot of land close to the road is valuable. And much of these roads are built into valleys facing the tributaries of Ganga, some times very close to the river. In a region where, traditionally, villages were constituted high up the valley, construction of guest houses and tourist facilities close to the river would have resulted in manifold increase in the damages by rising water level.
While there can be many reasons for rampant and illegal construction, tourism does play a key role in places such as Uttarakhand and many other locations that are heavily dependent on tourism.
Anyone travelling to India’s hill-stations would know how packed are these places with hotels and tourist facilities. The slopes in cities like Naini Tal and Ooty are filled from end-to-end with hotels, leaving little breathing space for anything else.
Inflation that hurts the local economy. More often than not, heavy inflow of tourists drives up the prices of everything. This could be something as important as house rentals to as small a thing as price of a coffee in a restaurant. The tourists, who come in and go only for a short duration, may be able to pay that price for the duration of their stay. But this makes life difficult for the locals who will have to pay similar prices day after day.
This is said to be the reason why the population of Venice is down to its half in thirty years, with people fleeing to places where living is more affordable. Venice today is a city with a population of approximately 60,000 residents, whereas a good day sees 150,000 tourist arrivals at the place! As BBC puts it -
…Mattia’s bed-and-breakfast was once a private house. It has been converted from two empty family apartments that had been left to ruin.
Many of the families who lived in Venice for generations are moving out.
House prices are impossibly high – empty apartments and buildings have been snapped up by wealthy hoteliers – and young people can no longer afford the cost of living.
“Almost half my friends have disappeared,” said Mattia.
Over the years, such touristy places may become void of an important part of the resident population that does not work in the tourism industry, as living there becomes simply unviable.
Loss of traditional occupations and its impact. As tourism dominates the economy in a region, more and more people leave their traditional occupations and start working for travel industry. A farmer may stop growing crops and instead lease his land for tourism related activities or create some new accommodations in the land. Manufacturing related activities may shut down in favour of tourism related activities. This could happen either because most of the workers may shift to less physically demanding tourism related activities, or because using the space for tourism related activities may be more lucrative than manufacturing something. People in traditional services, such as carpentry, construction work may spend more time catering to tourism industry than to local population which may not afford to pay the same rates.
This may eventually result in a few imbalances in local economy. Decrease in availability of indigenous produce forces people to import necessary goods including food and other basic needs. Decrease in availability of labour force may necessitate immigration. This may still work fine in many occasions. But in the increasingly connected world, an unfavorable event in some faraway part of the world may suddenly see tourists vanishing. In such situation, the local economy, which has moved away from traditional occupations will now see a crisis.
Some examples in the past include SARS outbreak during early 2000s in South east Asia and the collapse of World Trade Center in New York in 2001. In both occasions, there was a sudden plunge in tourist arrivals in many parts of the world. Such incidences, although not local, can have a deep impact on the local economy of the places that are heavily dependent on tourism.
This article was not written with an intent to discourage tourism and shun the act of travelling. Tourism does have its benefits. When you travel the right way, it opens up your mind and enlightens you on the way the world lives. It does provide business opportunities and means of living to many people and uplifts their lifestyle. In many occasions, tourism has successfully aided conservation of wildlife and their habitat. One can go on talking about the positive effects of tourism as much as we talk about the negatives.
But there is much that is talked and written about self gratification from travel and very little about negative impacts. While all the positives are not to be dismissed, it is important to spread awareness of the downsides of travel and encourage people towards making journeys that have a low-impact (or positive impact) on the local culture and economy.
I am a prolific traveller myself and can be called guilty in many counts. Being in the travel industry and getting more and more people to travel, I am one of the many contributors to the problem. The solution, however, is not in staying home. It is in being aware of the problems that we bring with us, and constantly searching for better and low-impact means of travelling.
A question to you: You may have observed many negative impacts of tourism during your journeys. If there is something that disturbed you or moved you, do leave a detailed comment on what you observed. Where relevant, I will try to include them with this article.