The pushback against mass tourism

As the numbers become unsustainable its negative fallout can be seen: the adverse cultural, ecological and infrastructural impacts on places and communities.

Published: 18th September 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th September 2018 05:04 AM   |  A+A-

soumyadip sinha

The plain statistics of global tourism would warm the cockles of any economist’s heart: 1.2 billion international and five billion domestic tourists go tramping up and down the world every year; tourism contributes around 9.5 per cent to the global GDP; it is the single largest employer, providing one out of 11 jobs worldwide. With increasing incomes, mobility and better connectivity, it is growing at 15 per cent annually and some countries are totally dependent on this sector. But a darker underbelly of this sector is now becoming visible.

As the numbers become unsustainable its negative fallout can be seen: the adverse cultural, ecological and infrastructural impacts on places and communities. Local cultures and ways of life are being overwhelmed by these itinerant hordes; natural landscapes devastated by vehicles, garbage and human waste; infrastructure stretched to breaking point. Locals may benefit economically in the short run but suffer in other ways. Venice is a prime example: a city of just 200,000 native residents, it is flooded by 30 million tourists every year.

Traditional small businesses and shops are shutting down to make way for the tourism stocks-in-trade: pizza joints, cafes, bike rentals and fake souvenirs shops. Real estate prices have skyrocketed, residences taken over by Airbnb: locals cannot afford to live in the city any more and 160,000 have moved out, displaced by the attractions of their own city. It’s the same with Barcelona, its population of 1,600,000 swamped by 30 million visitors every year. Crime and drugs infiltrate the regions, as in our own Goa and Kullu in Himachal. Civic services—transportation, water, police, waste disposal—designed for much smaller populations cannot keep pace, and once again the locals suffer. A textbook example was played out in Shimla this summer when its residents had to issue appeals to tourists not to come to the town because of an acute water shortage.

Many communities and cities are no longer willing to put up with this consistent deterioration in the quality of their daily lives and are pushing back strongly. These include Venice, Barcelona, Dubrovnik,  Paris, Kyoto, Bali and Rio de Janeiro. In Europe an organisation has been established to take the fight forward—“Network of Southern European Cities Against Tourism (SET)”. It is lobbying governments to do something drastic. Tourists in many places in Europe are now being branded ‘tourism terrorists’ and met with banners and shouts of GO BACK and LEAVE US ALONE. Recently, 200 local residents in Barcelona occupied a popular beach and asked tourists to go back to their hotels. Under pressure, governments are beginning to respond.

The more decisive governments are shutting down destinations that cannot cope with the swarms. In April the Philippines banned all tourists from its most famous beach resort, the island of Borcay which attracts 2.5 million visitors a year and generates $2.5 billion annually; President Duterte called it a “cesspool”. Thailand also closed down its Maya beach due to environmental degradation. Cities are beginning to put caps on the number of tourists permitted to visit. The famous Galapagos islands restricts the number to 100,000 per annum, Dubrovnik to 4,000 per day. There is a recommendation that the daily number of visitors to the Taj Mahal should also be restricted.

Cities like Venice similarly curtail the number of cruise ships that can dock at a time: these ships are the favourite targets of local ire because they contribute very little to the economy even as they disgorge thousands of passengers every day into a city: these folks sleep, eat and drink on the ships themselves. Responding to complaints of hoteliers and dispossessed local residents some cities—Paris, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Madrid—are tightening the screws on the disruptive Airbnb, restricting the number of days its franchisees can let out their rooms, and imposing fines on unregistered units. Back in India, similar demands have been raised by the Hotel Association of Shimla, without any effect so far.

It is high time our central and state governments confront this emerging challenge, rather than just calling tourists “North India scum”, as a minister from Goa recently did. Our foreign tourist numbers are still low (8.8 million in 2017, according to government figures) but the domestic numbers are huge—1,613 million and growing at 12.7 per cent. Our lack of a clear vision, hopeless infrastructure and ineffective enforcing of any regulations, including environmental ones, means even these numbers are becoming unmanageable. One has to only see the condition of the Taj Mahal, or spend a day on the beaches of Goa, or visit Shimla or Manali to appreciate the magnitude of the problem. 

Unfortunately, our governments are mute spectators, as is usually the case. Only the higher judiciary appears to be showing some understanding of and concern for the problem. The apex court recently banned the use of forest rest-houses for commercial activities under the garb of eco-tourism and has also taken up the matter of the Taj Mahal; the Green Tribunal has imposed restrictions on vehicles going to the Rohtang pass, ordered demolition of illegal hotels/encroachments on forest lands in Shimla, Kullu-Manali and Solan. 

The Uttarakhand High Court in a landmark judgment in August has banned construction of any structures, and night camping, in alpine pastures of the state. Though some of these orders may need a little tweaking for practical considerations, yet they are welcome because they are necessary to protect our environment—natural, architectural, cultural and urban—and constitute the first pushback against the emerging menace of mass tourism. Governments should not, however, simply pass the buck to the judiciary: they need to review their tourism policies to provide safeguards as the rest of the developed world is doing: “destination management”, not just numbers, will lie at the heart of tourism policies in the times to come.


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