What is overtourism costing the Indian Himalayas?
OVERTOURISM is a plague affecting to world’s most interesting, most untouched places.
It has become a global battle because of the trail of destruction that it would sometimes leave behind. For example, the dreamy Boracay island in the Philippines.
In April this year, it was announced that the pristine beaches of Boracay, one of the Philippines’ most popular tourist hotspots, will be closed for six months to accommodate a major clean-up.
It was described by the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte as a “cesspool” that smelled of “s**t”.
Boracay, with its pristine white sand beaches and crystal blue waters, sees more than a million tourists and an estimated US$772.5 million in revenue every year.
But as with all popular tourists spots, it comes with a price and overtourism has caused some serious environmental damage to the island.
And Boracay is not the first famous Asian destination to feel the heat from overtourism, neither would it be the last.
About 4,000 odd kilometers away is the Indian Himalayas, part of a mountain range in South Asia separating the plains of the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau.
The Himalayas, which mean “abode of the snow”, is inhabited by a total of over 50 million people across five countries: Nepal, India, Bhutan, China, and Pakistan. It covers approximately 75 percent of Nepal.
It plays a big part in the region’s climate as it helps to keep the monsoon rains on the Indian plain and limits rainfall on the Tibetan plateau.
Most people know the Himalayan range to be home to Earth’s highest peak, Mount Everest, but the Himalayas is actually home to over 50 mountains exceeding 7,200 meters in elevation.
Its famous peaks, aside from the Everest, includes Karakora (K2), Kailash, Kanchenjunga, Nanga Parbat, Annapurna, and Manasklu. T.
Many of these peaks are sacred to the people who live in the surrounding areas and many Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims go there and pray.
To add on, some of the world’s major rivers – the Indus, the Ganges, and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra – rise in the Himalayas.
This natural wonderment has drawn tourists from all around the world, all eager to catch a glimpse of the mountainous region.
But as the tourist numbers continue to grow, the side effects began to surface.
In 2015, adventure-seekers were shocked to find pollution and garbage greeting them as they trekked along the Himalayan trails.
And last year, a study found that India’s notorious traffic pollution has reached the Himalayas when high levels of sulfur was found in the soil along Manali-Leh highway.
There was a time when the water that flowed through the town of Leh was clean and fresh as if new.
“We used to drink directly from the streams – until our land became a tourist hub,” 60-year-old Tsering Chondol told the Thomas Reuters Foundation.
Located in the remote region of Ladakh, Leh is high in the Himalayas in India’s far north. These days, it is known for its Buddhist sites and trekking areas.
In Leh, locals earn a living by herding goats and tending barley and wheat fields, ringed by 6,000-meter snowcapped peaks.
However, its resources have been put under strain due to an influx of India’s burgeoning middle-class tourists.
Last year, more than 277,000 tourists visited Leh, twice the number of residents in the region. This poses a threat to its fragile ecosystem.
A decade ago, the city produced almost no waste. But these arrivals have resulted in vehicles clogging narrow roads, and sewage and plastic pollution.
“With the arrival of lots of tourists, people gradually forgot about the traditional ways of keeping the surroundings clean,” Chondol explained.
Leh’s municipal committee head Rigzin Spalgon revealed, “All of a sudden we started generating more than 20 tonnes of waste and a lot of sewage per day.”
This steady environmental deterioration over the year has kicked rescue into full gear, with more than 4,000 volunteers taking measure to tackle plastic waste.
These 4,000 volunteers are from the Women’s Alliance of Ladakh, an organization which Chondol heads.
“This made us think that we have to do something about it,” Chondol said.
According to India’s Central Pollution Control Board, India generates 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste daily and nearly half ends up in landfills, on the streets, and in drains and sewage systems.
Acknowledging this, the Jammu and Kashmir region, where Ladakh is located, banned plastic bags outright in January this year.
Using a plastic bag carries a fine of INR5,000 (US$73) or up to one month in jail, or both.
“We were able to make Ladakh free of plastic carry-bags all because of the efforts of Women’s Alliance of Ladakh. They initiated the whole process and later ensured that the ban on plastic bags works,” Spalgon said.
The Women’s Alliance of Ladakh is a testament to people power, as they inspect shops and markets up to three times a year with the backing of the local council and the police.
“The ban on plastic carry-bags in Ladakh was successful because groups like Women’s Alliance ensured people’s participation in implementing the bans,” Kashmir University earth sciences department head Shakil Romshoo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Not only do they warn locals about the damage plastic bags do to the environment, they sell handmade cloth bags as an alternative as well.
With the income generated from making and selling cloth bags, the alliance helps volunteers continue their conservation efforts while providing them with an extra source of cash in a region where most women are farmers and housewives.
“Thanks to the success of Women’s Alliance, today women in Ladakh are a force to be reckoned with,” Chondol said.
The alliance is also now campaigning to end the use of chemical fertilizers.