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As travel booms again, should India worry about over-tourism and find a balance between livelihoods

When Ishita Khanna began working in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, about two decades ago the remote, high-altitude area with its stark, stunning landscape had just started opening up to tourists after dispensing with permits for domestic visitors. Khanna, who has a background in development and conservation, set up the social enterprise Ecosphere with the idea of creating livelihood solutions for the local community there. Back then, she recalls,

Spiti had a single government establishment offering accommodation to visitors. Spiti has now undergone a transformation. “There are around 100 hotels in the town of Kaza alone, with another 20-25 coming up. Water was already scarce, but with more hotels, there’s huge pressure on the resource. During the season, they buy water daily from tankers,” says Khanna. The number of domestic tourists zoomed since it opened up from 2021 but while more tourists meant more revenue, it has also led to more garbage. Khanna says : “Earlier, tourists were more mindful but people who are coming in now expect the same facilities as in Shimla or Manali, which is very hard in a remote area like Spiti.”

The concerns in the Union territory of Ladakh, about 340 km away, are similar, the only difference being that it began feeling the pressures of mass tourism earlier.

“Ladakh has a very fragile ecosystem and environment,” says Paras Loomba, founder of Global Himalayan Expedition, an impact tourism company. Earlier, it used to be a trekkers’ destination but the success of 3 Idiots (2009), with its climactic scene shot near the surreal waters of Pangong Tso, opened the doors to mass tourism, amplified by social media. “The population of Leh would be around 30,000 but it was catering to 4 lakh tourists a year,” says Loomba. After a pandemic lull of, tourism in the region has roared back to life, raising the question of how much stress it can tolerate.

In Goa, bars and beaches are again abuzz with tourists returning with a vengeance. “By sheer numbers, Goa is doing quite well with hotels already charging season rates, which are at times up to 50% higher than pre-Covid rates. Four- and five-star hotels are seeing 90-100% occupancy,” says Nilesh Shah, president, Goa Tourism Association.

But this has also meant a problem of plenty. “We are indeed facing an issue of over-tourism,” says Nikhil Desai, director of tourism, Goa. “The fact remains that there is pressure on infrastructure, there are traffic jams, and when people come on holiday, if the beaches are overcrowded, that takes away from the experience. But we cannot just tell people not to come.”

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