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Sustainable Tourism for India

Is it sustainable tourism or sustainable development for India?

Hector D'souza, eTN Ambassador  Sep 22, 2009

What can an upcoming country learn from tourists and tourism is the first thing that comes to mind after many visits across India. Quite often it is the tourist who is ‚Äúsupposed‚ÄĚ to be the wrongdoer when it is actually the other way around. We talk about sustainable tourism little realizing whether the cities and towns we live in rarely provide us an opportunity of leading a sustainable life. With an ever-increasing population the pressure it builds on natural resources leaves little room for doubt; we need more introspection from our own side. Needless to say, die-hard patriots who believe nothing negative should be said or spoken may have a point.

However, it is important to constantly keep on presenting perspectives based on some insightful experience gained over the past. To the point of being extremely pragmatic, I must admit the more attentive we are to predicaments that will become irremovable obstacles, the easier will be our task in future.

Recently, a friend of mine who built a house for himself in southern India remarked that water could be sourced from the bore well only at a depth of six hundred feet, while a couple of years earlier he had been able to source it at four hundred and fifty feet. Only this afternoon, friends who had been on an air-conditioned journey by train across India couldn't help complaining about the constant intrusion of cockroaches inside the compartment they were traveling in. ‚ÄúNever again in a train,‚ÄĚ they said. I could barely blurt out a reply.

The question uppermost in most peoples mind is with population reaching staggering heights is: will we be able to provide just that amount of extra space many tourists long for? High density of population does leave many tourists wondering how do they manage. For example, a cycle rickshaw ride in Varanasi from downtown part to the ghats has many heads shaking more in disbelief and less in amusement. It's an experience of a lifetime, most brochures say. I sit back and wonder: is this the best we can afford or could we make it better?

You can't help noticing a huge burst in numbers when you are in the vicinity of railway station, quite obviously people living in the surrounding areas find the surrounding area an ideal ground for their livelihood, paying little heed to the comfort level of a visitor. The challenge of existences overrides all other priorities. One cannot help but agree, because if begging on the street is able to provide a square meal to a family of four, then providing sanitary surroundings gains little importance. One can then reasonably infer that either the administration has failed or we (read: locals) have chosen to give it the blind look. As a journalist quite rightly remarked in one of her recent articles, there is no use boasting about us having the largest number of people in the ‚Äúyoung‚ÄĚ category (in the world) when we cannot provide a decent dignified life to half the number.

Over the years a number of incidents, I have come across make me realize India may lose the opportunity if it doesn't address the situation quickly. An unattended corpse at the railway station in north India, a railway station without water supply for the complete day, local completing their morning rituals over make shift toilets built on stilts, where the human waste runs into flowing streams in the mountainous regions, the absolute disregard for spitting in most public places, untreated garbage hills within city and town limits, our complete indifference to increasing noise levels (be it from impatient horns or sound speakers blasting high decibels of incomprehensible music) makes me wonder how locals have such complete disregard for basic issues. The root cause once again shifts to India’s growing numbers, where on an average, each year the country add one Australia to our population base, which is roughly equal to twenty million people. When India adds its insensitivity and its blatant belief in not addressing this issue because it would effect sense and sensibilities, locals are effectively pulling the coat over their own head.

Tourism can sensitize local communities about comfort levels that need to be maintained in order to support a growing industry that has the lowest level of pollution as compared to other forms of industrialization. By means of interacting, it will help locals realize a certain amount of sanitation is the need of the day. Most importantly, it will help local authorities understand that often the best they do may not be sufficient. At a recent conference of tour operators, it was heartening to note that large amounts have been made available to local governments to increase spending in infrastructure and other facilities that would greatly increase amenities provided to tourists. This indirectly would benefit the locals with greater development in the region.

Off course, the next question that concerns all is whether development would be sustainable or would it simply meaning cutting forests to make way for the roads. Surprisingly, tourism is not on the list of the ten most important projects to which the government will offer preferential treatment, though tourism contributes more than 6 percent to India’s GDP. This is sad, but true.

Global warming is beginning to play havoc with weather patterns, India had unpredictable rains all through this season. Some pundits predict drought is around the corner while the weatherman is still hopeful of more rains during the months of September and October. Days are becoming increasingly hotter, while artificial gadgets available in cities and towns in the form of coolers helps keep tempers and temperatures down. A leading economist predicts more than 80 percent of India will live in towns and cities in the next two decades, which, while being a cause of encouragement for all, could have unseen consequences in store for us (if development is done in a haphazard manner).

A welcome initiative is the UNDP project begun three years ago and seeks to promote rural tourism. It is a brilliant move because it encourages tourists to live and experience life in Indian villages, while it also seeks to protect the livelihood of the villages in the form of preservation of their traditional arts and crafts, the produce would quite naturally be picked up by visiting tourists and encourage locals to produce more and act as a deterrent to move to the big cities and towns in search of employment. Close to thirty villages have already been identified and rural tourism is being promoted in these places. More villages will join the platform: some light at the end of the tunnel.

Is it sustainable tourism or sustainable development for India?
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