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The increased access to distant locations, larger disposable incoming, and rising lifestyle aspirations have also increased the inflow to popular tourist destinations. The Indian Tourism Statistics 2022 report reveals that the country saw a percentage increase of 11.05% in domestic tourist visits from 2020 to 2021. India also has been a popular global destination. It drew 86 lakh foreign tourists in February 2023 alone.
In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic and its resultant restrictions on movement, 2022 and 2023 saw a massive influx of tourists in popular tourist destinations, especially hill stations such as Shimla and Manali. This rapid increase in tourism has brought many challenges for the communities native to these destinations, who have continually implored the government to launch awareness campaigns to create an environment of responsible tourism towards the local ecology.
In 2018, Shimla faced a crippling water shortage during peak tourism season. While the water required during peak tourist season was approximately 450 lakh litres per day, Shimla’s water availability had reduced to mere 200 lakh litres. Apart from issues of water shortage, many matters of acute traffic congestion and unregulated construction too arose. The unregulated construction made to manage the incoming tourists resulted in the encroachment of natural spaces, inadequate waste management, and environmental degradation.
These issues worsened the vulnerability of eco-sensitive zones. Unrestricted tourism significantly increases disasters-risk, especially in ecologically sensitive regions. The Himalayan region, especially, is highly susceptible to disasters due to its overexploitation. The Uttarakhand flood of 2013 serves as a stark reminder of unregulated tourism in the area. The disaster was exacerbated by rampant construction, unchecked tourist activities, and a lack of infrastructure.
The Imperative for Responsible Tourism
The government must promote responsible tourism in light of tourism threatening to endanger popular destinations and their residents. Responsible tourism overlaps with sustainable tourism, ethical tourism and integrated tourism. It is defined as “making better places for people to live and better places for people to visit.”
Some primary characteristics of responsible tourism, as recognised by the Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism, are that it minimises the negative impacts of tourism on the environment, economy and social life. It improves the working conditions, involves local people in decision-making, is culturally sensitive, and is inclusive of different needs by providing access to people with disabilities.
India has attempted to promote responsible tourism in its own ways. The Incredible India campaign in 2008 addressed the need to preserve holiday destinations amid the growing tourism. More recently, the government devised a ‘National Strategy for Sustainable Tourism’ in 2022 to increase the economic, social, and environmental benefits of building India’s low-carbon, inclusive, and resilient tourism sector. The strategy incorporates several elements, including earmarking the preparation of a National Action Plan, Vision Group, and Sustainable Tourism Criteria of India (STCI). To implement the STCI, a sub-committee chaired by the Joint Secretary of the Government of India and other expert stakeholders identified key indices and baseline plans. These include workshops for advocacy, incentives for establishments to comply with STCI, skill development for unskilled, low-skilled and semi-skilled persons in sectors related to tourism, MSMR tourism service provider support, incorporation of sustainable tourism in school and college curricula, etc.
However, the Strategy for Sustainable Tourism lays little emphasis on the demand side of sustainable tourism. It simply provides a campaign for responsible travellers, which may be insufficient in current circumstances. An attempt to promote local restaurants, homestays, and other such suggestions for tourists must be promoted as action steps. Such actions can embolden the native communities and their access to aid in disasters. This step can strengthen restrictions on building bigger private hotels in ecologically sensitive areas.
A more in-depth analysis of the increasing carbon footprint of travellers would also be required to address the demand for responsible tourism. Since India’s domestic industry is driven by high religious tourism and leisure travel, the idea of responsibility may more easily be adaptable for social and cultural aspects.
Models of Responsible Tourism
To achieve and sustain responsible tourism it is essential to create an environment of active participation from both travellers and government. Several models of this are found across the world. A prime example is the Gardens by the Bay. One of Singapore’s most popular tourist attractions, it incorporates supertrees that regulate heat and are fitted with solar cells that power nightly light shows.
Considering India’s geographical spread and habitat diversity, it has also created its own globally recognised models. In March 2008, Kumarakom in Kerala, known for its emerald green waters and paddy fields, inaugurated the Responsible Tourism project. The model incorporated community participation by making the native people an integral part of both decision-making and the tourism experience. These included 180 Kudumbasree units in Kumarakom, small production units, encouraging handicrafts, and even traditional dance performances by a cultural group called Suvarna involving housewives.
The successful models of responsible tourism shed light on the critical components of promoting the practice. To build sustainable tourism, it is important to consider first the landscape composition along with the economy and culture of its inhabitants and, secondly, its capacity to support tourism through an environmental assessment. Thirdly, the government should extend support through policies that allow greater involvement of the host community to select the tourism category, such as cultural tourism, ecotourism, wellness tourism, geo-tourism, etc., and to define the tourism experience.
Tourism is an important sector to recognise in the country’s overall economic growth. The industry will contribute $512 billion to India’s GDP by 2028 and is expected to create 530 lakh jobs by 2029. As a host country, a persistent focus on responsible tourism must sustain the industry and limit its impacts on ecology and community.
Amid the ongoing crisis in peak tourism season, the government and involved stakeholders must take urgent action to address the burden on the ecosystems of popular tourist destinations. With the climate crisis raising the risk to eco-sensitive areas, there is a need for an urgent call for action. The call must not just discuss conservation and preservation but also ensure the well-being and livelihoods of local communities arises.
Government intervention is essential to develop and upgrade safe infrastructure, implement regulations, and enforce carrying capacity limits to prevent overcrowding and associated negative consequences. Nowadays, social media holds incredible influence to mould popular belief and culture and, therefore, impacts industries. Social media and influencer culture have also taken over how people plan travel and consume tourism products. Inculcating values of responsible tourism in the younger generation, who are more inclined towards social media for information and travel suggestions, could also yield positive effects in the long run. The ‘responsibility’ in tourism falls equally on the tourists and the government to ensure the minimal environmental, social, and cultural impact of travel.