As we emerge into a 'new normal', India needs to evolve to create a COVID-ready tourism destination

COVID-19 – despite its negative impact on the tourism industry – can be turned into a rare opportunity to fix challenges that have long plagued the sector

Shivya Nath August 06, 2020 16:06:24 IST
As we emerge into a 'new normal', India needs to evolve to create a COVID-ready tourism destination

One in every eight jobs in India is directly or indirectly linked to tourism.

Since the country went into a stringent lockdown in March, the tourism industry has been hit the hardest. India’s tourism revenue loss is projected to be 10 lakh crore, with an estimated four-five crore people losing their jobs.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the central and state governments are rushing to restart domestic tourism. In the absence of a major overhaul of tourism policies however, this could expose vulnerable local communities to the coronavirus, while offering little reassurance to potential travellers.

As we emerge into a new "normal" and learn to live with COVID-19, India’s tourism industry must evolve to create a COVID-ready destination, one that is also sustainable and resilient in the long run:

Assess and enforce carrying capacity to enable social distancing

Overtourism has long plagued India’s popular hill stations and ecologically fragile hotspots. Every summer, the hill towns of Manali, Shimla, Darjeeling, Mussoorie and even Leh become overrun with tourists, shops, street vendors and other tourism paraphernalia. The price of this unchecked mass tourism is often chaotic construction, traffic jams and ecological degradation.

The great pause brought about by COVID-19 has offered such destinations a much-needed breather – and a rare opportunity to assess their tourism carrying capacity. The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) defines carrying capacity as “the maximum number of people that may visit a tourist destination at the same time, without causing destruction of the physical, economic, socio-cultural environment and an unacceptable decrease in the quality of visitors”. Once measured, it can be implemented through prior registration, travel permits, limiting the number of rooms available or a tiered tourist tax.

In the new normal, the ease of social distancing is likely to be as important as proximity to nature while picking a travel destination. More people are likely to flock to places off the beaten track, where it’s easy to get away from the crowds. In this new scenario, the implementation of carrying capacity across popular and potential tourism destinations countrywide can ensure that travellers spread out, practice social distancing and support livelihoods across a wide range of places. At the same time, crumbling popular destinations can reclaim their original charm and fix their ecological imbalance, while emerging destinations can be saved from the looming threat of overtourism.

Ramp up waste management to deal with the hazards of biomedical waste

Behind the many breathtaking visuals of incredible India – majestic Himalayan hamlets, the white salt desert, the charming historical cities – lies an ugly trash-filled reality. One where mountain slopes are littered with Kurkure packets and Coke bottles, rivers and backwaters choked with discarded waste and even precious heritage sites lined with rubbish.

India’s tourism hotspots, especially in the mountains, have long been notorious for their lack of waste management. Even in places where the waste is conscientiously gathered from the streets and rivers, the lack of access to recycling facilities means it is either burnt, releasing toxic chemicals, or piled up in overflowing landfills, ultimately landing up in oceans and rivers or leeching into the groundwater.

In the new normal, the disposal of biomedical waste like face masks, shields, sanitisers, gloves and even PPEs is expected to increase significantly as tourism rebounds. Their unplanned disposal not only exacerbates the waste problem, but also poses a significant threat of contamination among locals and tourists alike.

Taking heed of the problem, tourism-oriented cities like Bangkok have already begun an awareness campaign, coupled with the creation of plastic waste collection points across the city. Tourism destinations across India could similarly initiate collection drives and fix their supply chains to ensure biomedical and segregated waste reaches the nearest recycling centres.

Use tourism as a means to develop better places to live, not an end in itself

The reverse migration crisis triggered by the pandemic-induced lockdown lends urgency to the need for sustainable and resilient development in rural India. Erratic weather patterns and natural calamities caused or exacerbated by climate change are forecasted to disproportionately affect rural communities.

Tourism in India can play an important role in creating alternate livelihoods through sustainable development. For the longest time, however, India’s tourism policies have focused on creating destinations that pander to tourist demands. In a cold mountain desert like Ladakh, which receives less than four inches of rain annually, ingenious dry composting toilets were once the norm and every precious drop of water was preserved for agriculture. But unchecked domestic tourism, along with modern demands for flushing toilets and running showers, is already leading to water scarcity in the region.

Tourism needs to evolve in the new normal to create better places to live first, and host second. When tourism development focuses on the needs of the local community – incentivising the preservation of their traditional way of life but also facilitating access to urban conveniences – it automatically creates destinations worth visiting. In turn, it helps pave the way for long-term sustainability and resilience.

In Ladakh for instance, that means refocusing on indigenous sustainability practices – and in a world wrecked by climate change, positioning Ladakh as an ecological paradise rather than a hill station for mass tourism.

Enact strict laws against the abuse of animals to prevent future zoonotic diseases

COVID-19 is believed to have originated in a wet market in China, where wild animals are kept in cages, in close proximity with each other and sold as meat – making it a zoonotic disease, one that jumped from animals to humans. According to a United Nations report, “The world is treating the health and economic symptoms of the coronavirus pandemic but not the environmental cause.”

In the context of tourism, that means strict oversight of attractions that encage wild animals or allow close human-animal contact. While guidelines by the Central Zoo Authority in India include parameters on freedom of movement, creating a natural environment and providing sufficient living space for animals, independent investigators have repeatedly reported horrific conditions, lack of veterinary care, low-quality feed and visible confinement stress in zoos across the country. Further, tourist attractions that allow riding or other contact with domesticated animals can only be fined up to a meagre 50 rupees for abusing or causing unnecessary suffering to an animal.

In order to reassure domestic and international travellers that India takes the threat of zoonotic diseases seriously, the country must ramp up its existing animal cruelty laws that haven’t been amended since 1960. That means phasing out (or at the very least, strictly monitoring) attractions and festivals that confine or misuse animals, in favor of national parks and protected sanctuaries that offer ethical and safe wilderness experiences.

Initiate a campaign for travellers to embrace slow and responsible travel

The days of weekend getaways and selfie tourism are likely to be behind us as we learn to live with COVID-19. India must launch a public awareness campaign targeted at potential travellers with clear directions on coronavirus safety (including their interaction with locals) and an emphasis on meaningful experiences, supporting local livelihoods and being mindful of the environment.

As tourism shifts towards creating better places to live, such destinations can be repositioned as slow travel destinations – encouraging people to spend more time in a single spot as they continue to “work from home”.

Living out of two bags and working on the go since 2013, I have slow travelled through several countries from Southeast Asia to the Caucasus to Central America. I can say, without a doubt, that India’s tourism potential – with its innate culture of hospitality and immense natural beauty – is unparalleled but remains severely underutilised.

COVID-19 – despite its negative impact on the tourism industry – can be turned into a rare opportunity to fix challenges that have long plagued the sector. Our tourism policies must evolve to create a COVID-ready, sustainable, resilient destination, to gradually unleash the country’s immense tourism potential.

Shivya Nath runs the award-winning travel blog, The Shooting Star, and is the author of a bestselling travel memoir. She is a passionate advocate for slow, offbeat and sustainable travel. Connect with her on Instagram @shivya

— Image via WikimediaCommons

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