It is said that a lifetime is not enough to explore the Himalayas. The high peaks, serene lakes and rugged mountain slopes have helped create unique cultures that weave nature and people together into the same fabric of life. The mountains face innumerable challenges due to climate change, land degradation, overexploitation, and natural disasters, with potentially far-reaching and devastating consequences, both for mountain communities and downstream populations.
According to a study by the Niti Ayog, Govt. of India (Sustainable Tourism in the Indian Himalayan Region), one out of three mountain people in developing countries is vulnerable to food insecurity and faces poverty and isolation.
The challenge is to identify new and sustainable opportunities that can bring benefits to all the communities and help eradicate poverty without degrading the fragile mountain ecosystems.
For the Indian Himalayan Region (IHR), ‘tourism’ in a broader sense of the word has existed for a very long time — in the form of pilgrimage trips to religious sites and river sources which are located high up in the mountains. With the arrival of the British in the 19th century, summer resorts, the so-called ‘Hill Stations’, were established. Examples of these are Darjeeling, Nainital, Mussoorie, and Shimla, which are today major tourism destinations.
Tourism at the IHR has experienced continued growth and increasing diversification over the last few decades. It is expected to grow at an average annual rate of 7.9% from 2013 to 2023. (Ref: Niti Ayog: Sustainable Tourism in the Indian Himalayan Region)
While tourism is one of the main means of livelihoods for local communities in the Himalayas and can be the engine that drives future development in the region, this will only be possible if it is implemented following principles of sustainability. The study lays out an action-oriented path for the development of sustainable tourism in the Himalaya, which can enhance economic and livelihood opportunities while maintaining the ecology and cultural values of the region.
It was also found that the specific negative impacts linked to the current form of tourism in the IHR include the replacement of traditional eco-friendly and aesthetic infrastructure with inappropriate, unsightly and dangerous construction, poorly designed roads and associated infrastructure, inadequate solid waste management, air pollution, degradation of watersheds and water sources, and the loss of natural resources, impacting biodiversity and ecosystem services. Cumulatively, these are affecting long-term and sustainable tourism development prospects in the Indian Himalayan Region.
Inappropriate forms of waste management and dumping of the non-biodegradable items in the ecologically sensitive areas of the IHR, adds to the growing impacts of climate change. Ultimately all those impact human well-being.
While positive changes have been reported from states like J&K (450 sq.km), Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of West Bengal (23 sq.km) and Manipur (4 sq.km), these are mostly due to afforestation efforts, often monocultures, while natural forest cover and dense canopy forest (with higher value) is decreasing.
WWF India is working on the conservation of Himalayan landscapes across three regions – Western Himalayas, Sikkim and Western Arunachal Pradesh with an integrated approach for biodiversity conservation, livelihood enhancement, and addressing the impacts of climate change.
In an effort to promote sustainable tourism we have been discussing with decision-makers and major stakeholders, from local communities to large companies in the region to establish community led tourism programs. The projects include helping locals in Ladakh to set up homestays and eco-cafes and promoting Community-based Tourism (CBT) in Eastern Himalayas. CBT was seen to be the most viable sustainable livelihood option by the local community groups for themselves. The CCA model has been replicated by WWF India in partnership with local communities.
WWF aims to have a shared vision between Bhutan, India and Nepal for conservation and sustainable development in the Eastern Himalayas. This was initiated during the Bhutan Climate Summit, 2011 where the three countries’ representatives were present. This needs to be taken forward for Living Himalayas.