Lakshadweep is not the Maldives. It cannot be

Lakshadweep can hardly afford the ill fate of Maya Bay in Thailand, made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio film 'The Beach', or of Ladakh, made famous by the Hindi film 'Three Idiots'.
Last Updated 23 January 2024, 06:27 IST

After destroying hill stations in the Himalayas, the spectre of overtourism (when too many people visit a place and life is made difficult for people living there) now hangs over the eco-fragile islands of Lakshadweep, in India.

The social media-fuelled interest in the tiny coral islands in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Kerala, has taken even tour companies by surprise. MakeMyTrip, an online travel portal, reported a 3,400 per cent increase in searches for Lakshadweep, even as the islands topped Google Trends for many days following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit.

Not surprisingly, the 64,000-odd islanders are not too keen about this surge in interest in their stunning but slowly eroding islands. They prefer it the way it is right now; high-cost, low-volume, and limited access. The tourist inflow is currently controlled as per the ‘Integrated Island Management Plan’ laid down by the Justice Ravindran Commission, which outlines the islands’ carrying capacity and the permissible number of tourists.

The islanders have been pushing back all new tourism development plans ever since Praful Patel took over the administration of the islands and started enforcing his ‘holistic development’ plans of posh resorts, star hotels, and high-profile beachfront modelled after international tourism destinations such as the Maldives with the draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation (LDAR).

Lakshadweep is not the Maldives. It cannot be. The Maldives has close to 1,200 coral islands across 26 atolls spread over 9,000 sq km in the Indian Ocean. Lakshadweep, by comparison, is a group of 36 coral islands (now 35 — after the inundation of Parali I island) and has a land area measuring 32 sq km with only 10 inhabited islands, of which five islands, Kavaratti, Agatti, Kadmat, Bangaram, and Thinnakara are open for tourism.

Lakshadweep can hardly afford the fate of Maya Bay in Thailand, made famous by the Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach, which is now being degraded by visitors snorkelling, diving, and touching the corals, or of Ladakh, made famous by the Hindi film Three Idiots, which is now dealing with unprecedented number of visitors, traffic jams, mountains of waste, and water scarcity.

Over the next decade, India’s travel and tourism GDP is expected to grow at an average of 7.8 per cent annually, to reach almost ₹33.8 trillion ($457 billion) — representing 7.2 per cent of the total economy. Yet, this growth carries consequences. From Manali to Munnar, unplanned urbanisation, inadequate infrastructure, and insufficient waste management systems are causing Indian destinations to buckle under the strain of overtourism.

Overtourism is leading to skyrocketing prices, excessive queues, exorbitant noise levels, enormous waste generation, damage at historical sites, and irreversible destruction of nature as people overwhelm destinations. A French startup, Murmuration, which monitors the environmental impact of tourism by using satellite data, states that 80 per cent of travellers visit just 10 per cent of the world's tourism destinations, meaning bigger crowds in fewer spots.

In its 135th report tabled in the Rajya Sabha, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment, Forest, and Climate Change called upon the government to take urgent action citing the tremendous increase in tourism and illegal construction of hotels and resorts as straining on natural resources in the Himalayan region. The parliamentary panel stressed the need for a thorough examination of the illegal structures in the ecologically fragile region in co-ordination with local authorities.

It also asked the ministry to formulate a standard operating procedure (SOP) to be followed in the event of any unfortunate disaster in the region, and apprise it of the efforts being made to monitor and check the ‘unbridled’ growth in physical infrastructure and developmental projects in the Himalayas.

Climate Change threatens most tourist destinations around the world. Already this year, ski resorts in Gulmarg, Kashmir, like many popular ski resorts in the Alps had to shut down operations as there was hardly any snow. The most preferred months to travel, April-June, turned out to be the hottest months recorded across the most popular destinations globally in 2023.

The combination of Climate Change and overtourism can prove fatal for both locals and tourists unless tourism operators and local authorities pay attention to the local conditions and carrying capacity of destinations. One way to mitigate overcrowding is to increase the physical and temporal dispersion of crowds between different destinations and seasons.

While tourism is welcomed for the benefits and opportunities it creates, there is an urgent need to acknowledge that tourism and the environment are interdependent, and to work to reinforce the positive relationship between tourism, the environment, and poverty reduction.

(Shailendra Yashwant is a senior adviser to Climate Action Network South Asia (CANSA). X: @shaibaba.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 23 January 2024, 06:27 IST)

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