A problem of plenty

Tourism woes

Tourists have always been welcomed with open arms, but now in different parts of the world, they are being asked to go back to where they came from, with the local population keen to reclaim their space for themselves. As ‘over-tourism’ threatens to turn counterproductive, popular destinations are seeking to impose various checks like quotas to regulate the flow of vacationers.

Sometime ago, a huge banner, ‘We do not want tourists in our buildings. This is not a beach resort’, erected by the residents of Barcelona, caught the attention of the world. Their message to tourists was loud and clear, “Your holiday is our every day.”

Frustrated with the burgeoning tourist flow grossing over three crore a year, Barcelona’s 16-lakh population rose in revolt forcing the local administration to mull over a ban on hotels in the city centre.

Boracay, a small picturesque island in central Philippines, which boasts of one of the best beaches in the world, has been attracting tourists ever since a Hollywood movie was shot here in 1970. By 2017, over 20 lakh visitors were thronging the island every year. With time, ceiling fans gave way to air conditioners, forests were replaced by luxury resorts, and the 9 pm deadline changed to a vibrant nightlife. And one day, the island buckled under its own weight, literally.

Saying ‘no more’

In April 2018, Boracay had to be shut down for tourists for six months to upgrade the sewage system that simply could not take the burden of the increased human traffic. The deterioration was such that President Rodrigo Duterte had described the island as a cesspool.

Having learnt a bitter lesson, the government has now enforced several restraints — for instance, building sand castles is punishable as it affects the natural contours of the beach — but the locals feel this is not enough. There is a demand to strictly enforce a cap on visitors and regulate the number of ships bringing tourists into the island. Following a public outcry, the government has now promised land reforms to protect the first rights of the local population.

With an average footfall of three crore a year, Venice is another city which is suffering from the perils of excess tourism. Recently, over 4,000 residents led a protest called the ‘March for the dignity of Venice’, demanding a ban on large cruise ships entering the city’s ports and empting thousands of tourists everyday. With a sharp increase in house rentals, the original inhabitants of Venice who preserved the city for thousands of years have been forced to shift to other less-expensive locations. Experts believe that if the trend continues, a time will come when not a single Venetian will be left in the city, which will be completely taken over by tourists.

Steep rentals and absence of accommodation have led to another problem with the number of day-trippers increasing manifold clogging roads, walkways and canals, littering the streets and putting undue pressure on the infrastructure that was not designed for such large crowds. Following public outrage, the administration was forced to announce a slew of measures to save the city.

Now, one-day visitors will be charged an entry tax of two to 10 euros depending on the time of the year. The amount collected will be utilised for clearing garbage left behind by them. Steps have been taken to separate tourists from the local population, and those arriving by water will have to disembark at a special facility, away from the popular landing spot in the city centre. Certain areas of the city will be accessible only to residents holding the Venezia Unica Card, while those reaching Venice by road will be denied entry if they have not reserved a parking area in advance.

Thailand, which until the other day was setting aggressive targets for tourist inflow, is now facing a problem of plenty with over 3.5 crore international travellers setting foot on the Southeast Asian country every year. Last year, the government decided to shut down Maya Bay on Koh Phi Phi island to tourists, to help it regenerate.

Maya Bay, which was popularised by the Hollywood movie The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio, has encountered steady deterioration, particularly over the last decade, with fears being raised that 80% of the coral reefs could have been destroyed due to tourist overload. The government had earlier banned tourists from parts of Koh Kai islands and Koh Tachai, both popular tourist haunts.

Anchoring control

Overnight stays and boats with a capacity of more than 100 people have been banned from the Similan Islands, about 85 km from Phuket, while the number of tourists per day is limited to 3,325, to prevent further damage to the archipelago.

With tourist arrivals projected to cross six crore by 2030, the Thai government is making concerted efforts to build infrastructure, discourage low-spending tourists, and create awareness among holidaymakers to be sensitive to the local culture and environment.

In Amsterdam, it is the sex workers who are feeling the pinch, though not just literally. The once shady red-light district is now a popular hub with organised walking tours, which do not necessarily convert to business for the inmates. Prostitutes who stand in windows have been waging an unending battle with shutterbugs as photographs are uploaded on social media, exposing them to risk.

In Santorini, Greece, famous for its donkey rides, it is an altogether different story. With over-tourism taking a toll on the donkeys, the government has now banned obese people from taking rides.

Tourism is booming in India too, but being a large and diverse country, the problem of glut is limited to only certain pockets.

The Queen of Hills, Udhagamandalam or Ooty in Tamil Nadu, has been crumbling under the load of the ever-increasing tourist flow, which has exerted undue pressure on the city. With the tea industry no longer able to sustain the local economy, tourism was initially seen as a blessing, but with an annual arrival of about 35 lakh people, the local residents have begun to wonder if it is a boon or a bane.

The fresh mountain air is now polluted with vehicle fumes, garbage mounds left behind by tourists have become unmanageable, normal life is thrown out of gear during events like the annual flower show, while the narrow roads are swarming with human and vehicular population.

While in Santorini, the donkeys are bearing the brunt of tourists, in Ooty and nearby Coonoor, it is the Indian bison or the gaur that is protesting. Gaurs are usually shy and timid, despite their massive size, but the encroachment of their private spaces have turned them aggressive with several cases of man-animal conflict being reported.

For instance, a honeymooner was gored to death when she attempted to take a selfie with a bison at Sim’s Park in Coonoor.
With pressure from NGOs like Make Ooty Beautiful (MOB), the district administration has now imposed a green tax of Rs 20 on vehicles while restricting the entry of buses from other states into the city.

Ooty was one of the first cities in the country to impose a ban on plastic, but with tourists observing this more in a breach, a fine of Rs 1,000 is now levied on anybody found littering.
Goa is perhaps the worst victim of mass tourism in India. With an annual flow of about 80 lakh tourists as against the state’s population of a little over 17 lakh, Goa is on the brink of a breakdown.

Over-commercialisation has destroyed most beaches, Olive Ridley turtles, which lay their eggs on the coastline, are slowly disappearing, while Israeli and Russian drug peddlers have a field day.

With anger against irresponsible tourists running high, Goa minister Vijai Sardesai courted controversy recently when he described domestic sightseers as the “scum of earth” after a video of a person urinating from a bus window on a busy road went viral.

Tourism Minister Manohar Ajgaonkar went a step forward and threatened to chase away tourists who did not respect Goa’s culture. While the government has now banned consumption of alcohol in public places and in beaches, the Centre for Responsible Tourism has appointed monitoring groups to curb reckless tourism.

A case of tourist imprudence was on full display at the UNESCO world heritage site of Hampi, the capital of the erstwhile Vijayanagar empire, when the video of a youth vandalising pillars surfaced recently leading to widespread outrage. Hampi,  which is called the new Goa, has for long been home for hippies who have been unabatedly promoting the drug culture.

Another hotspot that is showing imminent signs of collapse is Kodagu or Coorg in the Western Ghats of Karnataka. Every year, over 35 lakh tourists converge at this small district which barely spans 4,100 square km with a total population of about 5.55 lakh. While tourism has come as a succor to local people who were finding it difficult to make both ends meet with growing agricultural costs and falling prices of coffee, the question being asked is whether this ecologically sensitive district, which recently witnessed a major natural calamity, has the carrying capacity to bear this enormous mass of tourists.

The results of over-tourism are there for all to see: the narrow roads are choc-o-bloc with traffic; a large number of illegal homestays have cropped up destroying the green cover; rave parties and prostitution have raised their ugly heads; sanctity of pilgrim places like Bhagamandala are disrespected by tourists who cook and consume alcohol on the river bank; once known for its cleanliness, the entire district is now a big garbage dump.

Though there is no text book definition of over-tourism, it usually translates to excessive flow of holidaymakers to a destination much beyond its holding capacity,  thereby inflicting damage on environment and infrastructure; showing disrespect to local culture; poor civic sense; and adverse impact on the lives of original inhabitants due to over crowding, pollution, drinking water shortage, price rise and vehicular congestion.

Things have come to a pass because tourism is viewed only from the perspective of quick profits without taking sustainability into consideration. While many countries have put safeguards in place, India still has not woken up to the threat of over-tourism.

Thus, well-known locations like Ooty, Coorg, Chikkamagaluru, Goa, Shimla and the Himalayan range continue to be ravaged by tourists. The day is not far when these popular hubs may have to be shut to outsiders, following the steps of Boracay in Philippines or Maya Bay of Thailand, to enable them to recover and rejuvenate. There is an urgent need to cap the number of tourists depending on the carrying capacity of a particular destination. For instance, Forbidden City in Beijing has set a limit of 80,000 tourists a day while several restrictions have been imposed to reduce the stress on Machu Picchu in Peru. 

Another method of regulating traffic at protected sites is to increase the entry free. Faced with over-crowding, the Archaeological Survey of India recently introduced a separate fee of Rs 200 to enter the mausoleum of Taj Mahal, following which the number of tourists per day came down from 10,000 to 6,000. 

Many destinations are also now focusing on the quality rather than the quantity of tourists. At Kumarakom in Kerala, the government grants permission for construction of only four or five star hotels with a view to encouraging high-spending tourists. Countries like Thailand frown upon ‘Zero Dollar’ tourists and sometimes carry random checks at immigration to ensure that visitors carry a prescribed amount of money. The logic is, it is better to have 10 tourists spending 100 rupees than 100 tourists spending the same amount.

The world over, excessive tourism is killing the tourism industry and it is imperative to strike a balance between promoting and safeguarding popular destinations. Tourism is like a hen laying golden eggs. Sustainability is all about feeding the hen responsibly to ensure a steady supply of golden eggs over the years, and not killing it to satisfy our immediate greed.

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