The booming tourism has indeed brought happy faces back to Kashmir and worked as a shot in the arm for thousands of families, who are directly associated with the sector. But its simultaneous impact on the fragile ecosystem is largely being ignored thus raising questions.
Experts told The Kashmir Walla that most of the tourist destinations are hosting people beyond their carrying capacity and overlooking methods of sustainable traveling.
In the second week of May, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) for Gulmarg Development Authority (GDA) in a circular suggested the School Education Department (SED) not to bring its students for excursion or picnic on weekends to tourist spot Gulmarg, in backdrop of the increased tourist influx, ecological balance, and the increasing noise levels in the resort areas.
Environmentalist Ajaz Rasool said that in the absence of tourism regulation policy, “there is no check and balance on the arrival of tourists at a particular tourist destination”. He added: “Like in Amarnath Yatra, where the government has placed a cap on the pilgrims’ visit to the valley, it has not been done when it comes to tourist footfall during the season.”
Unlike Kashmir, for instance, experts said, in Europe all the tourist destinations are developed keeping in mind its ecological sensitivities.
As per the GDA circular, Gulmarg has witnessed an unprecedented flow of tourists that caused frequent traffic jams and other inconveniences in the area.
Alyaz Ahmad Nasir, Deputy Director Tourism, Registration, told The Kashmir Walla that “the tourism department has never framed a policy to cap the flow of tourists in the valley”. However, speaking at an event in Jammu in March this year, the lieutenant governor of Jammu and kashmir, Manoj Sinha, said that the administration remains committed “to ensuring ecologically sustainable development”.
“For many years, the tourist footfall has always been moderate for obvious reasons. So there was no alarming situation where our ecology was in threat which could have made us think to frame a regulation policy on the number of tourists visiting Kashmir,” Nasir said.
However, Nasir said if the tourist flow would remain the same like in this season, then the authorities would definitely frame a policy to keep the number of tourists limited to a particular picnic spot to safeguard the environment.
The CEO said that Phase-1 of the Master Plan-2032 stands approved by the State Administrative Council (SAC) wherein some major threats have been detailed in view of the increased tourist influx. “Increased tourist influx associated with the promotion of mass tourism to the area shall have serious and adverse consequences,” the CEO said.
“This continued growth and development of the resort area will impact the community noise levels through the introduction of additional private and commercial traffic, and intensification of tourism activities [that] will impact wildlife behavior and human health,” reads the circular.
The circular also states that in addition to these problems, there are environmental, biodiversity, pollution, flora and fauna issues among others that are needed to be addressed in terms of the plan.
According to a survey carried by the Department of Environmental Science in the University of Kashmir, Gulmarg can only hold up to 3,500 people in a day.
The 2020 study, conducted by three universities in collaboration, titled “Tourism in Kashmir Valley: Growth, Environmental Impacts an d Sustainability” states that the carrying capacity of Gulmarg in that year had exceeded, and the same happened in Srinagar’s Dal Lake.
The study reveals that “the poor overlook of actions and limited disclosure of standard information encourage the extension and perpetuation of environmental problems which encourages tourism to destroy the natural resources in the specific environment through over exploitation and poor management policies”.
The main attractions in Kashmir include Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonamarg, Dal Lake, Wular Lake, and Mughal-era gardens. According to the official figures, the Valley witnessed around 2.8 lakh tourists in April this year, the highest in three decades. The first week of May has already seen 33,000 tourist footfalls in Kashmir.
Environmentalist Rasool said the carrying capacity practice is essential to keep the environment of a tourist place intact.
“All the hotels should take bookings as per their carrying capacity. It is the key to regulating the tourist footfall in a famous destination like Gulmarg and Pahalgam,” Rasool said.
Terming tourism as a “double-edged sword”, the study mentioned above further added that on one hand it contributes to the overall development of a place but at the same time inflicts damage to the environment by putting pressure on its natural resources.
“To avoid worsening of the flimsy ecology, the government should account for the rules, regulations, and politics related to the environmental management of these areas [tourist spots],” it added.