He is a torchbearer for experiential journeys that shun the excesses of luxury suites and instead opts for the lived-in feel of a homestay in the hills, who values a connection with fellow humans over shelling out ludicrous sums on decadent pastimes. However, in the backdrop of World Tourism Day, observed this week, it is pertinent to revisit the ideals that became the foundation stones for this observance - responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism.
This year’s theme delves on Tourism for Inclusive Growth, a clarion call for a world emerging from a pandemic, which hopes that nobody gets left behind, as we reopen borders and attempt to get the travel industry back on track. The notion of sustainable and responsible tourism holds significance in the aftermath of a few developments that took place in Tamil Nadu recently. Two weeks ago, the Madras High Court had ordered that no new permission should be granted for homestays in the Nilgiris district without conducting a study of the impact of the mushrooming of such facilities on the fragile ecosystem of the hill station.
The Court pointed out that tourists were the biggest polluters in this region and that toxic fumes released by motor vehicles were causing extensive damage to the ecologically sensitive area. The district administration was instructed to consider limiting footfall and banning the use of non-electric vehicles from the upper levels of the hill station. The interim orders came on the back of a public interest litigation filed by activist ‘Elephant’ G Rajendran, which was aimed at stopping the Nilgiris Collector from legitimising residential buildings that had been used commercially as resorts in the absence of any licence. In January, an elephant succumbed to injuries after a resort employee threw a burning tyre on the pachyderm to prevent it from entering the resort. Subsequently, it was found that there were as many as 3,461 unauthorised buildings in Ooty, many of them functioning as resorts and lodges.
Over-tourism is a phenomenon witnessed in many European cities such as Venice, Amsterdam and Barcelona. During the pandemic, when Venice’s lagoons were devoid of tourist cruise ships for more than a year, the waters had become clearer than they had been in 60 years. Even dolphins were spotted in these waters after several decades, as gondolas were kept off during the lockdowns. In Europe, cities are enacting legislation to deter mass-tourism. In the case of Venice, from 2022 onward, a tax will be levied on tourists who only stay for a day, while overnight tourists will be granted an exemption as they would stay longer and contribute to sustainable tourism. Barcelona is relying on digitisation to help visitors steer clear of crowded locations and book tickets in advance for popular monuments to avoid queuing up.
Sustainability is one side of the story. There are concerns about accessibility as in how friendly are our tourist spots to the differently-abled. Earlier this week, photographs from Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati Riverfront had drawn attention to the fact that its elevators connecting the upper side of the promenade to the lower side were non-functional, which made it hard for the differently-abled to access them. However, Tamil Nadu is making quite a difference in this space as plans are afoot for constructing viewing decks and shore access for persons with disabilities, at popular beaches in Chennai. This is part of Project Blue envisaged by the Chennai Corporation’s Singara Chennai 2.0 initiative, a pet project of Chief Minister MK Stalin.
Our mantra of tourism should now hinge around essential requirements of modern societies. More than bigger and extravagant, our keywords should be sustainable, cleaner and inclusive to all.