Keep the sharks out of the mountains

OUR PLANET 10.1 - Tourism

Keep the sharks out of the mountains


argues that mass tourism is ruining the world's high places, and calls for community-based development instead

Tourism is often presumed to be a development panacea - but is in fact a queer mix of the good and the bad. The good is often associated with sustainable development policies, the bad is dubbed with mass tourism. The dilemma deepens when tourism is allowed to penetrate into vulnerable and fragile environments, like coasts, wetlands, tropical forests - and mountains. Mountains are often used as a metaphor for stability and strength, but their ecosystems are inherently weak and have limited tolerance for human activity - and above all for aggressive tourism. The higher and more remote they are the more fragile they can be.

Irreversible damage

Most economic activities strain resources, but tourism does so particularly conspicuously. There is still too little research on its impacts. A few scholars, however, have reported that poorly planned tourism development has done more harm than good. Heavy environmental costs are paid for paltry economic gains and often the damage is irreversible.

The ecology of tourism is a sad narrative of negatives - losses of flora and fauna, degradation of mountain slopes, trails polluted with garbage, eutrophied waters, overburdened landscapes and unseemly urbanization. And there are adverse social impacts, including dependency, alienation and xenophobia.

Access and beauty are, it seems, incompatible. Too much tourism has predictably often altered the landscape beyond recognition. Yet thanks to nature parks and biosphere reserves - and the philosophy behind them - we can enjoy green tourism and nature conservation and have a chance to witness the positive side of the industry. Practitioners of ecotourism are ordained to maintain the beauty and splendour of these environments, in all the gregariousness of bio-cultural diversities. These spectacular Earth-features should be carefully conserved to be passed on to posterity as the heritage of mankind, not turned into commodities to be consumed by tourism sharks.

Many an upland has been a cradle of human civilization. Confucius worked out his philosophies in China's sequestered Huang Shan. The Greek gods held their divine colloquia on Mount Olympus. The Hindu Vedas were conceived over the holy Himalayas. Columbia, Ecuador, Ethiopia and Tibet have been great centres of society. Their ancient mountain communities evolved lifestyles, traditions and mores which lend to excellence in cultural diversity - and some have been able to preserve this 'little mountain culture' in the face of inexorable agents of change.

mountain sunrise

Sensitive environments

There is more to the ethos of the mountains than can be summed up in words: their organic settlement patterns, distinguished by vernacular architecture; their tribal culture with their beliefs, totems and taboos; their native crafts and, above all, their people's amazing knowledge of mountain ecology make them an extraordinary environment to experience. When tourist culture abruptly invades such sensitive environments, the negative impacts are bound to outweigh the positive ones.

The degree of change will largely depend upon the type of tourism, the scale and pace of development, the philosophy behind it - and the resilience of the host community. Bhutan has been able to preserve its cultural properties and conserve its ecology with indigenous craft tourism, but the classic tradition of Himalayan pilgrimages in India's Garhwal Himalaya suffered a severe setback. The nearby Kulu Valley in Himachal Pradesh, on the other hand, reaped a good harvest by rediscovering the lost tradition of its famous Dussehra festival, restoring its bio-social resource base, rejuvenating its dwindling crafts and infusing community pride. Nepal has had its share of impacts, both good and bad. Tourism forms the backbone of its national economy, but a large proportion of its benefits leak out to lowland areas - a phenomenon common to all weak mountain economies.

Raising living standards

The Sherpas of the Khumbu region in the highest Himalaya had the best of tourism, at a time when their narrowly based economy had lost its traditional trade with the closure of Indo-Tibetan borders in the early 1960s. Trek tourism transformed and modernized their subsistence pastoral society into a cash economy, raised their standard of living and created jobs. The Sherpas of Rolwaling valley in the eastern Nepal Himalaya, had a similar experience - though their economic gains came with environmental and social costs. The community-based Annapurna Conservation Area Projects have set a model for sustainable mountain tourism development, maximizing the socio-economic gains to the host environment.

Tourism might appear to be better placed in the high mountains of Europe where ecological potential is harnessed for agriculture or recreational activity. But its expansion has caused agriculture to regress miserably. The result is a tourist monoculture, disastrous both to the ecology and the economy, and creating dependency.

Incompatibility and conflict

The mushrooming of second homes in rural Alpine settings presents another threat to physical and social environments: most of the new settlers who migrate to them differ from the indigenous people in both behaviour and economic activity. The sky-rise structures they have constructed in scenic landscapes are visual blights, resented by Alpine communities in Tyrol (Switzerland) and Italy. A monstrous man-made environment of 'Alpinopolis' is spreading from Geneva to Vienna, and from upper Bavaria to upper Italy, deriding the Alps' majestic peaks, glades and glens. Summer and winter alike the mountain tragedy is heightened as too many humans arrive.

The conflict between ecology and economy, dependency and autonomy in mountain tourism remains unresolved. Impact studies generally take place after the event, and not much can be done to remedy the damage inflicted on the environment. The science of cybernetics is complex and self-renewing, but human artefacts impede its auto-repair system.

Ideally, such sensitive environments as mountains ought to be developed with damage prevention approaches involving host communities. Environmental impact assessments are relevant and forward-looking and can suggest better development strategies that will mitigate adverse effects.

God does not seem to have designed mountains for people, not for too many of them anyway. Close environmental vigilance will be needed if the sustainability of rare and non-renewable resources is to be achieved - for our planet would be poorer without them.

Dr. Tej Vir Singh is Director of the Centre for Tourism Research and Development in Lucknow, India.

Complementary issues:
Issue on Culture, Values and the Environment 1996

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