Time to practice responsible tourism in J&K

From the father of economics, Adam Smith, we had the startling first lesson on economics: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. This interest is very much manifested in business sector’s quest for maximizing profits. In today’s world whether in services or manufacturing sector, business world has a great impact on the economic growth of a nation and its environment and hence on the life and livelihoods of people. Given the fact that 9 out 10 jobs in developing countries are provided by private sector it is of huge significance (International Finance Corporation, 2013). Hence the demand for a sustainable development that aims to strike a balance among the profit, environment protection and survival with development which may be better described as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) of a private venture is genuine. In the globalization context and from the perspective of achieving Sustainable Development Goals 2030, private sector’s role is fully recognized. It therefore not necessarily confined to financing issues but also has a crucial role to play in achieving the goals related to decent employment and economic growth, health and education, industry and technology, innovations, infrastructure, gender equality and poverty, responsible consumption, and climate change (etc.) which in Post-COVID future has stark relevance. India’s legislation in 2014 on CSR requires large companies to spend at least 2 percent of their profits annually on CSR. The bill applies to companies with an average net profit of at least 50 million rupees (5 Crore) over a period of three years. Although not all large companies are meeting this threshold but it is a good start to rope in business sector in complementing government’s efforts to ensure ethics of inclusive economic development and environmental sustainability.

Despite the tradition of government controlled Tourism Sector in J&K – in policy and practice – we are aware that in the entire value chain of this sector (e.g. from a travel agent and tour operator to Pony-walas, Porters and Local Cooks etc.), and almost in all major tourist destinations and routes, the infrastructure for accommodation, food, transport, and recreation is run by the private sector across several types of tourism (e.g., recreation, adventure, religious and heritage Tourism etc.). Likewise, it is well known that contribution of this sector to Gross Domestic Product globally is around 10% (In J&K can vary between 10 to 15% approximately). Our trademark images especially that of Kashmir valley as “Paradise on Earth” or “City of Temples for Jammu” is luring millions of domestic and thousands of international tourists each year. We have rightfully given it a rank of priority sector. However, in our enthusiasm and self-glorifying spirit we have neither managed tourism value chain in the paradise nor in the temple city. The prevailing model of tourism in J&K as part of the Western Himalayan Region, is characterized by mass tourism (in certain destinations e.g., Vaishno Devi, Gulmarg, Dal Lake, Amarnath etc.) leading to environmental damage and pollution, threats to the sociocultural heritage, intense use of scarce resources, and negative externalities in society. The specific negative impacts include the replacement of traditional eco-friendly and aesthetic architecture with inappropriate, resource-intensive and dangerous construction in highly seismic region, poorly designed roads and associated infrastructure, inadequate solid waste management, degradation of watersheds and water sources, and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Last but not least, even after seven decades of Independence our Pony-walas and rural cooks stand at the bottom of the tourism value chain struggling economically and socially. The largest chunk of profits and incomes goes to travel and tour operators, hotels and transport industry with hardly any attention to CSR or on the safety and security of local entrepreneurs or small enterprises who provide tourist season services. On the one hand, we are living in fragile mountain ecosystems and our local communities are the motive force for sustainable practices, especially in the preservation of cultural identities and natural heritage. While tempering the impact of the ecological footprint, there is a clear necessity for equitable local community’s/service providers (e.g., local Guide or Shikara- or Pony-wala) share from the economic benefits of tourism.

Therefore, it is time that Sustainable Criteria for Tourism in India (2014) and the recommendations made in the study “Sustainable Tourism in Himalayas” (NITI Aayog, 2018) are implemented in practice to kick-start the era of “Responsible Tourism” in fast changing Union Territory. These recommendations are clear about principles and actions we need to take. We should not allow tourism management of “Paradise on Earth” making rich richer and discriminate those who are at the bottom of value chain economically. This also means locally inclusive and sustainable development to which newly elected District Development Councils can now be paying their attention through better planning and monitoring of implementation.

Surprisingly, with no code of conduct or its implementation on how a customer/tourist has to behave in a socio-ecologically delicate mountain and hilly landscape, behaviour of visitors is dominantly that of a lavish consumer wanting value for their money for the heck of it. It is time that consumers are charged an in-advance premium price (e.g., green or social cess) that can be also invested for safety and security of lower-level service providers. Cumulatively, these are affecting long-term inclusive and sustainable tourism development prospects in J&K. Hence private sector comprising tour/travel operators, accommodation providers, transporters etc. must be mandatorily making visitors aware on their required behaviour while they enjoy the paradise and host of religious placed in our Union territory. On the home-front, business actors must be made getting into formal service agreements with stakeholders such as porters, local entrepreneurs and micro-enterprises (etc.) so that safety and security of these services providers and their resources (e.g., insurance for ponies during the service seasons) is ensured. They must be monitored on their investments and services whether these are “Green and Socially just” as well. However, this would also mean that we update our vocational training centres to realize above opportunities through building of local capacities for standardized hospitality services, green entrepreneurship and circular green and inclusive economy (e.g., recover and regenerate products and materials from bio-waste, waste water recycling etc.). The Government departments in consultation with Chambers of Commerce and other key stakeholders, of course need to set the future policies, programmes, implementation guidelines and overall must provide long term strategic direction (e.g., also on resilience building of lower-level services providers) of which monitoring and evaluation is an integral part. As Adam Smith puts it “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable”.Dr Rajan Kotru, Lead Strategist, Redefined Sustainable Thinking (REST)

Dr Rafi Ahmad, Core Member, Redefined Sustainable Thinking (REST)