How to save the Himalayas from our misadventures
Statistics say that the outdoors is now nearly 70% of all leisure, vacation-based travel, globally. This has massive ramifications in a country like India–where guidelines are available, but actual regulation, monitoring and implementation are abysmal.
Cause and effect
A hugely improved economy, increased and better road networks, the aviation revolution, internet and accessibility and a heightened sense of individual self-expression and need for fulfilment, aided by increased economic ability, have helped catapult adventure holidays to the fore. This is especially true for commercial trekking in the high Himalaya, an activity that has grown to four or five times its industry size over the last decade.
India’s adventure travel industry began in the 1980s with a handful of outdoorsmen and women, who launched businesses with minimal resources, in an era when international borders were shut off in terms of importing equipment, and a consumer market that was non-existent
In the late 1990s, everything changed. India’s economy liberalised, when travel magazines and the internet brought in images of meadows, high passes and camping outdoors. The romance of adventure travel in the Himalaya began to stream into ordinary homes across India via slow-loading HTML pages. With the opening of the Indian economy, this adventure industry began to canter, as our large population of motivated young people began to receive salaries that allowed for a reasonable, if not substantial, disposable income.
Then came the big revolution. Multinationals, software companies, startups, IPOs, online shopping and e-commerce… and the true gallop! A new breed of outdoor companies began to be created, and to flourish. With no regulatory barriers to entry, no checks and balances, individuals with no background in the adventure space began launching adventure travel companies. All one needed—all one needs even today*—to run an adventure outfit in the country,* is a certificate of incorporation from the Registrar of Companies, Ministry of Corporate Affairs. That’s it. By law, there is no requirement for permits, no experience, no certifications, no insurance.
A real churn began from 2008-10 onwards.
As the large Indian market began to move towards the mountains, these new, online-savvy companies hurtled first-time customers into fragile environments which were completely unprepared for the numbers. The lack of experience and expertise of the organisers also showed.
With no ethical understanding of ‘Leave No Trace’ principles, and scant overall outdoor experience, first-time trekkers began to tramp trails high and low. In an unregulated legal environment, more and more mass players started a price war, mixed into this deadly cocktail, the unaware customer.
The result? With zero access control, mass human movement into once-pristine ecological zones. More bums on non-existent toilet seats, more human waste in Himalayan meadows, and more feet repeatedly churning up fragile trails. Illegal fixed camps in reserved forests zones and even national parks (so that these companies could save repeated ferries of supplies and equipment, and thus additional porterage forest fee/charges). Poor guest to guide ratios. A 20-something ‘English-speaking’ guide with little outdoor experience herding groups of 25-30 trekkers (sometimes more) up trails from camp to camp. Campsites getting degraded with these massive numbers, and an unacceptably low ratio of toilet tents to human beings, disincentivising their clients to use them, and then the outdoors is littered with toilet paper and feces. (Some campsites like the Stok Kangri base camp and high-altitude Roopkund lake still bear witness to this ignominy.)
So what can we do? Access control is the need of the hour. Registered companies and guides are a must. ‘No registration = No access’ must be implemented. The privilege of being outdoors must come with a price to pay for its upkeep. The sheer number of trekkers and overall human activity must be limited, to avoid an utter destruction of our natural resources.
Vaibhav is Vice President, Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOI) and Founder, Aqua Terra Adventures.
To find out what the industry is doing to improve the state of adventure travel in India, join the webinar The Great Indian Outdoors at the threshold (Wednesday, 15 September at 11am). Sign up here.
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