Byline: GT Correspondent
Tucked away in the lap of the eastern Himalayas, the small Indian state of Sikkim has emerged as a tourist hot-spot over the last two decades. The peaceful, calm and mystic beauty of the Himalayas together with the warm-hearted people has made Sikkim one of the favorite destinations for tourists across the globe.
With 47.80% of its land covered with forests, Sikkim has the highest protected area network in the country. Apart from rich flora and fauna, Sikkim offers tourists a multi-dimensional cultural experience. With a number of communities and a rich religious heritage, Sikkim draws pilgrims as well as researchers from all corners of the world.
Since its merger with India in 1975, Sikkim has been making efforts to develop its Tourism Industry. The Tsomgo lake was made accessible to tourists in the year 1988. This was followed by the opening up of the NathuLa or the Chinese Border for the tourists. Similar relaxations in permits were given for many other ecologically fragile destinations such as Yumthang Valley, Gurudongmar Lake and Yumesamdong in North Sikkim, yielding a surge in the number of tourists visiting these areas.
The domestic tourist inflow in Sikkim increased from 5,52,453 in 2011 to 13,75,854 in 2017, at an increase rate of 15.75% per annum. With the average tourist footfall equaling or exceeding the state population, Sikkim has to take a more cautious approach to the growth and development of tourism in the state. The benefits need to be balanced keeping the hazards in view.
The huge mountains of garbage at Lhotse and Amu Dablam in Nepal left behind by the trekking companies and individuals, or the plastic clogged valleys of Himanchal Pradesh show how the irresponsible and reckless attitude of tourists is not just causing harm to the environment but also making locals apprehensive about their livelihood. The Bomb Guard or the garbage mountain in Leh near Diskit Tsal is another example of what irresponsible tourism can do.
The government of Sikkim has banned the use of plastics in the state. Yet heaps of beer cans, empty packets of instant noodles, mineral water bottles can be found across tourist trails. The Himalayan range directly influences not only the climate of India, but also of the entire world. The garbage left at this altitude can remain there for over 1000 years!
The streets of Gangtok, the capital city of Sikkim are usually jam packed and the pedestrian ways have mounds of garbage on either side during peak tourist seasons. The vehicular pollution caused by the increase in the number of vehicles is a direct effect of the huge tourist inflow to the state. Traffic is one of the major issues the incumbents have to deal with, in the 2019 Assembly elections.
But, is it sufficient to put the blame on the government?
The issue of traffic in Sikkim is largely tourism related. Making a shift towards more sustainable modes of mobility, such as cycle tourism, or all-day tour buses might be an answer to the tourism-traffic paradox.
Also, there is a need to regulate and optimize the number of permits issued per day to enter the ecologically fragile destinations so as to avoid strain and subsequent threat to the ecology as well as the disturbances to the natural habitat of wildlife. Tourists themselves need to acknowledge the possible hazards they can cause to the delicate yet crucial ecosystem of the mountains.
The example of Bhutan, a country that in order to sustain its environment, culture and beauty has been very reserved about allowing tourists, can be considered in envisioning tourism in Sikkim. The government in Bhutan has set a minimum daily package at non-negotiable prices that include accommodation, meals, transport, guides, porters and cultural events to regulate tourism and protect the environment. Tour packages are managed only by government approved agencies. Bhutan aims to develop itself as a high-end tourist destination, driven towards maximizing the tourism experience over mass tourism.
The need however, is to engineer a culture of tourism where tourists share an equal responsibility towards the environment.