While strolling in the sprawling gardens of the Thai Buddhist Temple in Sarnath, I saw what seemed to be a rather amusing sign which read “धर्मचक्र पर चढ़ना बैठना मना है ” (Climbing or sitting on the Dharma Chakra is forbidden) and it made me involuntarily grin. A monk, who was keenly observing me, asked me what was so funny about it. I told him that I could not believe that anyone would climb onto the dharma chakra, let alone sit on it. He told me that he had to get it repaired on several occasions because of vandals climbing onto the chakra, which is why he had this sign posted and instructed the watchmen to keep a close eye on visitors.
Where ever we go in our country, we come across signs exhorting us not to pluck flowers, litter, spit and so on. It is rather upsetting since implicit in these cautions is the assertion that we are a people singularly lacking in civic sense or pride in our glorious heritage.
I am sure that all my fellow ghumakkars too must have come across such instances of ancient temples, national monuments and world heritage sites being vandalised by spitting, littering, etching graffiti on walls and mishandling of objects. Many have expressed their disgust at such uncouth and uncivilised behaviour in their blogs.
The featured author of this month, the highly popular and respected Silent Soul, had written a post titled Jageshwar- A Horrible New Year describing how drunken youth had completely ruined his family’s vacation by their boorish and rowdy celebration of the New Year.
Then there is the problem of the generation of humongous amounts of plastic waste. Drinks and foodstuff are usually sold in non-biodegradable plastic containers; carry-bags, packing material etc., are all made of plastic. Not only is plastic degrading the environment, but is also ingested by cattle. This is happening everywhere, especially in remote tourist hotspots which rarely, if ever have facilities to handle solid waste.
An NGO in my hometown, the Visakhapatnam Society for Protection and Care of Animals (VSPCA) has launched the Plastic Cow Project to conduct surgery to remove plastic from the abdomens of cows and has reportedly removed as much as 35 kilograms of plastic from a single cow! These animals would have died a slow and painful death but for the surgery.
Domestic tourists account for 80% of all tourists in India and there is a tourism boom in the country. While tourism is good for the local economy as it creates jobs for locals and infusion of money, there are a number of disadvantages, which need to be addressed such as:
- Environmental degradation
- Social degradation due to drugs, prostitution, violent crimes
- Economic benefits do not accrue to the local community
While regulatory and legislative issues can only be addressed by Governments and statutory bodies, there are several things we can do as responsible tourists, which will go a long way in minimising the negatives and maximise the benefits that accrue to the local community, which will ensure the sustainability of tourism.
Some examples of responsible behavior:
- Minimising consumption of water in the hotels we stay in. Water is an increasingly scarce commodity. In hotels, we have availability of water at the turn of a tap but local people have to walk for kilometres to access a safe source of drinking water. By wasting water, we make the situation worse.
- Prior to travel, getting rid of all inessential packing like toothpaste cartons, plastic, etc in order to minimise waste discarded at the destination. Remote areas usually do not have waste handling facilities and all the waste we produce degrades the local environment. It will be a good idea to retain items like empty cans, sachets, spent battery cells, etc., and dispose them in towns and cities which have such facilities.
- Avoiding packaged food and drinks. For example, instead by buying soft drinks, one can drink fresh coconut water; which is not only good for health but the money spent remains there. Also, one can buy local agricultural products such as corn, fruits, etc instead of reaching out for junk food like fritters and potato chips, which are usually made by multinational corporations and are packed in non bio-degradable plastic sachets.
- Tip liberally. Avoid bargaining over petty amounts of cash. It does not burn a hole in your pocket but it ensures a better lifestyle for the poor and the underprivileged.
- Discourage beggars. If possible, one can contribute to a local charity which works for the upliftment of the poor.
- Showing respect to the locals and eschewing condescending behavior
- Taking permission before photographing people. Some might see it as an intrusion into their privacy.
- Minimising travel in petrol/diesel fuelled vehicles. They just pollute the environment. Walking is a good option as is hiring a bicycle, if available. If not, one can opt to travel on cycle-rickshaws or ride on ponies.
- Packing sufficient clothes for the trip so that the need to frequently wash them does not arise. Washing not only consumes water, but it also releases chemical detergents into the local groundwater. One can always get these clothes laundered on returning home.
- Buying locally made handicrafts. Not only are they lovely mementos of the tour, they also are excellent gifts. More importantly, they give a boost to the local economy and ensure that traditional skills like toymaking or pottery do not become extinct.
- Observing rules and behaving in a responsible manner, even if nobody is watching. For example, if there is a signboard saying “Do not go beyond this point”, then one should not transgress the “Lakshman Rekha”. It is for our own safety.
- Maintaining silence, especially in forests or wildlife sanctuaries. Even in other areas, one should speak in hushed tones on cellphones and avoid speaking loudly, which might disturb others. Even celebrations should be muted. Burning fireworks in the middle of the night or drunken brawls are examples of extremely offensive behaviour.
- Reading about the place one is planning to visit so that one can appreciate the local culture better. One should always be respectful of local traditions.
- Zero tolerance for vandalism. Many people, especially young lovers love inscribing their names on ancient monuments and trees, etc. Or they climb onto centuries old structures.
- Staying in hotels and resorts where most of the employees are locals, especially women. Empowerment of women always has a positive impact on society.
- Giving preference to establishments which follow green policies, such as effluent treatment, waste segregation and solar/wind energy, serve organic food, etc., even if those places are more expensive.
- Smiling and behaving in an amiable manner. Smiling makes you happy and makes the other happy too. Rude behavior pollutes the social and emotional environment.
Responsible tourism ensures that it is a win-win situation for all concerned. For the locals, it means an improvement in the infrastructure, in the quality of their lives and ensuring the preservation of traditional skills like pottery and toymaking. The tourists go home with pleasant memories, enriching experiences and a sense of satisfaction from the fact that they have tried their best to preserve the environment and the beauty of the place
I request my fellow ghumakkars to come up with more ideas on how we can mitigate or minimise the negative impact of tourism by responsible behavior. I shall conclude with the thought-provoking words of Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore:
“The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence.”