Holiday destinations in the hill states continue to crumble under the weight of unplanned, misdirected, deeply centralised tourism. Apart from the ever increasing pressure of tourist arrivals, the increasing severity of climate related disasters is further adding to the bleak scenario.

The result is for everyone to see as it gets reflected in traffic snarls that can go up to several kilometres. There is a lack of proper facilities as the existing ones cannot cope with the heavy tourist onslaught. There is chaos on several other fronts even if one does not take into account the damage being done to the fragile ecology and economy of the hills.

The charm of strolling on the Mall Road in Shimla has vanished despite the vehicles not being allowed there. During the peak tourist arrival one is simply colliding into other pedestrians all the time, and risk being tripped any moment.

Imagine the severity of the traffic snarl on the Kullu-Mandi stretch earlier this week that witnessed a 20-hour long blockade. Thousands of people, of whom the tourists accounted for a substantial chunk, were stranded.

Similarly there have been reports about Kasauli witnessing an arrival of 1000 vehicles daily on peak days. The town has a parking facility of merely 300 vehicles. The result is that these extra vehicles dot the narrow single lane roads causing chaos.

If one comes to the neighbouring Uttarakhand, the scenario is no better. Around three weeks ago the Uttarakhand High Court reportedly warned of Nainital becoming the next Joshimath that has witnessed large scale sinking of land if timely steps are not taken.

Observers also point at the reported figure of around 150 fatalities during the ongoing Char Dham Yatra because of various reasons. The figure stood at 300 last year. They point out that proper health and transport facilities are also an important part of tourism apart from good residential and food facilities.

The net result is that the present state of affairs leaves not only the commuter, pilgrim or tourist but also the local populace harassed and hassled.

The long term solution being cited is that there is a need to decongest the established tourist destinations along with their approach. But the question is how. In fact may observers have the very first query on how the authorities define the long and short term?

At the government levels there have been announcements and policies coming with certain road maps being cited but again there is a lot that needs to be done to translate these into reality on the ground. Observers feel that tall claims and statements are useless unless there is an honest and sincere initiative in these directions.

An interesting observation comes from social activist Anoop Nautiyal from Dehradun who has been working on many tourism related and decongesting initiatives. “There has been a talk for several years about creating 13 tourist destinations for 13 districts of the state. But the fact is that even 13 steps have not been taken in this direction.

“The emphasis remains on Char Dham Yatra and there is this madness and mayhem to make records on tourist arrival. Even the Yatra continues Ram Bharose,” Nautiyal said.

Interestingly, the Uttarakhand government has recently announced an Uttarakhand Tourism Policy 2030 that looks at a roadmap for the next seven years. But the very first lacuna is that there is very little awareness about this policy.

The policy targets a contribution of 10 billion dollars to Uttarakhand's economy annually and at least 15% of the state’s gross state domestic product. It all talks of tourism and its supporting industries employing 20 lakh people with women accounting for at least 30% of the workforce.

It aims at increasing the average length of stay of tourists in Uttarakhand to four to five days besides increasing foreign tourist visits as a proportion of total non-religious tourist visits to 5%.

Interestingly, this policy supersedes any government order or circular issued earlier that are in contravention to the provisions of this policy.

The policy further talks of 'inclusive and sustainable tourism growth, leading to balanced development’ across the state. It elaborates that sustainable tourism should make optimal use of environmental resources while maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.

“This becomes extremely important in the case of Uttarakhand due to the environmental sensitivities of its hilly terrain and forest cover,” the document states. It calls for respect towards the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities while conserving their built and living cultural heritage along with traditional values while contributing to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.

There is an emphasis on reducing adverse tourism impact. It says, “Mass tourism hubs shall be decongested by creating satellite nodes. Tourism projects shall receive financial support for implementing measures such as rainwater harvesting, renewable energy use, waste processing, etc.”

It is emphasised that, “The state shall build a program that encourages tourists to engage in conservation activities along with other institutions to protect fragile tourist sites. The state shall encourage tourist activities that cause low impact to the environment.”

The above mentioned scenario is what is being envisaged but the existing realities are quite disturbing. As Vinod Pande who is an observer and activist based in Nainital pointed out, “There has been a paradigm shift in tourism in the state in the last two decades. What we are not witnessing can be called distorted tourism.”

Talking about his hometown Pande said, “Till a couple of decades back tourism worked according to the needs, restrictions and norms of Nainital. Now it is exactly the reverse as the town moves according to the demands of tourists.

“Earlier we used to tell people to come to Nainital to stay and feel the hills. But now it is ‘fast food tourism’ at work where people just come to merely see the place as they go to see the Taj Mahal in Agra or Qutub Minar in Delhi.

“What is the need to set up ‘selfie points’ in the middle of the traditional markets? Walking has become impossible on account of the vehicular traffic rush and the scenario is that even children can’t walk to their schools as it is no longer safe.”

Pande also talks of the need to promote the ‘hub and spoke’ model of tourism, something which has also been emphasised upon in the new tourism policy.

“Why do you have to set up another artificial rock climbing facility in the heart of the town when there is already one at Bara Pathar? If you need a second facility why not establish it outside, to Gethia or Bhowali so that a satellite pattern of development emerges. In fact even the Nainital Zoo can be shifted to Jeolikote or elsewhere.

“Then there is the lopsided approach of setting up amusement and entertainment facilities in the hill stations when there are ample such facilities already in the cities like Moradabad and Delhi from where the tourists arrive. Why not use the same money for improving the health and transport facilities which also are very important aspects of tourism?” he added.

He is also miffed at Nainital being given a Kumaoni look by the administration. “The identity of Nainital is that of British heritage and legacy. Why do you want to convert it? You can do so in places like Bageshwar and Champawat. But since the emphasis is on utilising allocated funds, other important aspects stand ignored,” Pande added.

Nautiyal on the other hand pointed out that, “There is no seriousness to address the concerns. You need to understand that you have to go back to the basics and fix accountability. The question that needs to be answered is where does the buck stop?

“There is a multiplicity of agencies at work and the administrative structure has to change. According to me the entire tourism operations need to be bifurcated with one set of efficient officials addressing the tourism promotion needs while the other addresses the management aspect.

“The concerns on traffic, waste and health have to be addressed alongside. The issue of analysing the carrying capacity of roads is another one that is pressing. The government talked of analysing the carrying capacity of Joshimath when the town made headlines for the land subsidence. The issue remains unaddressed.”

He is also very critical of the approach of setting tourist arrival records. Referring to the new tourism policy that talks of sustainable tourism he said, “There is a clear dichotomy visible between the written and the spoken word. The emphasis has to be on the basic provision of services.”

In the neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, stakeholders have been expressing concerns on some of the emerging patterns. The first is the decline in the ‘quality tourists’ and the foreign tourists. The second is the unexpectedly higher number of arrivals on the weekends.

They have been pointing out that for a large number of people coming to the state tourism just means hiring a room and resorting to binge drinking. “It has been noted that one of the factors responsible for the steep decline in the number of foreign tourists is the vanishing green cover. It is a tourist segment that does not like noisy, cluttered places,” pointed out a hotelier.

Here too there have been some important announcements coming from the government that assumed office barely six months ago. It remains to be seen whether these announcements get translated into reality in the time to come.

Some days ago Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu announced that the state government has prepared a comprehensive blueprint with an estimated cost of Rs. 100 crore for decongesting Shimla and promoting tourism.

The plan includes initiatives aimed at improving infrastructure in this historic city that was once the summer capital of India and provides seamless experiences for the visitors.

The CM said that out of the allocated funds, approximately Rs. 77 crore would be spent for land acquisition and structures of private land, while Rs. 20 crore has been earmarked for the development and widening of the arterial Cart Road.

Sukhu claimed that the state government has a clear vision to boost tourism and to create an environment conducive for the growth of the tourism industry. He has called for a detailed project report after a survey on identifying all the bottlenecks besides promising new parking lots.

Meanwhile, the focus is also on promoting lesser known tourist destinations. Kangra Valley is set to be declared as the 'Tourism Capital' and plans are underway to spend about Rs. 3000 crore to develop infrastructure in Kangra district.

"Tourism plays a pivotal role in the state’s economy and the government is providing impetus to increase the influx of tourists,” said Sukhu. He added that around 72 lakh tourists had visited the state by May 2023, and the Government aims to increase the number to five crore in the next five years.

In a recent Cabinet meet, the government decided to set up a four lane planning area to control the ‘unplanned, unregulated and rampant unauthorised construction activities’ along the Parwanoo-Shimla, Shimla-Matour, Pathankot-Mandi and Kiratpur-Manali highways.

Sukhu has also stated that his government is considering framing a new tourism policy to enhance visitor experiences by promoting lesser-known destinations of Himachal. Presiding over a meeting of the tourism department recently, he said that nature has blessed Himachal with unprecedented grandeur and there was a need to tap this potential to the maximum by increasing the footfall of tourists.

Reviewing the various projects aimed at developing tourism in Kangra, he directed the officials to prepare a concept paper on projects including a roller skating rink in Sakoh, a golf course in Paragpur, a high-end resort in Menjha, a tourism village in Narghota and the proposed Aero City.

Apart from this, the government is mulling setting up a theme-based satellite village at Naura Khad in Nagrota Bagwaan.

According to Sukhu there is emphasis to improve the air connectivity in Himachal. The government is working on expanding Kangra airport, constructing a greenfield airport in Nagchala in Mandi district and building several new heliports.

In the first phase, nine heliports are being constructed at Jaskot in Hamirpur district, Rakkar and Palampur in Kangra district, Sultanpur in Chamba district, Manali in Kullu district, Jispa, Sissu, and Rangrik in Lahaul-Spiti district and Sharbo in Kinnaur district. The remaining seven heliports will be constructed in the second phase, he added.

There are also claims on promoting eco tourism activities. “Eco-tourism is a sustainable form of tourism that promotes the conservation of natural resources and local culture while providing visitors with unique experiences. By promoting eco-tourism, the state can showcase its rich biodiversity, scenic landscapes and cultural heritage.

“This can attract tourists who are interested in responsible and sustainable travel, generating revenue and employment opportunities for the local population,” Sukhu claimed recently.

But here too, observers and stakeholders are calling for concrete short and long term measures for decongestion of destinations. The scenario is such that approaching towns like Shimla, Kullu, Manali and Dharamshala is a nightmarish experience where one is not sure about the time that would be consumed.

For locals wanting to go beyond these places is a daunting task despite the fact that a sizable traffic is diverted through by-pass roads.

“There is a need to link the alternate already existing roads to the main highways so that traffic snarls do not occur. There is also the need to identify and develop new unknown destinations,” pointed out Anil Kant who runs tourist facilities in Manali and Tosh.

But here too there is a major challenge being faced. “Since it is the era of weekend tourism, the people prefer just going to places that are the closest and most easily accessible.

“I have been getting calls from stakeholders in Kausani that initiatives be taken to promote tourism in places beyond the established destinations like Nainital,” Pande pointed out.

It is felt that for this there is a need to bring about a change in the mindset of the people.

Meanwhile, coming back to Shimla, Sanjay Chauhan who is the town’s former mayor and present district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) recently wrote to Sukhu stressing upon the need to construct more tunnels to make the movement of people easy.

Pointing out that some steps have been taken in this direction, Chauhan said, “Construction of tunnels will not only massively curtail any damaging impact on the environment, it will also reduce travelling distances between destinations.”

Chauhan suggested that a tunnel be constructed between Dhalli and Sainj in Theog so that the frequent traffic snarls between Dhalli and the popular destination of Kufri can be done away with. He said that the proposal to construct two tunnels within Shimla that came about in 2015 should also be immediately followed up and executed at the earliest.

He said the government has already initiated a ‘constructive’ move to connect Kharapathar and Dodra Kwar that is snow bound for several months. Chauhan said that establishing tunnels within Shimla is a dire need if the town’s reputation of being a world renowned tourist destination is to be saved.