There are only two ways to travel. The first; to visit a place to ‘see’ it within a specific number of days… and the second; to become a part of it, to experience it, for whatever length of time you are there for.
Most people prefer the former. It’s more convenient in terms of time and allows them a short break from their daily routine. And that is all that conventional tourism aims at. It is largely concerned with offering the tourist a way to experience a new place from the comfort of the familiar – standardized hotel rooms, a globalised cuisine, efficient and polite travel guides, pick-ups and drops to and from the airport, etc. While these are certainly important, they usually come at a cost… an ecological and cultural one.
How does this happen?
For a long time now, the West has been dominant in influencing living standards across the globe. They have been able to do so because of certain key reasons.
- They have had much greater access to natural resources either through being naturally endowed, or through their exploitation of other countries that are abundantly provided for by nature.
- Their economies are much stronger, so they can buy or access these resources more easily from other nations.
In either case, it has been possible for them to develop ways of living that would use up natural resources: Flush toilets that use several litres of water for each flushing or washing machines & dishwashers that make peoples’ lives more convenient but that pollute groundwater reservoirs through the use of chemical detergents. More and more people are aspiring towards these standards of living. Once they have gotten used to enjoying the benefits of this way of life in their urban homes, it isn’t difficult to see how they might want the same amenities when they travel across the world.
Alongside this, we need to remember that local climatic, geographical and other conditions place natural limits on how cultures evolve. Ladakh is a high altitude desert with very arid conditions and Ladakhis have evolved the dry compost toilet system. This helps them deal with human wastes efficiently without wasting water. This waste, once it has decomposed over a year, is used as fertiliser on the fields thereby closing the loop. Unfortunately, increasing tourism has ensured that most guesthouses in Ladakh now have western-style toilets installed for the convenience of foreign tourists and people coming in from Indian cities. This has led to several problems:
- Huge waste of water through flushing of toilets in an arid desert region
- Increasing pollution of pristine glacial streams that are the only source of fresh water in the region
- Loss of free chemical-free fertiliser
- Increase in agricultural input costs as farmers now have to buy fertiliser.
And this is just because of one change in the local cultural traditions.
Changes are also taking place in how food is grown there, the amount of processed foods that are now available there, how much food is being imported from Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, and how even the local people are now habituated to eating more rice than wheat even though rice does not grow in Ladakh. This has a lot to do with the heavy influx of tourists who are unwilling to eat the local cuisine, thereby ensuring that locally grown foods are in decline.
Conventional tourism vs. Eco-tourism
Conventional tourism does not encourage you to think about the impact you have on the places you visit. It places the burden of cleaning up after the departure of the people who live in these places. We use large numbers of packaged bottles (plastics that don’t break down for hundreds of years and that cannot be disposed off easily without generating toxins), cars to transport us around (pollution through fumes and more open green areas brought under roads/paved surfaces), a lot of water to flush and bathe with (especially wasteful in dry areas), processed foods to suit our urban palates (ensuring the import of foods grown in distant places thereby needing to be transported across hundreds of miles by land, air or water and processed heavily to survive the long journey).
Whereas, living like locals would mean that we follow local traditions closely. This would help us minimise our impact and would keep the local economy strong as we would buy foods and products that are grown right there. Buying local foods will also help in keeping processed foods out. Eco-tourism then is a way of participating in a local culture, a way of life… and not just observing it from our cocoons of comfort.
We must also remember that cities have not always existed. They are fairly recent entrants when it comes to lifestyles. The ‘nature’ that we like to see on our holidays was once everywhere. We were a part of it. Only when we started living in mega-cities did we begin to feel that nature is outside us, in villages or in forests. When we stop seeing and understanding important relationships – the lifestyles we lead and their impact on Earth, the food we eat and how it is grown – we start entering into a rapid downward spiral that will lead us into an ecologically imbalanced world. And we cannot live well on such a planet, for the planet’s natural systems will take over eventually to redress the imbalance.The author is a soft skill trainer and a consultant for Cambridge University