Tourists need to learn to tread lightly

What’s the world’s unlikeliest place to experience traffic? The colossal Mount Everest. During summit season, what we picture as pristine, white and almost celestial, turns into something like the ramp above New Road at eight in the morning, but way worse. Annually, about 800 people attempt to climb Mount Everest for the glory of conquesting the highest mountain on this planet, leaving behind tons and tons of plastic, beer cans, whiskey bottles, steel food containers, and a huge environmental impact. The world’s highest mountain is transforming into its highest trash heap and there’s no one to blame but us. Tourism is a double-edged sword and we clearly still lack good swordsmanship.

The impact of tourism is not just concentrated in the Himalayas but stretches throughout the world and is more detrimental than we imagine. There are 1 billion tourist arrivals in the world every year. That’s 30 every single second.

If we take a look at India itself, we’ll find that the country’s most famous monument, the Taj Mahal, is threatened by tourism. On some days, the largely unregulated stream of visitors crosses the 50,000 mark. The constant footfall of luggage-toting, selfie-seeking hordes, who descend every day on Shah Jahan’s mausoleum, is corroding the marble structure of the Taj.  Inadvertent emission of sulfur dioxide, due to road traffic, causes acid rain that is discoloring its once gleaming white facade.

Taj Mahal, the ivory white marble mausoleum that symbolizes love and brings in twice as much revenue through tourist visits for the Indian government than any other monument in the country, is losing its sheen because of the constant treading and motor-emissions that tourists generate. Unless these issues are mitigated, the Taj Mahal will one day lose its allure because of the irreparable damage to its structure, in turn leading to loss of revenue earned from tourism.

Consequently, if we look beyond this continent, we’ll find the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the only living thing on earth visible from space, is under threat from tourism. Coral reefs live in very precise, fragile and balanced marine environments. The slightest change can have a huge impact on the entire coral ecosystem. Tourists endanger the area by reef walking, dropping anchors, and causing general pollution that easily harms the fragile coral. Even the run-off sweat and sunscreen from the crowds of people in the water are believed to hurt the delicate reef. And since corals are the main attraction to the Great Barrier reef, their destruction will cause a significant decrease in ecotourism. If coral becomes extinct in the Great Barrier Reef, the money and jobs created from the reef will become obsolete as well.

To add to the list of World Heritage sites being threatened by tourism, there is the breathtaking Great Wall of China. This national icon of China is covered with graffiti in some places and hundreds of kilograms of garbage left by tourists in others. “We’ve found nails in the Wall between the stones, put there by campers for their tents,” said Wang Xuenong, a former curator of the Shanhaiguan section of the wall, and a lecturer at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. Some parts of the Wall are falling into disrepair because of the structural pressure caused by the 10 million tourists that visit it annually.

It is, however, indisputable that tourism has its benefits. It allocates employment opportunities for local people and results in cultural exchange. Moreover, it leads to economic growth and foreign exchange earning. A large number of businesses engaged in the service sector such as airlines, hotel, and surface transportation grow along with the tourism industry. Tourism also provides an escape from our monotonous daily lives and refreshes our mind, body, and spirit.

Despite its advantages, tourism comes with innumerable environmental backlashes, including rapid depletion of natural resources and damage to the landscape. But a sense of urgency can be one of the biggest drivers of action. Measures are being taken to minimize the adverse effects of pollution. In Sikkim, tourists are being told not to bring in plastic bottles of water. To encourage them, clean water points have been set up where water, certified as safe by the government, is sold to fill reusable bottles.

The Walt Disney Company (which includes Walt Disney World Resort, the most visited tourist destination in the world) has taken strong leadership on sustainable tourism. Captain Don Voss, founder and Director of Marine Cleanup Initiative Inc has completed over 14,000 dives worldwide and has removed 350,000 pounds of fishing line, nets, batteries, bottles, cans, anchors, chain, construction debris, fishing tackle, and other sorts of marine debris from the depths of the Indian River Lagoon and four inlets. Additionally,  organizations like The Global Sustainable Tourism Council and The International Ecotourism Society, and climatecare.org are working relentlessly to reduce the environmental impact of tourism.

Sustainable tourism is all about making sure tourism actually benefits the community it’s happening in. It should benefit in ways that help the people celebrate their cultures, bring money into the community so that the community can be enriched by the visitors, and also help the community protect the environment that makes it so special.

Presently, Virginia Jealous, the travel writer known for her work in the Lonely Planet, the travel guidebook publisher, is working with the Centre For Imagination. She’ll accompany students on the hike to Gangotri during Activity Week, where the group will spend seven days learning how to revel in the gratification of tourism while preserving the delicate environmental structure of the glacier. According to her, “Tourism causes change. The nature of that change depends on the place, and most importantly on the people.”

One of Woodstock’s Guiding Principles is to tread lightly on the Earth. It urges us to conserve and regenerate the natural environment we inhabit; at the very least, causing no harm. We essentially are long-term tourists of Mussoorie. Our responsibility lies in doing whatever we can as individuals and a community to alleviate the sharpness of the double-edged sword of tourism by being responsible.

We can achieve sustainable and responsible tourism with the simple steps of not littering, conserving water and reducing energy conservation. Maybe that would mean taking shorter showers and unplugging mobile chargers and turning lights off when unnecessary. Maybe that would mean carrying a shopping bag to the bazaar to avoid contributing to the plastic problem in Mussoorie. But that would also mean us having an effortless yet significant contribution in preserving the natural wonders that make Mussoorie so beautiful.

And once we have mastered the skill of being responsible towards the land that we inhabit, we can further utilize this skill in being sustainable, responsible tourists, leaving a positive environmental impact on the diverse places that we visit around the world.

Edited by Rhea Ali

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