It was just another weekend and I packed my bags and left for my favourite trek in the western ghats, the enchanting Kodachadri Trek. As is the case with most of my trekking adventures, we reached the homestay early in the morning. Many old trekkers tell me that there weren’t so many options back in the day. Each trek hardly had a couple of options to choose from. But now, there are a number of options available. Anyway, we packed our bags and boarded the jeeps to reach the base point of the trek.
I met Raju, our guide for the trek. In a casual conversation I learned that he does a full time job at a fabrication facility in Shimoga during the week. On the weekends, he volunteers as a trek guide and gets an additional income.
Eco tourism as a concept was still evolving, so I asked him many questions about it. He mentioned that there are financing schemes available for the locals to develop their homes into homestays. That along with advertisement by tourism companies lead to a huge influx of tourists to the Kodachadri Peak.
How Did It Affect The Local Ecosystem
As more people started trekking to the Kodachadri Peak, more people shared the images on social media which lead to more people trekking to Kodachadri Peak. The higher influx to an otherwise remote area with lackluster infrastructure lead to more homestay construction. Not just the infrastructure but the local people’s lives have improved significantly as more tourists meant more jeep and guiding trips resulting in more income.
Thus creating a vicious cycle of more tourist influx, more infrastructure development and even more tourist influx. And the government didn’t delay to cash in on the developments. The government now charges a modest INR 30 per person to enter the protected Mookambika wildlife sanctuary.
You’d assume that because the government charges money, they ensure the forest is well taken care of. Here’s where the intent falls into the cracks. Firstly, there is no limit to the number of people visiting the peak per day. Secondly, not just trekkers, even Jeeps are allowed all the way till Mookambika temple. Result? the pristine trails of the Kodachadri trek are littered with plastic and non-biodegradable waste. And volunteers like the good folks at Plan The Unplanned have to organize cleanup drives.
But What Are The Alternatives?
But Inju, are you saying we shouldn’t visit these places at all? No, as much as I am an advocate of exploration and adventure travel, I am also an advocate of responsible tourism. We should leave the trail undisturbed. This means there need to be stricter controls on the movement of the people. And not far from Kodachadri peak, the officials of Kudremukh National Park have done an amazing job at this. They imposed a limit on the number of people that can trek to the peak to 50. This small number has also enabled them to thoroughly check everyone for plastic and list them down along with a refundable payment of INR 500 at the point of entry itself.
As a result, the entire trail is litter free and in great shape. Wish more and more national parks adopt this style of management.
But I want To Visit Only The Best Places!
Greed is said to be the worse of all the sins. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or a Hindu or a Buddhist, all religions speak of Greed to cause the greatest amount of destruction.
The greed of visiting all the places, the greed of showing off your adventures, the greed of seeing and showing the unexplored places. All of these are the root causes of the destruction that’s happening across the world.
In the name of ecotourism, the Government is promoting the vicious cycle of doom-tourism. The locals are no less as they see a reliable source of income in an otherwise poor lifestyle. Once the money starts flowing, no one will say NO to it. That’s how money works on a fundamental level.
Inju this all seems like a rant. But are there any solutions?
The answer is both a yes and a no.
The solutions involve a significant effort from travellers, tourism companies and the government.
Actions Government Should Be Taking
Barring few nutjobs, most of us like to follow the rules. And the government needs to step up the game in enforcing strict rules in protected wildlife sanctuaries and forest reserves.
Firstly, regulating infrastructure development. To avoid behaviour, you have to make it difficult to do that task. So to reduce the number of people visiting a particular location, you have to make it incredibly difficult to get there. One way is to make online registration mandatory for everyone. Second, reduce the homestays available for booking. Perhaps, create a lottery system or allocate permits for running homestays to various family in a rotational manner.
Third, put a cap on the number of people visiting the trek. The uncertainty of the trek happening will automatically discourage a lot of people to cancel their trek plans to that particular location.
While the above actions reduce the inflow to an already popular group of tourist destinations. The government should take active steps at promoting the lesser-known trekking trails keeping in mind the ecological sensitivity of certain locations. At places that are less sensitive, the government can regular the infra development encouraging more tourists to visit thereby reducing or sharing the load on other trekking trails.
Actions Tour Operators Should Be Taking
It doesn’t matter how many rules the government imposes. It ultimately comes down to enforcement at the ground level. While practices like social distancing may not be possible in trekking and travelling, it is very much possible to ensure we don’t damage the environment. And by the virtue of being the link between a typical traveller and the wild, the tour operators have a huge responsibility.
Firstly, every tour operator needs to build a team that is very conscious about environmental damage. Because if they’re not, then they give in to the temptation of generating more revenue at the cost of damage to the environment.
Secondly, build a repository of responsible tourists and encourage the behaviour by creating reward points for responsible behaviour. There is nothing like creating a status within the traveller’s community to emulate responsible behaviour.
Encourage your customers to keep their trash in their bags or equip your staff to carry a bag to collect the trash on the go. This goes a long way in ensuring safe disposal of trash. Or perhaps, setup a fund to organize more clean up drives or help the locals maintain the natural balance of the surroundings.
Actions Travellers Should Be Taking
I actually have a ton of points that I keep telling people during treks but it all essentially comes down to just two fundamental practices. And they’re self-explanatory in every sense.
First, Don’t Be Greedy. Don’t rush to every new place that opens up. Don’t put the social media follower count over ecological balance and sustainability. Respect the limits set by the government and nature. They exist for a good reason.
Second, Don’t Be Lazy. Seriously, just hold your shit with you until you get back to the city. Don’t Litter, carry the waste back with you. Or at least drop the waste in a designated dust bin on the trail.
Do you have more ideas on how to bring a mindset change? Do let me know in the comments or DM me on Instagram.
That’s all for today folks. Thank you for sticking through to the end.
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This is post no.35 in the weekly blog post series. You can write to firstname.lastname@example.org for any feedback or collaboration. Alternatively, you can drop me a DM on Instagram.