Anita Anand | Lessons to learn from Bhutan on what not to do in Lakshadweep

The Asian Age.

Opinion, Columnists

Three deputy ministers in Maldives heard this as putting down the exotic and pristine offerings of their country and posted on social media

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pre-election visit to the islands. The media was awash with images of the Prime Minister relaxing on the beach, walking and snorkelling. (Image: PTI)

A few days ago, I received an email from the online travel operator EaseMyTrip informing me about the cancellation of all flights to the Maldives and the opening of bookings for Lakshadweep.

Since this announcement, according to media reports, EaseMyTrip’s stock has gained 27 per cent.

The online travel portal MakeMyTrip noted that they had a 3,400 per cent increase in on-platform searches for Lakshadweep, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pre-election visit to the islands. The media was awash with images of the Prime Minister relaxing on the beach, walking and snorkelling. Reflecting on the beauty of the islands, he called upon all Indians to travel more within the country.

Three deputy ministers in the Maldives heard this as putting down the exotic and pristine offerings of their country and posted so on the social media. A careful reading of the PM’s remarks suggest that it was a storm in a teacup, as he did not mention the Maldives by name, but referred to tourist spots close to Lakshadweep, which are the Maldives. The deputy ministers were suspended, but a diplomatic incident has definitely taken place, raising various issues, more urgently, of sustainable development and responsible tourism.

Should there be more concern for promoting tourism to Lakshadweep? The Lakshadweep archipelago, a Union territory administered by the Government of India, is made up of 36 atolls, or islands, of which 10 are inhabited. It experienced four major El Nino Southern Oscillation-related temperature abnormalities in the past two decades, and three catastrophic cyclones in the last four years, resulting in widespread coral bleaching and deaths.

In 2021 the Lakshadweep Research Collective, a team of ecologists and marine biologists, asked the then-President Ram Nath Kovind to review the draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021 (LDAR), a plan to develop the islands as a major tourist destination. They underlined that the region’s unique geography, ecology, and long human history placed natural limits on the development the archipelago can support. The draft has been put on hold, but the constraints remain, a concern more so now, after the Narendra Modi visit.

There are other warnings. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its Asia report in 2022, flagged that coastal habitats of Asia are diverse, and the impact of climate change including rising temperatures, ocean acidification and sea level rise has brought negative effects to the services and the livelihoods of people depending on it.

Tourism is one of the world’s fastest growing industries and an important source of foreign exchange and employment, linked to the social, economic and environmental well-being of many countries, especially developing countries. Balancing environmental concerns, livelihoods and development go hand in hand.

For the last several decades notions of sustainable and responsible tourism have taken hold. Both consider current and future impact, addressing the needs of visitors, industry, environment, and ethical and sustainable practices helping local communities and minimising any negative impact. They include the participation of all stakeholders in planning and implementing tourism.

Envisioning and implementing a balanced tourism policy is a challenge. But it can be done.

Bhutan, a small Himalayan kingdom, known for its pristine beauty, in the 1970s developed a tourist policy of “high value and low volume” -- choosing to manage numbers and setting a minimum compulsory daily fee. Since 2010, there was a steep rise in tourists, which resulted in an explosion of cheap hotels and homestays, easy loans, and lax laws. There was an oversupply of registered tour operators and registered guides. Corruption creeped in with agents undercutting prices, operators trying to circumvent regulations, and parties evading taxes. A policy review was needed. In 2023, Bhutan capped its tourist numbers to 200,000 a year, with a compulsory daily fee of $250, part of the money to fund conservation and development projects to protect its natural resources and combat climate change.

But there is no such plan for India and its sensitive areas. In 2023, then tourism minister G. Kishan Reddy informed the Rajya Sabha that under Swadesh Darshan 2.0, Lakshadweep has been named for development. The initiatives included development and upgradation of Agatti airport and development of water aerodromes for sea plane operations in Minicoy, Agatti and Kavaratti. The construction of airports, beachfront homes, hotels, restaurants, artificial lights, large boats, shopping and ports will replace the natural habitats and destroy the coastal ecosystems such as the nesting sites of marine animals. Garbage and plastic pollution will be expected.

There are lessons to be learned from the state of Uttarakhand, where tourism is a major driver of economic growth. An ecologically fragile region in the Himalayas, it is known for its temples and the pilgrimage circuit of Char Dham: Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. According to reports, in 2022, more than 15,000 people were allowed to visit Badrinath and Kedarnath -- two to three times more than the carrying capacity environmental experts estimated. Among other disasters, there have been landslides due to flash floods, resulting in loss of lives and irreparable damage, a result of overdevelopment. Pushed by the Central and state governments, the area has been and is commercialised and exploited. For decades now, environmental activists and experts have raised concerns over the government’s revenue-driven over-exploitation of the tourism sector at the cost of ecological hazards. This has fallen on deaf ears.

The Prime Minister may be right in encouraging Indians to travel in their own country, but not at the cost of sustainable and responsible tourism. Could India learn from Bhutan?