Proliferation of hotels and unregulated tourism has threatened not just the fragile ecology of Kodagu but the very fabric of the indigenous communities.

Misty morning in Coorg coffee estate showing a lot of coffee plants interspersed with tall treesCoffee estate in Coorg
news Tourism Friday, August 28, 2020 - 18:56

There was a time when Kodagu was hailed as Karnataka’s best kept secret. The concept of tourism was unheard of in this hush-hush paradise. It was only in the early 90s when the Ramapuram brothers opened Orange County Resorts in their 300-acre property that this idyllic district came to be known to the outside world. The owners had to hard sell Kodagu first as a destination and then their themed working plantation resort to the discerning upmarket traveller.

“Our signature holidays that preserve the purity of nature and culture on the land catapulted Kodagu to the national and international tourist map. Our tagline, ‘Spirit of the Land in luxury’ was calibrated to deliver coffee, spice and plantation life experiences to reflect the true spirit of Kodagu,” says Jose Ramapuram, Director, Evolve Back (formerly Orange County Resorts).

With its green-topped hills, downs and mist-cloaked valleys, Kodagu was once akin to scenic Europe. The nostalgic British christened it ‘Scotland of India.’ One could savour a new refreshing experience while cruising past the vast coffee plantations, swathes of lush rice paddy fields and dense jungles. In Kodagu you can walk through a waterfall, count coffee beans, and interact with planters. It is indeed the illustrious land of coffee, cardamom, colonels, charming women, Cariappas and Cauvery. With the proliferation of resorts, hotels and homestays this once quiet district evolved into a highly sought-after destination.

But the current tourism scenario in Kodagu is appallingAs one enters Kodagu, instead of display boards heralding tourists a welcome, one can see boards exhorting tourists to ‘Visit Kodagu less often as mass tourism destroys Kodagu’ and posters of the ‘Save Kodagu and Cauvery’ campaign.

Pic courtesy: Coorg Wildlife Society
Mass tourism or overtourism was the raging problem in Kodagu during the pre-lockdown days. “One of the main reasons for local opposition to tourists is overtourism. The recent landslides and floods in Kodagu can be attributed to a large extent to deforestation and indiscriminate felling of trees to make way for unplanned development, some of them for tourism. There has to be a fine balance between tourism and sustainability,” says Ayappa Somaiah, CEO, Tattva Trails.

“More than the NGOs, it is the local population along with the Panchayats that are monitoring the garbage disposal by resorts and tourists. There have been many instances where tourists were made to clear the garbage that they had disposed on the roadside. Though plastic has been officially banned in the district much before it was implemented in other places, the problem of garbage, sewage and effluents flowing to natural water bodies and the use of plastic by tourists still continues. Now with safety and hygiene being given the highest importance, it is imperative that steps are taken towards proper disposal of garbage and sewage,” adds Somaiah.

Omkareshwara Temple
Proliferation of hotels, and rampant and unregulated tourism has threatened not just the fragile and precious ecology of Kodagu but the very societal fabric of the indigenous communities. “Towns like Madikeri are already reeling under water shortage and lack of proper waste management systems, amid rampant littering of non-degradable material and waste. Pollution and improper location of hotels is another aspect. Kodagu has lost hundreds of acres of tree cover to the construction of resorts and hotels. In several cases, the construction is done on steep slopes that have been gouged to build the foundation,” bemoans Colonel Muthanna, President, Coorg Wildlife Society, an NGO that has been in the forefront of ecological and environmental issues facing the district.

Kodagu is choked with the spurt in tourist arrivals, automobile pollution and the interminable traffic jams clogging roads that were not built to accommodate such vehicle inflow. The explosion of homestays and the thousands of unregistered and illegal accommodations have also contributed to overtourism.

“Degradation of Iruppu Falls in South Kodagu due to uncontrolled entry of tourists, blatant disrespect of the sacred areas at Bhagamandala due to mass outdoor cooking by tourists and direct pollution to the Cauvery at its source, overcrowding at prominent tourist spots such as Iruppu, Abbey Falls, Chelavara and Dubare during weekends are other problems plaguing Kodagu. The burgeoning tourist vehicular movement causing severe disturbance to elephants and escalating the human-animal conflict in Nagerhole is also a major concern,” laments Col Muthanna.

While Kodagu’s population is 6 lakh, the number of tourists was a whopping 18 lakh in 2019. Mass tourism only aggravates the problem as it exceeds the carrying capacity of the destination.

Bhagandeswara Temple
To curtail the unbridled growth of tourism, the focus should be on reducing the footfall. “We should emulate the example of Kumarakom, which has become a niche destination with high-end hotels, resorts and homestays. With lesser footfall sans any garbage, Kumarakom is a ‘zero waste destination’. It’s high time the government earmarked certain areas of Coorg under a similar scheme,” suggests Somaiah.

What is also needed is a sustainable tourism strategy. “Some of the steps formulated by stakeholders are – local employment, usage of local produce and eco-friendly products in their properties. Connecting tourists with nature by way of plantation walks and treks to nearby areas, and sensitising them to protect nature as well as proper disposal of garbage, treatment and recycling of waste water, proper flow of sewage to avoid contaminating natural water bodies, and usage of solar power to supplement the electricity requirements should be implemented,” explains Somaiah.

Issuing a fixed number of visitor passes per day to some of the tourist spots like Bhagamandala and Talacauvery could also be considered.

Strict implementation of traffic rules must be undertaken by the police. Heavy vehicles like buses must be banned from entering the important towns in the district. Being a hilly region, roads are narrow and movement of heavy vehicles leads to traffic jams and congestion. Tourists who arrive in buses must be stopped from cooking on the roadside and sleeping in the buses. This does not contribute anything to the local economy but adds to the pollution and garbage. The local populace should be sensitised to the benefits of tourism to local economy and employment. To popularise personalised holidays, homestays should offer meaningful local experiences so that tourists can immerse themselves in the destination.

If these problems facing the local populace and the travel fraternity in Kodagu are tackled on a war footing by the government, this idyllic paradise will soon regain its former glory. It’s time to rethink, re-imagine and reboot in a more sustainable way to help save the natural beauty and peace of Kodagu. The need of the hour is responsible, planned and controlled tourism in Kodagu.

All pictures by Susheela Nair

Susheela Nair is an independent food, travel and lifestyle writer, and photographer based in Bangalore. She has contributed content, articles and images on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum, including guide books, brochures and coffee table books.

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