Pushing the hills off the cliff: Why mass tourism is not good for the Nilgiris

The hill district is increasingly dependent on tourism for economic sustenance, but reckless tourists can spell doom for its ecology.
Pushing the hills off the cliff: Why mass tourism is not good for the Nilgiris
Pushing the hills off the cliff: Why mass tourism is not good for the Nilgiris
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The main money-spinner of the Nilgiris, the tea industry, is in a tailspin. Except for a few large corporate tea companies making high quality or boutique teas, the small grower and manufacturer is not making enough money, and mass tourism is being eyed as the economic lifeline of the hill district. But the ecological and cultural impact, and changing economics of tourism, show why mass tourism must not be the answer to the economic sustenance of the region.  

Though the Nilgiris is now a year-round destination, during the months of April and May, the traditional tourist ‘season’ arrivals peak. The season is eyed with trepidation by residents and hope by the commercial establishments. Trepidation, because these tourists rush in to breathe the fresh mountain air and leave behind dense diesel fumes and heaps of garbage, which the long-suffering administration and people’s groups like Make Ooty Beautiful (MOB) struggle to clear. Hope, because for the small businesses in the district, this is the time to make a profit.

The number of people visiting this ecologically fragile mountain district has been increasing over the years. In 2014, the footfalls at the Government Botanical Gardens in Ooty was 23.4 lakh and in 2017 the numbers went up to 32.69 lakh.  The season of 2018 promises an even higher count. Coonoor is not far behind, with 30 lakh tourists visiting the second largest town in the district, annually. 

Safe and green tourism 

This year, the district administration has put in several measures to ensure that the life of residents does not get too disrupted, though disrupted it will. Several roads have been made one-ways to make for safer travel. 

J. Innocent Divya, the young, proactive Collector of the Nilgiris has initiated a number of steps to help manage the summer onslaught. A green tax of Rs 20 per vehicle will be levied on tourist vehicles entering the district. Residents say that this amount is too small, and the collection has to be enforced at the entry points.

A ban on single-use plastics came into effect in January this year, along with a promise that action will be taken against tourists bringing these items into the district. Innocent Divya told TNM that this ban was necessitated by the spread of dengue in Tamil Nadu, as receptacles made of laminated paper, plastic and thermocol tend to retain water, making it an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. Besides ban on plastic, there is also a ban on carrying gas cylinders for cooking in the wild.

From May 1, the district administration will impose a fine of Rs 1,000 for littering. The policing will be done by local citizens’ groups, called the Green Brigade, who will be given ID cards and authorised to collect the fines. 

Ralliah Dam. Image: Samantha Iyanna

Innocent Divya says that this year tourist buses and Tempo Travellers will not be allowed into Ooty town. These vehicles must be parked at designated points. Smaller buses belonging to private operators and also to the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation will provide transportation inside the town. Commercial Street, the hill town’s Carnaby Street, will be closed to vehicles during the tourist season.

All residents face this onslaught of the summer visitors. It is not an elitist problem but one of overcrowding, destruction of the environment, stretching human resources (police and civic) and severe pollution.

The greatest predicament for residents is the gigantic mounds of garbage. The municipal administration in the towns of Ooty, Coonoor and Kotagiri do not have the resources to cope with the detritus not just in the towns, but along the roadsides outside towns. At the annual events such as the Flower, Fruit and Vegetable Shows, the garbage reaches monstrous proportions. The Flower Show, a three-day event will be inaugurated on May 18 at the Government Botanical Gardens, while the Fruit Show in Sim’s Park, Coonoor will be held on May 26 and 27 and the Vegetable Show at Nehru Park, Kotagiri on May 5 and 6. There is to be a Spice Show in Gudulur too, for three days beginning May 11.

These shows have evolved into huge melees attracting thousands of tourists. Normal life in the hills comes to a standstill. Residents stock up on essentials and go into lockdown mode. When asked if the time has not come to do away with these events, Innocent Divya said that the people enjoy these events and look forward to it, but added, “Eventually one has to think about the future too!”

Can the Nilgiris handle this?

One resident of Ooty who did not wish to be named said that it might be better if these special shows were stretched over a month; that way the crowd is spread out through the month. The destination being so fragile, one must keep in mind the carrying capacity of the Nilgiris. Many seminal studies have been done on this important subject, but, even without these studies, it is obvious even to the untrained eye that the basic definitions of carrying capacity laid down by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation are breached.

Though there are weaknesses in calculating the carrying capacity of a place and implementing, as a basic instrument to determine the numbers a site can accommodate, it is worth exploring. The Physical Carrying Capacity (PCC) stipulates that there should be around 1m space per person so that he or she can move around. It also helps calculate the maximum number of tourists that can fit on the site at a particular time. Beyond that, wear and tear start to take place and environmental problems arise. In the case of the Botanical Gardens and Sim’s Park, this should be fairly easy to calculate but implementing it would be another issue.

Tourism is one industry where the trickle-down effect is often discussed. Economic Carrying Capacity is about the extent to which a tourist destination is able to accommodate tourists without the loss of local activities. It is also used to describe how the increased revenue from tourism receipts is offset by inflation caused by tourism.

Dwindling profits

But, sadly the trickle-down effect is slowing. Take the local taxis, for instance. Until a few years ago, the operators made their maximum profits during the season. Today, they find the number of hires has reduced, as a large number of holidaymakers drive up in their own vehicles. Even the number of passengers to be picked up and dropped from Coimbatore airport has decreased, as cabbies are not able to make more than one trip a day; mainly because of the one way and the heavy traffic on the ghat road.

Hotels in the hill towns see business through the year and occupancy rates are above average. There is, however, no spectacular spike during the season. The restaurants do see a rush during the season but not remarkable, considering the numbers that flock into the district. On further analysis, one finds that a vast majority are day trippers who carry their own food, or cook and picnic on the roadside, paying for no local produce. But, they do leave behind stacks of inorganic garbage.

The number of footfalls into Ooty is calculated by ticket sales at the Botanical Gardens. According to a Times of India report, last year, the revenue generated at the Botanical Gardens and the Rose Garden went up by 50% and was reported to be more than Rs 10 crore. However, the income generated from ticket sales is sent to the central pool, of which only a small percentage comes back to the Nilgiris. Residents’ associations feel that the revenue generated in the district must be used to fund development work such as solid waste management systems, water distribution and road repair in the Nilgiris, which will have a long-term benefit for the local populace.

Another major attraction in the Nilgiris is the 110-year-old Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Thousands of people travel on the NMR experiencing the thrill of travelling on the only rack and pinion railway in India and soaking in the beauty of the mountains as the train snakes its way up the hills. There are a number of small picturesque stations on the way which sadly lack modern toilets or other facilities. The journey up is often enlivened with the presence of a wandering herd of elephants or is disrupted by an unprecedented landslide. But, that is the mountain railway and it should be left as it is. Unfortunately, there are talks of air-conditioned coaches and distributing tetra pack drinks and snacks to passengers. Local NGOs question the wisdom of it, as all along the train route are discarded plastic bottles, laminated juice boxes, plastic packets and other garbage. Instead, the government should plan on upgrading the facilities at the small railway stations.

Disrespect to wildlife and culture 

Thorthey Goodden, the founder of Katpoof Nature Walks, a government-approved tourist guide, talking about the cultural insensitivity of visitors, says tourist vehicles unaware of the importance and sanctity of the place, drive and park on hallowed ground in their Toda village, close to Ooty. He says, “You do not wear shoes when you enter a Toda village, because the very ground is sacred. But nobody is bothered.” Plastic litter clogs their streams and water bodies, but regardless, is strewn around. “The tourists are not interested in the way of life of the Toda and Badaga communities”, he added.  Noise pollution such as honking, loud music that blares out of tourist vehicles should be discouraged, a resident said. 

The ongoing man-animal conflict is compounded by ignorance and hysteria. The gaur or Indian bison (Bos gaurus), which is a massive yet timid animal roams freely in Coonoor town. One wildlife warden said that the gaur was a shy animal but has now overcome its shyness having been around humans. There have been many bison-related deaths because the private space of this animal has not been respected.

Gaur spotted on Cornwall Road

Gaur spotted outside Pasteur Institute 

Images: Jude Thaddaeus

One incident in Sim’s Park was particularly tragic and fatal. A bison gored a young girl on her honeymoon as she tried to take a selfie with the gaur. In an attempt to make the park safe, park authorities uprooted a 60-year-old evergreen hedge to build a wall. However, townspeople are of the opinion that it is now more unsafe for humans, as the gaur cannot move off the road into the park when faced with humans. The other wild animals which come close to human habitation are leopards, elephants and wild boar. 

Coonoor has been facing water scarcity for some time now. Many parts of the town get drinking water only once in 10 days at the best of times and at the worst, once in 20 days. This problem escalates during the season.

Water woes

Jabarathnam TA, President of the Coonoor Citizen’s Forum, says that the problem is not so much with the lack of water as with the distribution pipelines which do not have adequate control and operation valves which are essential in a hilly terrain. Last year’s monsoon was adequate and Ralliah Dam which is the principal storage for Coonoor town has sufficient water, but many distribution pipes lie broken and are in disrepair, causing wastage. It is a common sight to see water from broken pipes running down the road like a mountain stream.

Rohit Jain, Joint Secretary of the Nilgiri Chamber of Commerce, says that though the number of tourist arrivals has increased, the infrastructure, in terms of hospitals, roads, pavements, transport, water supply and drainage, has not. There is an urgent need to address this issue. The markets in Ooty and Coonoor are dying for want of better infrastructure. These places could be developed into tourist friendly places, with cafés, open air theatres, and clean toilets.

Ralliah Dam. Image: Samantha Iyanna

Shobana Chandrasekar of MOB says that besides catering just for the tourists, some measures have to be taken on a long-term basis, such as solid waste management which has to be tackled on a war footing.

“It is irresponsible and unsustainable to keep loosening our belt to accommodate more and more. It is time to start imagining a better alternative. Change will need to occur at the grassroots level, with all stakeholders seeing the Nilgiris not as a resource to be exploited, but as a sacred place to be protected and celebrated for its uniqueness,” she says. 

Every time one talks to a resident of the Nilgiris, one comes away with the feeling that they are paying a heavy price for the fresh mountain air, an occasional glimpse of the kurinji flowers or a burst of rain lilies. Will the price of mass tourism be that the residents of the Nilgiris will lose all of it?

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