Tourism Nilgiris – Less is More - Part 1

This is a two part story on the negative impact of mass tourism to the Nilgiri mountains of South India. The first part is a small ground level report with inputs from key stakeholders, while the second part is the background.

Garbage ruins beautiful Sandynallah or Kamaraj Sagar Dam Ooty. 

The district administration in the Nilgiris is all aflutter. The news is that the President of India might be visiting the hill station. Shobana Chandrashekar, the founder of Make Ooty Beautiful (MOB), an organization which has taken on the unthankful task of cleaning up Ooty, says that cleaning operations are being ramped up in time for the visit.

MOBs Garbage Collection drive Photo courtesy Shobana Chandrashekar

Ooty town itself generates a lot of waste which finds its way into streams, canals and even into the once pristine forests. Chandrashekar says that a lot of garbage is generated from households, businesses and also from the tourists. She says that a large number of traders come up from the plains, set up their business on the sidewalks and throw their rubbish there.

In neighbouring Coonoor, Samantha Iyanna and Jude Thaddeaus have taken on the task of litter policing; requesting and shaming litterbugs into picking up their trash. Citizens’ efforts, excellent as they are, are not enough.
Garbage in a residential area Coonoor Photo courtesy Samantha Iyanna
Recently, the District Collector told Times of India, “Scope for developing infrastructure in Ooty is very minimal. Within the given limit, we are trying our level best to provide more facilities to the tourists. We are looking for new places for parking lots as vehicle inflow is on the rise.”

Every minister who visits the Nilgiris promises that he will do his utmost to increase tourism to the hills. Increasing tourist arrivals, developing new infrastructure is not the answer. Neither are promises to introduce chopper services and cable cars. While, making ghastly fruit and flower effigies at the annual flower and fruit show is an affront to one’s artistic sensibilities it is also a criminal waste, especially in a poor country like ours.

It is not just the authorities who have to rethink their tourism policy; the local people have to be convinced that this mass descent of the hordes will only destroy their unique ecosystem. It is important that the locals understand that preservation is the key to survival and what they have to urgently save is something ethereal like the “half English Neilgherry air”.

Thomas Innasimuthu, a Coonoor based taxi driver has already understood this. He says that he has stopped taking groups on local sightseeing trips to Coonoor’s beauty spots. Earlier, it would take an hour or so, but now there is so much traffic that a local trip takes three to four hours. The long weekend over the April 30 and May 1 proved to be a disaster, as traffic was blocked in Charing Cross for more than three hours. His long trips to Coimbatore airport have also come down as he is able to do just one a day.

Nikhil Suresh, hotelier and restaurateur also feels the need for some regulations but at the same time is concerned; the season (April and May, September and December) is when the hotels in the hills make some money. The rest of the year, he said they are paying out- staff salaries, maintenance and so on. But he too agrees that the day trippers are not the ones who frequent his restaurants.      

A tourism impact study on tourist receipts which will bring out the per-day-spend of a tourist will help illustrate this point. It is obvious that day trippers who come in monster buses do not spend money in the hill stations. They cook their own food, throw the disposable plates on the road side, defecate under the rhododendrons and depart in a cloud of diesel fumes. At the most, all they spend on will be the entry ticket to the gardens.

The goal must be to attract the more discerning tourist, who will smell the air, taste local delicacies, shop for Toda embroidery and silverware, tea, eucalyptus oil or wild honey. The kind of tourist, who goes on long hikes, climbs mountains or looks at the birds.

Many environmental sensitive places such as the Machu Picchu in Peru have restricted the number of visitors and also made it mandatory that groups hire a local guide, ensuring that money comes in to the local people. Preservation is the key in such situations. Citizens can’t do this, only the Government can. The goal of tourism to Nilgiris should be “less is more”.

To be continued.

Read Part 2: A biosphere under siege


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