The coronavirus pandemic has hit the Indian travel and tourism industry at the time when it was witnessing a blooming growth every year. Especially with the government suspending all visas, the economic impact is assessed to run into loss of thousands of crores. According to industry chamber CII, this is one of the worst crises ever to hit the Indian tourism industry impacting all its geographical segments – inbound, outbound and domestic, almost all tourism verticals.

The December holiday season of 2019 took an estimated hit of almost 40-50 per cent, the holiday season of April to July 2020 is likely to take a humongous hit which could be as high as 80-100 per cent, unless there is positive news of the progression of virus decreasing, the CII assessment report said.

Amidst it, adverse effect on tourism sector due to coronavirus is also giving rise to the discussion of its positive impact on various environmental issues that arose out of indiscriminate growth of tourism in India each year, especially in the fragile Himalayan region comprising of several hill stations and cities like Shimla, Mussoorie, Nainital, Darjeeling and others.

Micro studies and extrapolations suggest that tourism and hotels in India account for about 30% of waste from an estimated 62 million tones generated by the nation annually. This is indeed a disproportionately large volume of waste by a single sector. And it shows no signs of decreasing when there is neither a strategic engagement by the travel & tourism industry.

Tourism in places like Ladakh boosts the industry but visitors produce thousands of pounds of trash each year. More than 30,000 plastic water bottles per day are dumped in open-air landfills in Ladakh each summer. Recently 24000 Pounds of waste was hauled off by a cleanup crew from Mt. Everest which included empty oxygen cylinders, plastic bottles, cans, batteries, food wrappings, fecal matter, kitchen waste and dead human Bodies.

Melting of Glaciers is speeding up the desertification of the Western Himalayas and trekkers hiking the mountains don’t give alpine valleys a chance to recover leading to a decline in the wildlife population. Gallons of untreated sewage is being flown down in the Ganges every day, which originates from Himalayan Uttarakhand. Tourism industry overuses water resources for hotels, swimming pools, personal use by the visitors leading to water depletion. The IHR might be staring at a grave water crisis, as also warned by Niti Aayog. The examples of the same have been observed during the past summer years in famous tourist destinations like Shimla, Mussoorie and Nainital. With the government promoting increased air connectivity in the mountain landscape, air travel can lead to an indiscriminate increase in CO2 emission in the environment.

A huge hit to the tourism sector in the Himalayan region due to coronavirus might give a reality check on how tourism has been giving rise to many socio-environmental problems? But what if it does not exist anymore? Are we moving again with the same unregulated rise in the tourism industry? There are lots of conversations towards capping the visitors but there is no standard regulation towards it. There is an alarming need to regulate our tourism industry to ensure that it grows in a sustainable manner and there is minimal effect on the Himalayan ecology.

(Author is working with the Research and Communications team at SDC Foundation)