Can tourism become climate-resilient?

By Radhika Kothari

Sikkim, based in the Eastern Himalayas of India, is considered a ‘biodiversity hotspot’. It has myriad ecosystems, floral and faunal diversity, abundant water resources like streams, rivers and glaciers, and vast stretches of pristine natural forests. Livelihoods and cultures are also extremely dependent on this natural setting, making it a popular tourist destination.

Yumthang Valley, India

Yumthang Valley, India

Sikkim’s high-altitude valleys of Lachen and Lachung have greatly contributed to the state’s increasing popularity since the early 1990s. The famed attractions include the Yumthang Valley, Gurudongmar Lake, Green Lake, the rhododendron blooms, and sightings of high-altitude species like the red panda, blue sheep, Tibetan gazelle and the elusive snow leopard. Both valleys host a large number of domestic tourists between March and April every year.

In recent times, tourism has become one of the mainstays of the local economy, with an increasing trend of local communities shifting from their traditional farming practices to tourism – building hotels and lodges or giving their lands on lease. Patches of agricultural land lying barren and fallow are common scenes in the Lachung Valley. Even the Reconstruction of Earthquake Damaged Rural Houses Scheme implemented after the 2011 earthquake in the region is being utilized to construct extra rooms to promote homestays in both valleys. While the number of tourists has certainly multiplied in summer, improved accessibility in winter has also increased tourist numbers from November to early January, a previously non-existent trend. The immediate and lucrative business of tourism is greatly persuading locals to give up on less profitable farming and highly intensive pastoral activities.

A recent vulnerability assessment in the region, conducted by WWF India, shows that climate change can greatly impact the tourism industry. Increased temperatures in the region create greater accessibility and promote exploration of newer sites within the valleys, ultimately boosting tourism. Conversely, natural resources like forests, glaciers, wetlands etc. on which tourism is dependent, are highly vulnerable to climate change. A simple attraction like the snow-clad mountains could lose their worth due to rapid snowmelt. The villagers are already reporting the mountains surrounding the villages, which were snowbound throughout the year, now are snowfree during tourist season. While climate change in the high-altitudes is usually considered to have a positive impact thanks to the favorable conditions for agricultural production, tourism is likely to suffer with melting snow on mountains, change in rhododendrons blooms, degrading forests, wetlands, etc. Additionally, increasing natural disasters would have an impact on infrastructure such as roads, which would be a serious impediment for tourism promotion.

So how do you plan an adaptation strategy for an increasingly popular livelihood option that is entirely governed by external forces? Can tourism become climate-resilient? How do you include preferences into climate adaptation planning? How can you ensure tourism remains a sustainable livelihood option? These are the key questions arising as we try to find solutions to make Sikkim’s high altitude communities and their livelihoods more resilient to climate change.

The possible answers lie in designing a model that integrates multi-disciplinary approaches. An integrated livelihood adaptation plan that harnesses socio-ecological systems, thereby ensuring communities and their livelihoods are more resilient to climate change.

In the case of Lachen and Lachung, sustainable tourism practices have to be encouraged rather than mass tourism. We also need to incorporate potential climate impacts into ecosystem restoration and natural resource management while also encouraging alternative sustainable livelihoods. Additionally, we need to advocate for climate resilient infrastructure and get various institutions and governmental departments to play a proactive role. While planning, we must be able to look at the entire spectrum of socio-ecological systems that a livelihood is depended on, and coherently adopt an integrated livelihood adaptation plan. This should incorporate multiple perspectives, and ensure that there isn’t an over-dependence on tourism, as it is subject to seasonality and market fluctuations, natural disasters, hazards etc.

This may seem like a complicated solution to an already complicated system, but each strategy or action needs to be further developed locally with communities, district and state level stakeholders with the big picture in mind i.e., to make tourism more resilient to climate change under increasing threats from climate and development in the Sikkim high-altitudes.