Mass Tourism Wreaking Havoc in Gosainkunda Lake

Euro Asia Treks

June 12, 2024

Mass Tourism Wreaking Havoc in Gosainkunda Lake

Article by: Ms. Rabina Thapa – Béyul

Gosaikunda, a sacred lake steeped in myth and mystery, lies in the heart of Langtang Himal (7242 meters) amidst the rugged terrain of Rasuwa. Every year, thousands of devotees and travelers embark on this pilgrimage seeking adventure and spiritual solace. However, the escalating popularity of Gosaikunda as a trekking destination is causing massive harm to its biodiversity, posing a serious threat to its existence and ecology.

The glacial lake, situated at approximately 4,380 meters above sea level, is regarded as one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Hindus and Buddhists. Surrounded by lush green mountains, the celebrated lake is known for its untouched and wild existence, accompanied by a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Gosaikunda holds deep religious significance, particularly during the annual festival of Janai Purnima (the Hindu festival celebrated on the full moon day in the month of Shrawan, July-August), also known as Rakshya Bandhan. On that day, a sacred thread called rakhsya dhago is tied around the wrist as a symbol of protection and purity. Male participants from the Brahmin and kshetriya class also wear a janai, a sacred thread worn diagonally from the left shoulder to the right waist, crossing the chest, while many Hindus take a holy bath in sacred rivers, lakes, or ponds, believing it cleanses them of sins. Hindu scriptures like Bhagawat Gita, Bishnu Puran and Hindu epics like Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata mention Samundra Manthan (Sea exploring), which is directly related to the origin of Gosaikunda. It is believed that the lake originated when the Trishul (trident) thrown by the Lord Shiva pierced the ground, and Gangajal (supposedly holy water) filled the pond. According to local beliefs, immersing in the sacred water of Gosaikunda purifies one’s body, mind and soul.

Situated just 120 km north of the capital, Kathmandu, within Langtang National Park in Rasuwa District, the holy Gosaikunda Lake is a popular trekking destination for both national and international tourists over the past decade. During peak seasons like spring and autumn, stable weather conditions, clear skies, and excellent mountain views attract large numbers of visitors, resulting in overcrowded trails.

As a result, litter is strewn along the trekking trail every kilometer or so, near the tea stops, consisting cookie packages, biscuit wrappers, chocolate wrappers, discarded energy drink cans and alike. Hence, the natural beauty of the area has been diminished by the accumulation of the human generated waste over the course of several years. The lack of toilets and dumping facilities near Gosaikunda results in devotees and travelers frequently disposing of their waste in the nearby hills. During the festival of Janipurnima, hill close to the temporary huts at the lake becomes covered by excrement, leaving the waste with nowhere to go but downhill. Discarded plastic packages of offerings, scented sticks, water bottles, toilet papers, and even innerwears can be seen strewn around the lakeshore. Gosaikunda Rural Municipality does not possess comprehensive waste statistics, official dumping sites, or waste recycling initiatives, as per their records. This human activity, unbeknown to many, is impacting the essence of Gosaikunda and its very existence.

According to Nepal Tourism Board’s statistics for 2022, a total of 614,869 tourists from around the world visited Nepal across different seasons, staying an average of 13.1 days. In October 2023, Nepal received approximately 117,306 tourists, as reported by the Nepal Tourism Board. This number shows no signs of decreasing any time soon. Additionally, as per the Kathmandu Post, dated 3rd July 2019, Langtang experienced a record inflow of tourists during the fiscal year 2017-18, with an astounding 172,720 foreigners visiting the region. Detailed information about the number of domestic travelers in various regions remains insufficient. It is believed that during festival seasons, the number of internal tourists peaks at famous pilgrimage sites in the Himalayas like Gosaikunda, Badimalika, Muktinath, Swargadwari, and Pathivara. Despite good intentions, this paramount influx of tourists has distressed the natural well-being of the mountains, hills, lakes, and rivers for many years. Social media travel influencers, on the other hand, plays a crucial role in boosting the popularity of specific destinations each year by generating excitement about the food, local culture, scenic views, and ideal getaway experiences. This issue is widely recognized in many European countries, where it is termed “mass tourism” or “unbalanced tourism.”

What is mass tourism?

Mass tourism refers to the inflow of a significant number of individuals from different parts of the world who visit a particular destination, usually during the same time of the year. The target market for this type of tourism is made up of price-sensitive and cost-conscious travelers who seek a standardized tourist experience. Mass tourism is often the top choice for many travelers because it provides the cheapest means of going on a holiday, typically achieved by booking package deals either online or with the assistance of a travel agent (BBC).

In April 2024, a Japanese town, Fujikawaguchiko, announced plans to construct a substantial barrier to obstruct views of the famous Mount Fuji due to frustrations with badly-behaved masses of foreign tourists. Locals reported that tourists frequently vandalized private property to get the perfect shot of the iconic mountain, which led to increased noise pollution, road accidents, and littering. Additionally, there were concerns about tourists not respecting local customs and practices, posing a threat to the community’s way of life.

This situation highlights a growing problem in many popular tourist destinations where the influx of visitors overwhelms the local infrastructure and community. The Japanese government’s proactive approach in Fujikawaguchiko underscores the need to balance tourism’s economic benefits with the preservation of local culture and the well-being of residents. However, Nepal has remained perplexed by its ongoing aim to attract more tourists each year, such as through a “visit year” campaign.

How does Mass Tourism affect ecosystem or biodiversity?

The problem here is not the massive influx of tourists but the unmanaged and unbalanced tourism practices that have been prevalent in our nation for many years. The increasing number of tourists and lack of adequate waste disposal facilities in the mountain regions pose an urgent problem, hindering efforts at nature conservation.

Many tourists travelling to Himalayas are reluctant to carry their waste back with them. Additionally, there is a noticeable absence of organized waste collection, dumping sites, toilets, and sanitation facilities. Due to the increasing amount of modern waste, the route from Lukla to Everest Basecamp has earned the nickname “Toilet Paper Trail” as reported by the Nepali Times. The waste generated by tourists year after year ends up in open pits, landfills, or scattered across the landscape, leading to water and soil contamination, aesthetic pollution, and environmental degradation.

Such activities take a significant toll on the environment, harming the area’s natural beauty and biodiversity, and presenting intensive risks to the community. Surface water is the main source of water for almost half (48.31%) of Nepal’s population, as indicated by a 2019 report from the Department of Water Supply and Sewerage Management (DWSSM). The excessive use of water resources due to mass tourism intensifies the problem of water scarcity, deteriorates water quality, increases wastewater production and heightens water pollution.

In the Himalayas, repeated use of the same trails causes trampling, leading to physical damage to the soil and vegetation, exacerbating harm to the delicate ecosystem and land degradation. Moreover, these activities put a significant strain on regional resources such as food, energy, and raw materials, including firewood, herbs, wildflowers, Himalayan bamboo, and other scarce mineral resources.

As a developing nation where tourism significantly contributes to our income, Nepal cannot afford to completely deter tourists from the Himalayas. The tourism industry contributed about 6.7 percent to Nepal’s GDP, with a total impact of US$2.2 billion as reported by World Bank in year 2022. That being said, concerned authorities must not overlook the long-term impacts of mass tourism on our community, culture, and natural beauty in pursuit of short-term profits.

What is the urgency?

Tourism is the largest employer in Nepal and the biggest income earner in the Himalayan regions. According to an analytical study on tourism released by the Central Bureau of Statistics, Nepal’s tourism industry provides 371,140 direct and indirect jobs.

It is crucial to recognize that tourists mainly come to Nepal to experience the peace of the mountains and the grandeur of the Himalayas. A report from the Nepal Tourism Board, 2023, states that 15.2% of tourists visiting Nepal come for trekking and climbing, while 13.1% come for visiting pilgrimages. The biodiversity of the mountainous region is deteriorating rapidly due to the waste generated and harm caused by mass tourism. In a TED talk, Doug Lansky outlined that if we do not come up with a better strategy, we will not be able to save tourism from itself. Hence, if we lose our mountains, we will also lose the tourists.

Overconsumption associated with tourism significantly impacts the local community, resulting in the loss of culture, heritage, and resources. This phenomenon is evident in Pokhara, Nepal’s second-largest city. As tourism grows, Ghandruk village in the Annapurna Rural Municipality is at risk of losing its original identity.

Concrete hotels and resorts have replaced traditional Gurung houses, jeopardizing the village’s future tourism prospects and its indigenous Rodhi culture—a longstanding Gurung community tradition of folk music, singing, and dancing. The increase in visitors has also led to a surge in solid waste generation in the village, at an alarming rate of 261.3 grams per capita per day. Furthermore, agricultural activity has gone down significantly in recent years, forcing the community to rely on market-bought agricultural products. These trends illustrate how communities grapple with the impact of mass tourism on their way of life and the environment.

How do we manage mass tourism?

Managing mass tourism may appear to be a straightforward issue—just controlling the flow of tourists in specific areas. In reality, it requires significant changes from individuals, businesses, and policymakers alike. And implementing these changes can be particularly difficult in the context of Nepal.

A potential change to tourism recent pattern could be:

Devising Effective Policy:

In 2023, the government of Nepal set a target of attracting one million foreign tourists. It is crucial for government to recognize that every destination has a specific carrying capacity, beyond which the benefits of tourism begin to degrade. To ensure the best outcomes for every possible destination, the government should focus on bottom-up management and development of tourism rather than a top-down approach.

One effective strategy is Community-Based Tourism (CBT). CBT empowers local communities to take the lead in tourism management, resulting in more effective and sustainable tourism practices. By allowing communities to drive tourism initiatives, CBT ensures that tourism development aligns with local needs and capacities, promoting rapid and sustainable growth.

Promoting Responsible Tourism:

The first step we can take is to raise awareness about responsible travel. We need to protect the very things that the tourists come to see and make tourism a well-rounded source of income. From the base level, we can empower tourists to make more informed decisions. Being mindful of the impacts their travel has on local destinations in all areas – social, cultural, environmental, and economic – is key to achieving this.

Making environmental management a team effort in tourism helps foster a sense of collective responsibility. By promoting awareness and fostering a cultural responsibility among travelers, we can work towards making tourism a more well-rounded source of income that benefits both local communities and the destinations they visit. Ultimately, an aware tourist is a responsible tourist.

Developing basic amenities balance of Quality and Quantity:

There’s a tendency to believe that more is better, but more tourists do not necessarily mean more profit, as it comes with associated externalities, mostly negative, such as increased demand for water, energy, and waste management. Over the past several years, there has been a noteworthy surge in tourists from India, China, and Bangladesh, whereas previously, the majority of foreign tourists came from the United States, Europe, and Japan.

That implies we are appealing to a segment of the tourist market that prioritizes affordability. This sector is primarily drawn to low-cost airfares, relatively inexpensive accommodation, affordable food and beverages, and favorable weather. Seeking quantity in tourism mainly involves providing services at lower costs, often at the expense of the environment. These practices are harming the environment and worsening the climate crisis.  Instead, we should focus on elevating the tourism experience by safeguarding its existence.

The tourism image can be improved by prioritizing quality instead of quantity, as suggested by the Bangkok Post. Thus, by striking the right balance between quantity and quality, our government can present Nepal as a premier tourist destination. Achieving this goal requires effective regulation of all stakeholders to ensure their services adhere to professional standards.

CSR in businesses:

Businesses have a certain responsibility towards their locality, often referred to as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). It is crucial for businesses not to be so profit-centric that they end up destroying the very assets they depend on. Every business should integrate a sustainability agenda into their business model and actively participate as a catalyst for sustainability in their locality or destination. This includes effectively mitigating the impacts of mass tourism.

For instance, consider a five-star hotel that provides small plastic bottles of shampoo, use-and-throw toothbrushes, and small plastic-wrapped soaps for each guest in a room. This practice can cause significant environmental harm, multiplied by the daily inflow of tourists. To mitigate this, hotels can adopt eco-friendly techniques such as installing refillable dispensers for shampoo, conditioner, and soap in guest rooms and providing biodegradable or reusable toothbrushes and other amenities.

Influential role of tourism Stakeholders:

Stakeholders in tourism must realize that they are the first individuals to lose the most as a result of mass tourism. These stakeholders, ranges from government bodies and tourism board to travel agencies, local communities, taxi operator, tourism vloggers and so on.  Interconnected like a complex web ─When one suffers, this effect has a ripple effect that impacts individuals, businesses, and the nation as a whole in the long term.

By captivating travelers’ imaginations, tourism stakeholders have the power to reshape the industry and transform a destination. Thus, each stakeholder, whether at the federal or local level, should be responsible, active, and proactive at their own platform to alleviate the consequences of mass tourism. Stakeholders must actively participate in all aspects of development, planning, and management related to their destination. They should make effort to shape the future of their destination by collaborating effectively with the host community, while also maintaining active engagement to clearly convey their objectives.

We can take an example of the successful initiatives like, “100% Pure New Zealand”. Highlighting the nation’s pristine landscapes and outdoor pursuits, this campaign solidified New Zealand’s status as a leader in eco-tourism, enticing a growing number of nature-loving tourists worldwide.

While Nepal being a home to majestic mountains, welcomes thousands of tourists each year, this influx is both a blessing and a disguise. The economic benefits and cultural exchanges are significant, yet they come with environmental degradation and social challenges. Without intervention, those societal and ecological vulnerabilities only get worse. Nepal has the potential to maximize the positive impacts of tourism by implementing sustainable tourism practices and strategic planning, such as responsible waste disposal, conservation initiatives, community engagement, cultural preservation, and the development of sustainable infrastructure.

“To enhance the experience for both travelers and destinations, a need for new, eco-friendly, and sustainable approach is essential” Doug Lansky said.

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