North India’s hills are feeling the heat too, but differently

Traffic jam at Saribal. Photo by Mike Prince/ Wikimedia Commons.
  • India recorded the hottest March in 122 years and since then, there has been hardly any relief from heatwave conditions.
  • To seek relief from severe heat, tens of thousands of tourists either visited or are going to the hill stations in northern India, causing massive traffic jams.
  • The rush of tourists from plains to hills has highlighted environmental issues plaguing the fragile Himalayas ecosystem such as water shortage and plastic pollution.
  • Experts say that tourism beyond the carrying capacity of such ecologically sensitive regions could cause irreversibly harm to the fragile ecosystem of these areas.

“No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn,” says author Hal Borland. But it seems in 2022, spring forgot its annual appointment with northern India as a usually pleasant March was replaced by an unusually hot March, which was the hottest in the last 122 years. In fact, on May 15, Delhi experienced the hottest day of the season with mercury crossing 49 degrees Celsius.

So, while the plains were burning and there was hardly any relief from the scorching sun, tens of thousands of tourists either visited or are planning to go to hill stations in Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. This has caused massive traffic jams and many experts say that tourism beyond the carrying capacity of such ecologically sensitive regions could cause irreversibly harm to the fragile ecosystem of these areas.

Raghu Chowdhary, CEO of Wowidays Hospitality and Tourism Pvt Ltd, said, “We usually count May and June as the peak season for summer holidays booking … but we saw a 200 percent increase in footfalls in March and April 2022 compared to last year.” He cited ‘revenge travel‘ and the early arrival of high temperatures for the skyrocketing demand in travel bookings to the Himalayan states of India.

According to him, the pent-up demand for travel due to COVID-19 restrictions last year changed people’s mindsets. “Now, people are not hesitating in spending money on domestic travel. They are choosing domestic travel over international,” Chowdhary shared.

He informed that Indians, in some instances, are now booking a Mumbai- Srinagar flight for as high as Rs. 50,000, which is more than double the average cost, and are even spending Rs. 500,000-600,000 on a domestic trip. “This wasn’t the case earlier. They don’t even mind travelling in the so-called offseason,” he added.

Chowdhary’s claim is supported by the official numbers released by Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department. The month of April recorded a footfall of around 413,198 visitors arriving at Srinagar International Airport, with 2,909 flight movements. The first week of May alone saw an inflow of 33,000 tourists. “Kashmir is witnessing a record footfall of tourists this year. We are thrilled to say that after two lean seasons, the valley saw more than 700,000 visitors, the highest in the last thirty years,” said Shaqoor Sheikh, the owner of Srinagar-based Nishat Tours and Travels.

The sharp tourism uptick is not limited to Kashmir alone. Tourist destinations in northern India such as Haridwar, Rishikesh, Shimla, Manali, Mussoorie, Nainital, and Dalhousie are packed with tourists. Hotels and homestays are running close to 100 percent capacity – weeks earlier than the usual peak season of mid-to-late May.

Hundreds of tourists gathered at a sunrise spot in Darjeeling. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay.
Hundreds of tourists gathered at a sunrise spot in Darjeeling. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay.

“The total population of Tehri is just 24,000, but we saw more than 100,000 tourists during the Good Friday long weekend,” said Avnish Dimri, a local resident of the Tehri region. According to him, there wasn’t a single room free that weekend, and ever since the heatwave intensified in the plains, the rush to the mountains has increased manifold.

The sharp rise in tourist arrivals is expected to rise further. Search queries and bookings for May-June have grown by 200 percent and 40 percent, respectively, compared to January-March, according to data from leading travel booking platforms and domestic airlines. Local travel authorities and people engaged in the tourism industry share a similar sentiment.

Rishi Raj Singh, the CEO of Kaudia Estate, states, “We are a luxury villa (Rs. 85,000 per night charge) based out of a slightly obscure place in Kanatal (Tehri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand). Yet we are completely sold out until June. We are forced to refuse new bookings. We have never seen this kind of demand.”

Read more: Climate change hits home as increasing heatwave days scorch India

Heatwave spiked pilgrimage too

Besides travelling for leisure, the heat has also caused a spike in pilgrims registering for the Char Dham Yatra in Uttarakhand. Harish Gaur, media in charge of the Badrinath-Kedarnath Temple Committee, said, 775,842 pilgrims undertook the Char Dham Yatra, visiting the shrines of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri in Uttarakhand, till May 20. This number is relatively high compared to last year’s number of pilgrims – about 500,000. The number is expected to increase further as the local administration has been asked to be prepared to handle over two million cars in the yatra months (May-October). At the moment, the yatra registrations have already been closed until June 1, 2022.

Travellers enroute Haridwar. The heat has caused a spike in pilgrims registering for the Char Dham Yatra in Uttarakhand. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay.
Travellers enroute Haridwar. The heat has also caused a spike in pilgrims registering for the Char Dham Yatra in Uttarakhand. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay.

While the travel industry is happy with the booming travel business, many are worried about the burgeoning problem of over-tourism. “All top hotels in Kashmir are booked till June. Rates have increased by thrice, yet tourists are suffering. The overall service has gone down because the demand is higher than the supply. There is a shortage of hotels, cars, and shikaras,” said travel and tour company owner Sheikh from Kashmir.

Chaman Panwar, a travel and tour operator based out of Delhi, said the taxi demand to Uttarakhand and Himachal has gone up significantly since April 2022. There are no taxis available, and his drivers often complain about long traffic jams that have become a common phenomenon in hills this year. “Earlier traffic jams used to happen during key holiday dates but now getting stuck for 2-3 hours in a 14-15 km jam has become a regular thing for my drivers during the Yatra season,” said Panwar. The rush has led to other issues related to parking, stay and fuel as well.

Amritabh Mukherjee, a tourist from Delhi, said he went to Kasauli with his friends to escape the heat and long weekend holiday crowd. “We deliberately planned our holiday in the week of April 22 to avoid the holiday rush of Good Friday long weekend (April 15-17). But to our surprise, we still got stuck in a two-hour-long traffic jam at 1:30 am on the Delhi-Chandigarh highway. And, traffic wasn’t the only issue, we couldn’t even find a hotel to stay in the main town. So, we had to stay two km before the Kasauli town,” Mukherjee said.

Whether it is Uttarakhand, Kashmir, Himachal or Ladakh, traffic jams seem to have become a constant feature in all the hill stations. Sheetal who works at the Prakriti Resort in Gangotri said the government advertised Char Dham Yatra in a big way but didn’t put systems in place to handle the large crowds.

Pilgrims at the Kedarnath temple. Photo by Atarax42/ Wikimedia Commons.
Pilgrims at the Kedarnath temple. The temples have been asked to be prepared to handle over two million cars in the yatra months this year (May-October). Photo by Atarax42/ Wikimedia Commons.

“We have guests that have booked their yatra since 2020, and they are facing problems in getting registrations for darshan. Tourists are disappointed with the local government’s inability to handle the situation,” she said while informing that prices have shot up, and traffic jams have become a daily routine – Uttarkashi to Gangotri stretch that took 2-3 hours now takes more than 6 hours to cross.

Read more: [Explainer] What are urban heat islands?

The collapse of the ecosystem in hill stations raises concern

The rush from plains to hills has also added to environmental woes such as damage to the fragile mountainous ecosystem, water shortage and plastic pollution.

“As tourism is a big industry, little or no attention is given to the environmental damage it does. Most people don’t adhere to norms on waste disposal, and so many vehicles coming increases ambient air pollution levels. Even the local hotels and homestays don’t follow the right waste disposal practices. We collect tons of plastic waste from pristine hills every year,” said Avnish Dimri.

Avnish, Shaqoor, and Sheetal all resonate with the same point – waste disposal has become all-pervasive.

In fact, a 2021 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change emphasises that going forward. mountain regions will be more prone to glacier lake outburst floods like the Chamoli disaster in Uttarakhand and cloudburst-like rains in Himachal Pradesh. The report states that rising temperature and melting glaciers will also have a severe impact on the global plant and animal species that have been already reeling under the effects of heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and floods.

The 2022 IPCC report further paints a worrying picture. It notes that climate change will increase in all regions in the coming decades, especially in South Asia and there will be an increase in heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons.

Krishna AchutaRao, a climate scientist from the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, who has been researching climate change since the 1990s, told Mongabay-India that “the current heatwave is consistent with what has been predicted under the climate change impact. What India is experiencing currently is due to warming of the earth.”

He warned that the worse is yet to come and said “as the earth warms, you can see more heat extremes happen. And, we will witness heat extremes occurring earlier to the season than we are used to – like this year, March-April witnessed the kind of heat we expect in May-June.”

Sharing the direct correlation between climate change and heatwaves, AchutaRao explained, “Over the last 20-30 years, we have witnessed increasing temperatures and the steady increase in heatwaves – the number of heatwaves, their duration and the intensity has been growing. In 2015, a severe heatwave killed over 2,500 people. Unsurprisingly, the number of heatwaves and heatwave-related mortalities is increasing. Anybody who can’t see the direct link between heat waves extremes and climate change has not followed the science.”

The residents, scientists and the travel community share a similar sentiment that the current state of tourism in the hills of northern India makes things very difficult. A long-term strategy to mitigate the impending disasters of climate change and over-tourism is urgently required.

Banner image: Traffic jam at Saribal. The traffic jams have increased manifold in Kashmir due to tourist rush. Photo by Mike Prince/ Wikimedia Commons.

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