Is it a Tourism Boom or Environmental Bust for Kashmir?

Tourism's promise and environmental challenges: Exploring the implications of India's G20 Summit in Kashmir.

Published: May 23, 2023  |  

South Asian journalist based in Kashmir


India’s hosting of the G20 Summit in the Indian-administered region of Kashmir brings both anticipation and concern, particularly regarding the region’s environment. This event will serve as the third G20 working group meeting on tourism held in Kashmir and will bring dignitaries from across the globe. While tourism promises substantial economic benefits and a needed boost to the region’s economy, there are legitimate concerns about its potential impact on the local environment.

India currently holds the status of president of G20, an intergovernmental bloc comprised of 19 countries and the European Union. The group accounts for roughly 80% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP).

India is looking to have the event boost the region’s tourism industry as it plans to take the delegates on a tour of the picturesque Himalayan valley. Officials from the Jammu and Kashmir administration reported that in 2022 18.8 million tourists visited the territory, making it the highest number in over three decades.

Environmental experts have questioned this rampant influx of tourists and highlighted that with an unrestricted number of visitors, there is a serious threat to the already highly fragile ecosystem. The mountainous region has faced severe environmental changes in the past few years, with rampant flooding, erratic rains, and high temperatures leading to major issues and the disruption of the production and cultivation of major agricultural crops. Jammu and Kashmir’s economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, which accounts for 82%.

Renowned conservationist and climate justice activist Dr. Shaikh Ghulam Rasool, speaking to New Thinking magazine, explained that allowing tourism without strict government limitations will adversely affect the land and alter its composition, adding, tourism infrastructure projects often lead to the conversion of agricultural land into hotels, resorts, and other tourist facilities, resulting in the loss of fertile land and an overall reduction in agricultural capacity.

Dr. Rasool highlighted that the growing number of visitors will worsen water scarcity, soil erosion, and pollution in the region. High tourism levels often result in excessive water extraction from rivers and underground sources, leading to shortages.

This situation forces farmers to rely on costly private water supplies or irrigation systems, which raise production costs. Additionally, increased traffic and tourist activities contribute to soil erosion and the damage of irrigation systems on agricultural land, ultimately leading to decreased crop yields. Moreover, tourism activities introduce pollution to the soil, water, and air, negatively impacting crop quality and adding to the already diminishing profits of farmers. 

After consecutive lockdowns, the revival of tourism in the region has brought hope to the roughly half a million people directly or indirectly involved in the Valley’s tourism industry. However, the unregulated construction associated with the tourism boom, particularly in renowned mountain resorts like Sonamarg, Pahalgam, and Gulmarg, threatens to transform Kashmir into an inhospitable climate disaster. 

Dr. Raja Muzaffar Bhat, founder, and chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir RTI Movement, emphasizes the crucial link between Kashmir’s tourism and its environment. He highlights that without a thriving environment, the tourism industry cannot sustain itself. Therefore, he advocates the implementation of sustainable models that prioritize the preservation of the environment, thereby ensuring the long-term viability of tourism.

While recognizing the importance of developing modern infrastructure to cater to the needs of the tourism industry, he underscores the importance of designing such infrastructure in an eco-friendly manner to protect the delicate ecology and environment of the valley.

As well, Jammu and Kashmir also lack policies related to tourism. Although there was a draft of the policy in 2020, it has yet to be passed. Indeed, a robust comprehension of the balance between investments and the environmental costs associated with such investments is key to the long-term stability of the region.

Furthermore, there is no clear segregation of data between domestic and international visitors, and it is essential to evaluate the investments made and the returns derived from them. The question arises: Is it worthwhile to persist with the current model, or should there be a contemplation on imposing restrictions on activities to secure long-term sustainability?

Some researchers have concluded that the growing number of tourists and pilgrims, along with agricultural waste, contribute to growing pollution in an area that serves as an important watershed in the Himalayas. A May 2015 study on sustainable tourism in Kashmir, published in the journal Elsevier, found that Pahalgam’s tourist flow in July was almost four times the “tourism carrying capacity” of the area.

According to an assessment report prepared by the Department of Environment, Ecology, and Remote Sensing after the September 2014 floods, ecological degradation across the territory is a catalyst for natural disasters such as landslides.

The study revealed that since 1992, Kashmir experienced a 10% decline in its forest cover due to the encroachment of tourism infrastructure into wooded areas. Despite hosting thousands of tourists each summer, the mountain resorts of Pahalgam, Gulmarg, and Sonamarg lack waste management infrastructure, resulting in significant waste accumulation. 

To address these issues, the administrations of Jammu and Kashmir must refine their approach and explore alternative sustainable tourism models. One such model could be inspired by Bhutan’s tourism sector, which is recognized as an exclusive destination that prioritizes authenticity, remoteness, and the preservation of its cultural heritage and natural environment.

The tourism industry in Bhutan is guided by the principle of sustainability, which emphasizes environmental and ecological friendliness, social and cultural acceptance, and economic viability.

In preparation for the event, Srinagar, the largest city and summer capital with a population of 1.4 million, is undergoing a 30 billion rupee ($366 million) transformation as part of a “smart city” scheme. However, Dr. Rasool expressed concerns about the approach, questioning the need to demolish existing infrastructure instead of renovating it with expert involvement. This not only impacts the environment, but also has financial implications.