The Madding Crowd: Is Overtourism Ruining Darjeeling's Magic?

Darjeeling is overrun by lakhs of tourists for almost seven months in a year. We spoke to key stakeholders to find out what's being done to protect it from further damage
Darjeeling has been a popular hill station since the British era
Darjeeling has been a popular hill station since the British eraShutterstock

Darjeeling's identity as a summer hill station was set up by the British, who wanted to recreate something close to their home country's mist-laden rolling hills. After Independence, the "Queen of Hills" was a preferred destination for people from the plains with means who could enjoy their summer holidays in pleasant climes. The tourist destination has always drawn droves of tourists, however, now, the hill station and adjoining areas are struggling to host lakhs of visitors in peak season. The crowds are good news for those in the hospitality industry, but, as elsewhere, overtourism is resulting in many issues impacting the fragile ecosystem and local lives.

Unsustainable Numbers

In April this year, media reports said all hotels in Darjeeling were booked to capacity. Prior to the lockdown, the hill station had between 550,000 to 600,000 tourists each year. According to business analysis conducted by The India Watch, the Darjeeling tourism market is valued at over USD 100 million. Reports quote official figures as 7.5 lakh domestic tourists and 42,000 foreign tourists in 2019.

A View To Kill?

It's difficult to get a view of the mountain peaks
It's difficult to get a view of the mountain peaksChaitali Mitra/Shutterstock

With the increase in tourist numbers, new construction of accommodation and facilities have led to forest land being cleared. "There is a land scarcity within the municipality area. So all hotel buildings are gaining height vertically and exceeding the permissible building height as per the Bengal Municipal Act," says Bharat Prakash Rai, Secretary, Federation of Societies for Environmental Protection (FOSEP), which primarily seeks to address the challenges of biodiversity conservation in the fragile ecosystems of the Darjeeling hills and the Kanchenjunga landscape. "As a result, Darjeeling town has become like a fort with no views of Mt Kanchenjunga or the greenery of the tea gardens."

"Solid and liquid waste management has been a regular problem in the Darjeeling Municipality Area. Now, the extra load from tourists is getting beyond the management capability of the municipality," he explains.

Hours On The Road

People can get stuck for hours in Darjeeling traffic
People can get stuck for hours in Darjeeling traffic Tanmoythebong/Shutterstock

Another major issue is the severe congestion on roads in and around the hill station. Recently, a video by a foreign tourist went viral, where he expressed his disappointment, stating he would never recommend visiting Darjeeling because of the unbearable traffic congestion.

Bisan Rai, who has been running Nilam Homestay in Rangaroon Tea Garden for around a decade, says the overtourism issue has peaked in the past three years or so. "The traffic is so bad that our guests cannot come back in time for meals. There have been instances when people have missed their trains and flights because of the jams. Now, most people have to start very early in the morning to avoid the traffic."

Even the daily life of residents is affected, he laments. "People from our village who have to do errands or go to work get stuck for hours. Sometimes they just turn back, and head back home out of sheer frustration."

Bharat Prakash Rai points out that tourists mostly sign up for the usual point-to-point sightseeing tours, which can be done in a day or two. But if they are stuck for hours on the road, they cannot visit most places on the itinerary. And due to budget and time constraints, they cannot stay for too long. As vehicular population increases, so does noise and air pollution in the region, leading to health issues.

Drying Water Supply

As construction increases, so does demand for water
As construction increases, so does demand for waterABIR ROY BARMAN/Shutterstock

Overtourism has had the unfortunate consequence of exacerbating Darjeeling's water scarcity issues. Water problems are acute andlocals suffer due to overuse by the hotels and homestays. According to some research studies, Darjeeling's total water consumption is 75 million litres per day, while overall supply is 24 lakh litres per day, with a deficit of 50 lakh litres per day—and the demand for water rises significantly with the influx of tourists. According to a study, Darjeeling now boasts a robust water industry. From April to June, a fleet of 105 trucks conducts three or four journeys every day, each carrying 5,500 to 6,500 gallons of water.

Building Homestays

Community-based homestays, which are growing across the region, may offer a solution, says Asit Biswas, founder of Help Tourism, a responsible tourism organisation in east and northeast India. “The one way to relieve the burden of overtourism is to decentralise and not have all hotels and resorts in one cluster in the town,” he says. “By encouraging homestays in villages, crowds get dispersed and the local economy also benefits. The impact of tourism is less.”

However, several others, like Bhaskar Prakash Rai, flag the problems that the influx of tourists in remote village areas has created. "People are getting increasingly involved in homestay businesses in rural areas, as it is lucrative. This has led to neglect of agriculture, dairy, pig and goat farming, etc. They are now dependent on food items from the plains to feed tourists. Also, due to the presence of tourists in huge numbers in forests and remote, isolated villages, the biodiversity of these areas are greatly threatened.”

What The Hill Council Is Doing

The Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) is looking at resolving overtourism issues through various measures. "Darjeeling is overloaded now due to the number of visitors," says Anit Thapa, Chief Executive, GTA. "During tourism season, which now stretches across seven months, almost 7,000 domestic and international tourists visit Darjeeling town every day resulting in huge traffic congestion. It sometimes takes almost three hours to reach Darjeeling town from Ghoom, which is a mere 7 km away."  

The population of the metropolitan area of Darjeeling on a given day during the tourist season is about 2 lakh, consisting of the residents, visitors for work and tourists, says Thapa. "This puts huge pressure on the town considering that the British had developed Darjeeling town as a sanitarium to accommodate only a few thousand Britishers  to recuperate." 

The GTA has proposed to the government to construct two alternative roads to ease the traffic congestion, explains Thapa. These consist of 35 km of road from Lebong to Triveni at Teesta Bazar, and 14 km of road from Lebong to the 3rd Mile via Pandam and Rangeroon.

The GTA has also sent a proposal to the West Bengal government for the construction of a road from Sukhia to Bunkulung so that the people residing in the Sukhiaphokhari area can use the road instead of taking the Ghoom route to travel to Siliguri. A road from Rangbull to Darjeeling is also in the works—a meeting is going to be scheduled with all the stakeholders soon.                 

As parking is an issue and shortage of space leads to congestion, the GTA has also requested the DM of Darjeeling to identify and transfer 35,000 sq feet of land to construct a multi-level parking space near Chitray area of Darjeeling town. They have also located suitable land near Ghoom to construct a multi-level parking space.

"We have written to the government to increase the existing level of the road to that of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway tracks to increase the carriageway of the road," says Thapa. "And we are considering small ropeways which can also be thought of for transportation. A satellite Darjeeling town can also be thought of taking some areas from the Happy Valley tea garden and Pandam tea garden." Thapa also mentions that they have encouraged rural homestay tourism to ease the flow of tourists in Darjeeling town. "They are all doing well and stay fully booked. There are 250 homestays in Sittong, and all are packed right now." 

A Responsible Approach

The crowds in front of popular eateries can get difficult to navigate
The crowds in front of popular eateries can get difficult to navigatesrvd/Shutterstock

Overtourism isn’t an issue limited to Darjeeling. The trade-off between money and jobs provided by tourism and quality of life is a hard one for many. Tourism may exist, but only in a safe manner, some say, producing a lighter footprint.

It is important to understand different facets of tourism now, says Utsow Pradhan, environment activist, and founder of the TIEEDI eco-tourism project in Darjeeling, in an interview on the Spotify podcast, Mind Your Earth.

“It is absolutely mandatory for any hill council to come up with policies towards something called responsible and regenerative tourism,” he adds. “Because what I see in practice right now is absolute irresponsible tourism with a complete disregard of the local heritage that we have inherited.” Pointing to the recent video by a foreign tourist which had gone viral, he said, the tourist was absolutely spot-on. “If you don't come up with better policies, we will end up killing the golden goose. Our hills do not have the infrastructure to take in these kind of numbers. It is not always about commerce and money because no one's enjoying the experience. None of us.”

Respecting Local Heritage

“I strongly feel that Darjeeling is an eternal brand,” says Anirban Dutta  Founder-Explorer, Darjeeling Walks, an organisation that curates walks and programmes to see the hills in a different light, and in collaboration with the local people, and Founder-Farmer, The Manjushree Garden. “Yes, there are a number of unregulated and unregistered constructions, however the problem doesn't confine itself only to a tangible metric. It is rooted far more deeply in our sensibilities as Experience Operators or Hospitality Operators.”

Dutta thinks that people in the tourism sector have to be creative and responsible in their offerings, and work collectively to train and produce able manpower to curate the right kind of travelling opportunities. “It will require more to protect our intangible cultural heritage. We must work together toward an alternative, safer, and sustainable future of Darjeeling alongside enabling lawmakers to penalise and stop every unregulated development to save these pristine hills.”

Limit The Numbers

Perhaps the solution lies in measures being taken across the world to manage and reduce tourism's negative externalities. Residents of several cities across the world have been staging protests against overtourism. Some places are increasing tourist taxes or restricting the number of visitors allowed. Some are telling tourists not to come. According to reports, Barcelona is among many that will introduce a tourist tax to limit numbers. Travellers to the Galápagos Islands will have to pay a $200 entry charge, which is double the existing amount. The government of Amsterdam has announced a set of new measures to tackle the issue of overtourism. These measures include a ban on the construction of nearly all new hotels and a cap on the number of tourists allowed to stay overnight in the city each year. The government said in an announcement, “We want to make and keep the city livable for residents and visitors. This means: no overtourism, no new hotels, and no more than 20 million hotel nights by tourists per year.”

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