Hey Instagram Tourist, Here’s What the Trash You Leave Behind Is Doing to Our Holiday Hotspots


Hey Instagram Tourist, Here’s What the Trash You Leave Behind Is Doing to Our Holiday Hotspots

Illustration: Saiyam Marwah

I have a distinct childhood travel memory. Every summer, as my family set out to make a punishingly long train journey between Miraj, my hometown in southern Maharashtra and Banaras where my uncle lived for a brief period, our travel accomplice hidden amid mounds of hefty luggage, was a five-litre Milton water thermos. The passage was nearly three days long, so every six to eight hours, my parents would get off at a station and replenish our water supply for the onward journey. 

The thermos would go right back on to the attic once we returned from our trip & only be brought down in time for the next expedition. Or when it was sought by sundry relatives for their travels. 

As the lazy ’80s made way for the nifty self-confidence of the ’90s, the old flask went out of fashion. In the shiny new free-market economy, the bottled water industry boomed, and Bisleri, a brand that become synonymous with packaged mineral water retailed in plastic bottles, pretty much made clunky old carafes redundant. We too gave away our steadfast thermos; it was substituted by thousands of single-use bottles.

I often think of the thermos as I travel these days, and spot (without respite) piles of travel trash strewn about ubiquitously – in train bogeys, at highway pit stops, along historic monuments, atop mountain meadows, on city sidewalks, and by beachside shacks. As many of us in India complete a full cycle of prosperity and hyper-abundance, the thermos symbolises to me what we’ve lost as a nation over these years: a precious culture of mindful thrift and temperance deeply entrenched in the way we lived, until we were co-opted by the frenzied “use and throw” economy of the West.

Such licentiousness by the world’s most populous nation is no longer sustainable though. Unless we bring about radical changes in our habits, India by virtue of her sheer size is likely to pose grave challenges to the future of sustainable travel at a time when tourist trash is becoming something of a global emergency. 

Across the world, litter has overwhelmed some of our most spectacular landscapes from Leh to Langkawi and Bali to Boracay. In June this year, Nepali mountaineers collected 11 tonnes of garbage from the Everest which included everything from empty oxygen canisters to shrapnel, tents and plastic bottles. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex is a floating heap of debris created by humans, stretching across thousands of miles in the north central Pacific ocean. This marine detritus is so gigantic that scientists have found it impossible to estimate how much rubbish it is made up of. 

Indians, with their growing penchant for globetrotting, and increased mobility among all classes of society, are likely to contribute significantly in exacerbating this crisis going forward. The World Travel and Tourism Council expects India to become the fourth largest travel economy in less than 10 years, an expansion that’s largely projected to be fuelled by domestic tourists. As per WTTC figures, 90 per cent of travellers in India are Indian. But we are also touring the globe in large numbers – a mind-boggling 50 million of us are expected to travel abroad this year as per World Tourism Organisation estimates, up from merely 23 million just two years ago. Given these numbers, we will soon only likely be second to the footloose Chinese in ambushing global vacation spots and leaving behind our unflattering trail of refuse. 

The World Travel and Tourism Council expects India to become the fourth largest travel economy in less than 10 years, an expansion that’s largely projected to be fuelled by domestic tourists.

In 2017, videos of Jeju International Airport overwhelmed with garbage left behind by Chinese tourists went viral. On other occasions, they’ve been publicly shamed for everything from throwing rubbish into the sea to wrecking corals. Evidently, the travel habits of the Middle Kingdom don’t inspire much confidence about what a throng of loud, queue jumping, social etiquette defying desis might unleash upon tourist hotspots. 

Domestically the situation is already precarious. Popular hill stations like Manali have been turned into dump yards during peak season. A whopping 2,000 tonnes of waste was left behind by the 10 lakh Indian holidaymakers who visited Manali over the two months of May and June 2019. In Goa, almost every beach has been vandalised by garbage cast off by tourists. In Auli meanwhile, a pristine skiing destination in Uttarakhand, 24,000 kilos of waste was dumped by the South Africa-based Gupta family that hosted a high-profile ₹200-crore wedding recently. The indifference regarding our travel footprint, clearly cuts across all classes of society. 

According to Tejas Joseph, a sustainable tourism expert, tourism and hotels in India account for about 30 per cent of waste out of the approximately 62 million tonnes we generate every year. This, he says is a “disproportionately large volume of waste by a single sector,” given that it contributes to only about nine to 10 per cent of GDP. 

To their credit, a few NGOs, civic activists, private sector stakeholders, and government bodies have been making sporadic efforts to address this emergency. The Snow Leopard Lodge in the Ladakhi village of Ulley for instance, has implemented a resident programme that levies a portion of each visitor fee to conservation. Manali is setting up a garbage power plant to burn 100 tonnes of waste every day. In Sikkim, which has been fighting the use of plastic since 1998, tourists are told not to bring in plastic bottles of water.  

What’s missing however is a long-term, strategic plan that brings all these stakeholders together to deal with the problem holistically. Also state capacity to manage the growing trash problem – 75 per cent of municipal garbage in India is dumped without processing – is grossly inadequate and the government is dragging its feet on decisions such as banning single-use plastic. 

In such circumstances the onus really lies on tourists themselves to be more proactive in limiting their use of disposable plastic

There are a host of simple, almost banal-sounding steps we can all take. Carry our own food and water at least when travelling by plane – no one’s going to miss skipping the unpalatable airline grub; not printing our boarding passes; not using the entirely avoidable baggage wrapping machines at airports; carrying reusable shopping bags; using our own toiletries rather than the over packaged mini soaps and shampoos that hotels give us; making responsible meal choices (like avoiding big buffets); not geo-tagging every awe-inspiring destination we visit to ensure that we keep hidden gems, well, hidden. This in particular, might be tough for many of us for whom travel is more about social signalling and humble bragging than exploration. But watch this video to find out how Instagram can wreak havoc on little-known hidden vistas.

Finally, and most crucially though we need to consider making substantive mindset changes in the way we think about the idea of travel. It need not be this manic, breathless exercise of tick-marking destinations propagated by the “6 cities in 7 days” template of packaged tourism. There’s a whole new emerging trend of slow travel that puts an emphasis on making our holiday experience more immersive – seeing fewer places, but spending more time in each and connecting more deeply with local communities. 

Slow travel is both easier on the pocket and on the environment. And it helps retain the diversity of the communities and destinations that give the act of voyaging such mystique and charm in the first place. By being just a little more conscientious about how we travel, we will literally be saving the goose that lays the golden eggs for us.