Are ‘air bubbles’ between nations a way of getting international passenger travel going again?
With India having created “air bubbles” with some countries such as France, the UAE and the US and advanced negotiations on with Germany and other nations, it is heartening to see that international commercial air travel is restarting. An “air bubble” is a form of a bilateral air traffic agreement but one that follows the entry rules set by various nations related to registration and quarantine protocols. In India, for example, travellers from abroad are still mandated to undergo one week’s institutional and a week’s home quarantine. The “air bubbles” also prevent direct “sixth freedom” air traffic, a connecting one. International travellers will not, for example, be able to connect through Dubai or Paris airports while coming to India unless specifically allowed by the Indian Government. However, one wonders how an immigration-free zone such as Europe’s “Schengen” area will be managed. The increased flights will hopefully see better utilisation of air fleets and present airlines an opportunity to make some money. However, if experience from India’s domestic flights resuming operations is any indication, the volume of passengers might be minimal after an initial rush as few people have an urgent non-personal reason to travel this time.
So these “air bubbles” could be a start as it remains to be seen whether commercial air traffic can ever re-emerge from the pandemic. For example, many airlines made significant volumes of connecting air traffic but with restrictions as well as the risk-averse nature of most people to deal with another large airport, how will airlines like Emirates and Singapore Airlines cope? Emirates, for example, has already retired the earliest of its A380 superjumbo aircraft and laid off thousands of employees as the Indian air traffic that sustained that carrier has vanished overnight. Even storied airlines like British Airways have announced that they will retire their entire Boeing 747 fleet, joining Australia’s Qantas and Dutch airline KLM in retiring the “Queen of the Skies.” While airlines highlight how safe travel onboard is, drastic reductions in service, thanks to the pandemic, and the lack of passenger confidence have made certain that many of them will not re-emerge from the crisis. Bubbles or not, the aviation industry itself sits on a precarious bubble.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)
As the world grapples with the Corona pandemic, travel bubbles may be the way ahead to open international tourism
At a time when tourism, which was considered to be a growth engine of the new economy and a defining lifestyle statement, has reached a dead end courtesy the Coronavirus, here’s some solace from at least from one corner of the world. Ongoing talks between New Zealand and Australia to chalk out a plan to create a “travel bubble,” which would allow citizens of both nations to cross the 2,000-kilometre sea line, offer some hopes for recovery for this industry. Maybe create a template for the rest of the world. Agreed, it may take some time for tourists to start moving freely but a designated guided tour between two or microdots of “safe” countries may yet rescue a sector from dying. As the two countries work on the modalities to create the bubble, it must not be forgotten that this is a hard choice they have had to make. However, both nations have been way ahead in containing the pandemic — registering only one per cent growth in new cases — which is why they have been lucky enough to consider the option to open each other’s borders for their citizens. Besides, the two nations share the closest bilateral relationships in the world. With easier visa agreements, the flow of people, work-related or for pleasure, had been pretty smooth before all hell broke due to the spread of the pandemic. Heavily dependent as they remain on each other, with Australians making up almost 40 per cent of international arrivals to New Zealand and the latter making up for around 15 per cent of the former’s international visitors, they might just get a micro-economy going.
With Australia looking to double the pace of economic growth next year and a somewhat diluted form of recession in New Zealand, this would be a symbiotic relationship that has to be closely monitored in terms of disease control protocols. Moving too fast would mean not only a second wave of COVID-19 cases but a challenge laden with potential risks of new infections. With another country being involved in the mix, contact tracing would be even more difficult. From following stricter health protocols to tightening up airport rules and quarantine checks, a lot would be needed to restore confidence of travellers. Technology would have to be deployed to intensify the screening and tracking the movement of the each tourist. A bubble indeed that cannot be allowed to burst. India, too, over the course of time, can experiment with domestic bubbles between “safe, contiguous” territories.
(Courtesy: The Pioneer)
With more than 20,000 deaths, Spain, which used to be a tourism hotspot, has turned into a contagion hotbed. But hopes are high that it will soon be able to return to normalcy
In Europe, Spain, with a population of 46 million, is closely following the footsteps of Italy in terms of COVID-19 fatalities. It has suffered more deaths per million inhabitants than any other nation with the death toll crossing 20,000 on April 17. There were more than 9,000 new cases on March 31 and 950 deaths on April 2, the biggest daily death figure. These horrific statistics were provided by the Spanish Government’s top scientific advisor on the pandemic, Fernando Simon. Immunologist Alexander Edgar of the University of Reading said, “A lot of the spread had happened before people realised. Most of them assumed that the problem was elsewhere — Wuhan, which was shut off since January.”
This is analogous with Myanmar’s Health Minister saying in Yangon when it claimed zero COVID-19 that “Hubei was 1,200 miles away from the country though it shares a 1,900-mile border with China.” The three main reasons for the high fatality rate in Spain are the country’s slow response; demography and social behaviour; and low testing capacity. This, despite the country having an excellent healthcare system and not to forget the high-life expectancy in Europe due to its Mediterranean diet. But Spain’s ageing population has been shrinking since 2010 due to recession and migration. More people died in 2018 than were being born here and the pandemic started with the elderly contracting it first, like in Italy where social and cultural behaviour matches that of Spain’s.
On a holiday in Spain months before the outbreak of the Wuhan virus, one had heard of the Spanish flu and influenza pandemic that occurred in 1918-1919 during and after World War I, where one in three human beings were infected and around 17 million to 100 million perished across the world. Calling the flu Spanish is a misnomer: It started in Kansas at Fort Riley when the US was preparing to join the war. Others say it started in the congested trenches of Europe, which at that time were filled with young men and later American soldiers. The Spanish flu was really bad as it came in three waves and reached across the world, including Africa and Australia. Medicine, too, was not extensively developed.
The holiday was memorable. Ethiopian Airlines describes Madrid as the city of great monuments. I would add museums and Plaza Mayor to that list. It has just one cathedral and that, too, constructed in the mid-20th century as the Archbishop of Toledo, the old capital of Spain, would not allow it. Madrid sits astride Rio Manzanares with gentle slopes on both sides of the river connecting the two parts of the capital with a blend of ancient and ultra-modern bridges, marvels of architecture reflecting the extraordinary vision of the Spanish rulers building six-lane bridges in 16th century.
On both sides of the river are walkways, partly covering the Madrid marathon cycling tracks. Spaniards ride bicycles whenever and wherever they can. September is a great time to arrive in Madrid’s new and a design wonder airport where immigration officials took just four seconds to stamp my congested passport. But immigration rules will change now.
Madrid has one palace, one cathedral, more than 50 museums, 46 art galleries and 23 concert venues. All of these were renovated for the 400th anniversary of the Plaza Mayor, which records Madrid’s heartbeat with its ancient square and adjoining food and wine markets.
I am not a connoisseur of wine but Spanish rioja is excellent at 3 to 4 euro per bottle. In Madrid, in the grocery shops, I could find only Spanish wine. A bottle a day is bound to keep spirits high, ideally with fresh strawberries, ham and cherries. Bar Nakama, a hole in the wall, is run by the solitary English-speaking barman Robert. Nakama, he explained, meant “friend” in Japanese, though we never saw a Japanese in here. In his bar one could buy a glass of reasonable wine for 2 euro, which is accompanied by plentiful snacks and gratis. Excellent espresso coffee and Spanish beer were available, too.
All roadside cafes charge 1 to 2 euro extra for service except the chain 100Mantidelos, where self service rules, which is pronto. Madrid is not expensive like London and Paris or even Brussels and Amsterdam. Though museums charge an average of 7 to 10 euros, many are free between 7 and 9 on some days and gratis all times for EU and Latin American nationals.
September is also the month for art, music and theatre festivals organised by DCode, supplemented by exhibitions and concerts by Arte Madrid and Appertura. World class bands, including Team Gallagher and Oasis, Broadway musicals, English theatre artistes, flamenco dancers, singers and guitarists, all perform here. Bull fighting happens only between April and June but Spain stands divided on whether the sport should stay or be banned altogether. Madrid boasts of a three Michelin-star restaurant Cairella Bistro that has a Valencian chef. The most famous landmark is that of a male Spaniard, leaning on a balustrade near Calle Allemedine and Calle Mayor June. Most tourists mistake the bronze life-size statue for real and brush past it whispering inanities and rubbing its bottom for good luck. They call him the good bum. Toledo is a world model tourist attraction. On a Sunday, it was bursting with human kind with tour guide-led columns crawling like ants. It takes an hour to reach the old capital of Spain, which is surrounded on three sides by River Tagus. From the moment one alights the bus, one is elevated to Plaza de Zocodover on a series of escalators rising 500 feet to reach the panoramic heights of the old city famed for a blend of three cultures.
Over a period of time, Christians, Moors and Jews lived together peacefully (not quite like today in West Bank in Jerusalem). A 10th century mosque, preserved for two centuries before it was turned into a chapel, is in good shape. Toledo’s cathedral, built in the 13th century contains El Grecho masterpieces of de-robing Christ. The bell in the tower weighing 30,000 kilos apparently rang only once as it caused a minor earthquake in which a 90-metre high clock had one of its needles disappear. A 14th century synagogue is well preserved in the Jewish quarter, next to El Grecho’s recreated house. Toledo is an experience of a lifetime. Equip yourself with a tourist map, the Es Madrid magazine and mucho gracias for your travel whenever you can plan one in the future.
Fast forward, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Monday that current measures of lockdown will extend beyond April 25 and schools will be closed till September. Like elsewhere in Europe, he has announced a sector by sector opening of the economy. Sunday saw the smallest one-day death toll, 410, since March 22, which means the curve is bending.
(Writer: Ashok K Mehta; Courtesy: The Pioneer)
Following internet shutdowns, the tourism sector is the latest victim of the Government’s high-handedness
The Government may be consistently playing down the countrywide protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) as a conspiracy of intellectuals to jeopardise its legitimate existence. But with the protests showing no signs of abating — they have now turned into a people’s movement over exclusionary and discriminatory policies that breed hatred and disunity — the clampdown on freedom of expression has been severe. So harsh that internet and mobile network shutdowns have indefinitely become the order of the day. This has elicited strong admonitions and travel advisories against India, impacting our tourism business severely. For example, tour operators in Agra, the home of Taj Mahal, have unofficially reported a loss of about 50 per cent revenue during the holiday season. Nowhere has the clampdown been as draconian as it has been in Uttar Pradesh with over 19 people killed and more than 1,100 arrests. The visitors’ count for December has been the most dismal. A paltry 4.5 lakh tourists arrived at Agra’s Taj Mahal over the new year weekend, which is down from seven lakh the same month, last year. Tourists from the US, the UK, China, France and Japan are understandably cautious after reports emerged of foreign students being deported for extending moral support to protesters. Internet cafes, a favourite among young travellers to keep folks connected to them back home, are running dry.
As the tourists have been dissuaded from travelling to India — in part because the message from New Delhi has been that it will not buckle down and, instead, has sharpened its attack on anti-CAA protesters and tightened the noose of police action — their numbers fell well before November, when the crucial Ayodhya verdict was to be announced by the Supreme Court. The month, which saw a footfall of 6.7 lakh tourists last year, saw only 5.4 lakh tourists this year. Agra alone attracts over 6.5 million tourists every year, generating nearly $14 million annually from entrance fees. Similar is the story elsewhere. Overall, the hospitality sector has been hit. Assam has already faced a loss of Rs 400 crore. Mysuru saw a 20 per cent dip in tourism. Revenues for many hotels, tour operators and guides have plunged with many tourists, both domestic and foreign, either cancelling their trips or cutting them short. This is understandable. Protests are now dragging on into the second month and have shown little signs of abating even as the Government has issued “clarifications.” There are plenty of signs of matters turning more violent as both police and marchers up the ante. The larger question, however, is whether the tourism sector will be able to absorb the damage once normalcy returns. For an industry, which the Government pegged as a growth driver even in a slowing economy, this is a bad sign. In this business, perception matters and the atithi is certainly not feeling welcome anymore.
For a sustained and all-round economic growth, there is need for an integrated sectoral approach to ensure the ease of doing business
Discussions on the performance of the Indian economy have been taking place for months now. The many years and cycles that our economy has been through show that in order to grow at a healthy pace and sustain that growth year after year, no sector can operate in isolation. From being recognised as a predominantly agrarian economy in its early days, we have seen various sectors develop, contribute and help grow its overall size.
The Pahle India Foundation’s (PIF) report titled: An Integrated Value Chain Approach to Ease of Doing Business: A Case Study of Sugar, Alcohol Beverages and Tourism Sector points towards the synergy between the three sectors. This has remained largely unexploited. States like Kerala and Bihar, which have an immense potential for tourism, have been battling broader policy issues like the ban on alcohol. Kerala quickly realised the effects of prohibition and reversed it two years after it was imposed in 2015. Why such a ban is detrimental to the success of the tourism sector is self-explanatory, especially when one considers foreign tourists visiting India. Consider this; Bihar lost over Rs 3,000 crore in excise revenues in a year after alcohol ban in 2016; tourism is down too as the State has seen a decline in the number of domestic and international arrivals. According to data from the State tourism department, the number of domestic tourists in Bihar was approximately 61.52 lakh in 2015, which in 2016 decreased to 42.84 lakh. At present, Gujarat, Nagaland and the Union Territory of Lakshadweep also practise prohibition.
Sadly, reforms on the Ease of Doing Business (EoDB) front have been very generic so far and there are many challenges which need to be overcome for the tourism industry to realise its potential. For instance, among the many licences that are required today to start a hotel, one is for washing clothes. There are close to 70 such licence requirements which are a burden on the industry. The estimate made in the report that the Indian hotel industry has a potential to grow to $424 billion by 2027 points to a clear need to rationalise policies across sectors in order to harness it.
If tourism is to be made business-friendly, the Government needs to introduce sector-specific reforms. This is necessary as tourism as a sector has strong interlinkages with other sectors and industries such as food services, hospitality, retail, travel, real estate and others. Tourism as a sector comes with direct, indirect and induced benefits and allied economies play a role for the growth of tourism to sustain such benefits. There is a need to bring down the incoherence in the status of tourism and its regulations in the country. In Schedule 7 of Article 246, tourism is not listed under the Concurrent, Union or State list. Each State has its dedicated tourism board which is responsible for overlooking its promotion and development.
From the perspective of EoDB, recognising the need to upgrade tourism infrastructure in India, the Central Government has proposed an outlay of Rs 152 billion for the sector. From an EoDB perspective, the States have a bigger role than the Centre.
As the report points out, the tourism sector today faces various challenges not just with respect to the value chain but also in services and infrastructure. Some of these include an ineffective single window clearance and extended time periods for clearances and licences. To make things simpler we need to further enhance the efficacy and implementation of the Government’s skill development programme and it is here that stakeholders would have to support the efforts of the Government.
For an industry which is the seventh-largest in the world, with respect to its contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) report of 2018, has pegged the tourism sector to grow to Rs 29,680 billion by 2027. At present it accounts for Rs 16,380 billion, which is 9.4 per cent of India’s GDP.
For the industry to achieve its true potential, a conducive reforms programme will have to be implemented on the lines of what the report is suggesting. The PIF report makes several critical recommendations. Ideas like creation of investor and entrepreneur-interactive platforms (competitions, fairs, summits) in small cities are the need of the hour. A quick and transparent licencing process is another important need and enforcing stricter timelines a necessity. Enhancing EoDB is a challenge but policy initiatives in the right direction are a must, specially considering the tightrope walk that the Government is doing for ensuring that the economy remains on track and moves in the right direction. An integrated approach to EoDB is the first step in that direction.
(Writer: Vineet Taing; Courtesy: The Pioneer)
There is an adage, where there is a will, there is a way. It stands true for seven girls who decided to take the road less travelled. MUSBA HASHMI catches up with the youngest trekkers to scale Mt Kilimanjaro to bring you their success story
On August 7, 2019 while it was a normal day for everyone, seven young girls decided to set off on a journey that will be remembered by all for years to come. These girls are the talk of the town and for all the right reasons. They have scripted history by becoming the youngest trekkers.
The girls aged between 15 and 18 years are fearless, focused and had only one thing in mind — to make their country, parents and school proud. They embarked on this expedition along with two faculty members — Priya Dhillon and Major Priya Jhingan. The expedition was led by Ajeet Bajaj, director, Snow Leopard Adventure a Padmashree Awardee who scaled Mt Everest along with his daughter, Deeya Bajaj, last year.
The expedition was conducted by The Lawrence School, Sanawar and no surprise that it is a success. Mt Kilimanjaro is Africa’s highest peak with the summit located at 5,895 meters above sea level. It is also the world’s highest free standing mountain. The expedition was sponsored by Hero Cycles, who later felicitated the girls after their return.
The adventure bug bit these girls early. And scaling Mt Kilimanjaro is just the beginning. They have miles to go.
Seventeen-year-old Class XII student, Megan Bhagirath, recalls the journey as one of her best things that has happened in her life.
“It is very unlikely for parents to send their children on such adventures when it is about Class XII Boards. But, I am very fortunate to have got such supportive parents who motivated me to go on this expedition. Not even for a moment did they think that this would affect my studies in any way. My father just walked up to me and asked if I would manage both. I say I would and he replied then go. I can say that this expedition was one of the best things that happened in my life,” she says.
But not all was smooth and easy. Bhagirath had her moments when she thought of dropping the plan. She was anxious if she would live up to the expectations of her parents and teachers. It affected her — what if not everything turn out to be good. That was when, her father became her strength.
“My father told me that I will have this fear until I will set off on the journey. But, I should stood strong. I can’t quit. He told me you will never know what is going to happen until you are off to the journey. So just go. Then there was no stopping,” she tells you and adds she has keen interest in sports. The reason being her school.
“Sports is a compulsory subject for everyone. Each one of us have to enroll in a sport of our choice. That was the reason I was always interested in sports. My brother is a big sport fanatic as well,” the 17-year-old says whose favourite sport is hockey.
One can only imagine how is it like to look up the mountain with a vision of scaling it. When you are on the top and everything else seems so tiny, one can’t do anything but admire the Mother Nature.
Bhagirath’s experience of the expedition, she says, was full of people.
“There were so many people who had the similar thing in mind — to scale it. We all were strangers but up on the mountain they all felt so familiar. The Africans are very hospitable, they are very sweet. When you are up there everybody wants to connect. There are people all around you. Even the most introverts turn into extroverts on the mountains because at the end, people is all what you have up there,” she says and adds that imagine you are on the mountain for seven days with no Internet, no family, just the mountain and the cold air.
“It is very peaceful. There are no tensions. No stress of what is happening in school or what will happen later on. It is like purification of the soul. It is beautiful. One can definitely take a sigh of relief on the mountains,” she tells you and says that their training started in February from Rishikesh where the girls had to walk for eight hours straight with not more than a 10 minutes break after every two hours.
“Rishikesh training taught us endurance. It gave us that belief that you will get there (to the top) just keep going. Then we trained in Ladakh. It got us the feeling of training on a high altitude with limited oxygen and low resources. It taught us to manage time and our mental abilities,” she tells you.
Though, their initial training started from school. It is compulsory for students to go running for an hour-and-a-half in the morning and then in the evening. They also need to go for hiking daily. But, it was not easy. Time management was a problem because of academics. They overcame this in Rishikesh and Ladakh, where their sole focus was on training.
The ones who are willing to go for such expeditions have to keep in mind that there is a particular diet they have to follow. No junk or fried food, lots of carbohydrates, protein and collosal amount of water is a must.
Bhagirath tells you that the moment they reached the top, all of them felt an adrenaline rush. It was a proud moment. “It felt like all our efforts paid off. After a 11-day journey we were there where we wanted to be. It gave us immense pleasure and all the other things seems very small then. It was 11 am when we reached the Summit and we couldn’t help but smile all through our return,” she recalls with yet another smile on her face.
There are still many parents who are not willing to send their daughters or even sons on such adventures. Bhagirath has a say on that. “To everybody out there, there is so much to the world than just few boundaries that we live in. There is a lot to explore. It is not like students have to earn a well-paid job to spend a good life. They should do what they love. If we can do this in such a small time, then they can definitely do much more,” she says.
Unlike Bhagirath, who is a sports lover, a 15-year-old Avanti Aggarwal the youngest among the seven girls was never into sports.
“I am in Class XI student. I was always more inclined towards academics. I didn’t do well in sports and it didn’t interest me. One day, when our faculty informed us about the expedition, I was very apprehensive about it. I had to prepare for my Boards. I decided not to give my name for it. Then, my parents encouraged me to give it a try. So I did. And it turned out to be the best experience of my life,” Aggarwal tells you.
But, sometimes only motivation is not what helps you in the long run. It is about training too. And Aggarwal had to face a lot of difficulties because she missed the Rishikesh training and all the others had an edge over her. “I missed the Rishikesh training because I enrolled into the activity very late. I joined the group in Ladakh. So everyone was apprehensive whether I would be able to continue or not. One day, we all went for a high-altitude check and I did face a lot of difficulties in it. It made me lose confidence but then the entire team supported me and I pushed myself to do that,” she tells you.
There are always perks of being the youngest. So was the case with Aggarwal.
“In between I fell ill. I had mild symptoms of acute mountain sickness. I thought it’s time for me to go back home. Because I didn’t want anyone to feel like one person didn’t anything and all the other did neither I wanted any one to stay back with me. But, all my seniors in the group and my faculty motivated me and took care of me. They were very generous with me. Fortunately, I recovered fast and accompanied them on the expedition. Their support and love helped me get back to normal. Since, I am the youngest they all treat me with special care. It gave me the confidence to not surrender,” she says.
Aggarwal recalls that on the summit night when they started from Kibo to the Gilman’s point which is the highest one, it was the toughest part of the expedition. “The slope was very steep with an inclination of 75° and the temperature was about -20° Celsius. As we were walking there were boulders all through our way. Every time we thought that we have made it to the top, we found out that it was the boulders and so much more is still left. Everyone was asking us to take heart, that Gilman’s point is not too far. It became dark and all we could see was the team that was ahead of us because of their flashing head lights. The guide told us that that was the Gilman’s point but they were also moving ahead and so were we. Every time we thought we have reached, we were disappointed. It took us seven hours to reach there from Kibo,” she tells you.
Though it did disappoint the team a bit but no one ever felt like quitting. They all knew that they had to reach the top.
“It was very cold. Everyone was helping each other. Everyone was motivated and motivating others too. We all were energetic despite the long walk. All we had on our minds was to reach the top. That thought kept us going,” she adds.
Any journey is incomplete without a mentor. Everyone needs a guru who can show the path to success. So was the case here. The guru or the leader of the expedition was — Ajeet Bajaj. He says that it was a wonderful experience to go on the expedition with the seven girls whom he now call his daughters — the daughters that listen to him. (laughs)
Bajaj says that it was the highlight of his career. The thing to look out for is that this expedition was the first one for the girls, who scripted history at one go.
“These girls made the country proud. The great resilience that they showed on the mountains was appreciable. A thing to learn from them is their spirit and the never give in attitude. This is a message for all that given an opportunity there is nothing that our girls can’t achieve. They just the need the push and support to get going,” he says.
One thing that Bajaj abides by is that on the mountains one has to proceed with a lot of respect for Mother Nature. He has to be very slow and steady. Going with the mindset of conquering mountains is a big ‘no-no’. Humans can never do that.
Not only Bajaj but both the faculty members, Dhillon and Major Jhingan were as supportive as him. They also highlight the need of sports education in India and opines that sports should be given equal importance as academics. It is important for the overall development of the students.
MK Gulia, Head of Sports and Outdoor Pursuit, The Lawrence School who selected the team of the girls and faculties says that they didn’t select the girls on the basis of physical strength but their will power.
“We can work upon the physical strength and fitness. It can be build with training. The key is the will power, mental strength and a passion to go for trekking. This is how we selected these seven girls out of the others 15-20 girls who gave their names for this,” he tells you and adds that he felt disappointed when a number of girls withdrew their names because their family didn’t allow them to go on the expedition.
He tells you that it’s high time when we stop asking the Government to focus on sports. The Government is doing its part. It is the responsibility of the society, the schools and the parents to identify the importance of sports and let their child free to do what he wants.
“These seven girls are an example for others who believe that sports will not take them anywhere. The parents should understand this and should encourage their children for participating in sports. When the young generation scale such highs, it is not only a proud moment for their parents and the school but for the whole country. Many people took inspiration from them,” he says and adds that the school will definitely plan more such expeditions and will encourage the youth to scale new highs.
Writer: Musba Hashmi
Courtesy: The Pioneer
The Himalayan States have demanded that the Centre give them an environment grant, not really an unfair demand
India’s extremely fertile plains are nourished with water and nutrients from its mountains, like a bloodstream disseminates life force across the human body. Without the Himalayas, there wouldn’t be glaciers or the resultant rivers to water our vast plains. There wouldn’t be rains if the peaks hadn’t blocked the monsoon clouds and trapped them in the Valleys. It is important, therefore, for India as a whole to treat the Himalayas and the ecology of these mountains carefully to ensure that civilisational life as we know it can continue as it has for five millennia. Ergo, it is not imprudent for the Himalayan states to demand a ‘Green Bonus’ so that they can preserve the ecology of the mountains and plan for sustainable development.
We have seen what rampant, unplanned development in the mountains can do. Shimla, the erstwhile colonial summer capital of this country, ran out of water last summer. Rampant development has seen the destruction of thousands of acres of primeval forests and wanton construction activity continues with nary a concern for the future or resource management. Satellite imagery shows that the rapid retreat of large Himalayan glaciers, through a combination of both local and global environmental contagion, is grave indeed. It is only fair then that the citizens in the plains do their bit to contribute for the health of the mountains and the economy of the states because in the long run, they are protecting themselves and their progeny. There has to be a stop on the race to develop huge projects and even too much industry in the mountains, but the population of the mountain states needs some sort of compensation for this denial, which seems like a small price to pay. Without any financial incentive, unrestricted development will continue, because the fear of penalties will be overridden by economic interests. We need to incentivise and not just penalise. Ten of India’s 11 hill States met as part of a recently concluded campaign and made this demand to the Finance Minister. They also advocated for a separate Central ministry to explore concerns specific to them and for better efficacy of ecological programmes targetted for the mountains. This is something that should be explored, maybe not as a ministry but definitely as a department of the government that looks at some of these critical issues. In the end, these would not just impact residents of these States but every other Indian. The Himalayas might be one of the world’s youngest mountain ranges but they have suffered from the ravages of civilisation. This must be controlled now, if we, as a nation, are to continue.
Writer & Courtesy: The Pioneer
The closure of the Lakshman jhula is another warning sign on the pressures of over-tourism in the Himalayas
Perhaps a great way to rewind family histories in India would be to turn the pages of a photo album and find generations frozen forever on the Lakshman jhula bridge in Rishikesh, all the way from sepia to instagram. Even Bollywood has relied on it as an eternal prop through the ages. That’s the span of the iconic suspension bridge, far more everlasting than the 137 m gap it closed on the Ganga and helped people transit from the Tehri to the Pauri side. And though it is being shut after years of gross overuse, for Indians it will never be a bridge too far. When it was first built in 1929, it served as a jeepable road for British India to transport men and materials and facilitate administration and connectivity in the hill states. But for locals, who believe that Lakshman crossed the river here on a rope way he made with Lord Ram and has probably the only temple in his name, it is about a gift from the Gods. Over time, it, along with Ram jhula, came the shortest and only transit corridor between both banks of the Ganga, ferrying everything from cows, buffaloes, bikes, jeeps and cars to locals, pilgrims, vendors and visitors. With more time, an entire economy grew around it, be it of the spiritual trail linking a group of temples, souvenir shops and food outlets and the quaint colonnades radiating from it. It also became Rishikesh’s best vantage point to watch the mystic river flow, the clear green waters full of fish on a sparkling day and a dark ripple catching flecks of a starlit night sky. With ever-increasing footfalls, the bridge had far exceeded its carrying capacity a long time ago. But its lifeline value far exceeded structural concerns. So when its sagging weight seemed to tilt the poles, the authorities rightfully decided to close it than risk a human catastrophe. In fact, the vintage Ram jhula will also be at risk as some traffic will tend to be diverted here. Authorities have promised another bridge but it will take some coming. They say Lakshman jhula itself was built because an earlier bridge was washed away in the floods. So one hopes an improved version, with latest technology and factoring in today’s demands better, continues a much-trusted legacy. Meanwhile, locals will have to depend on the boat crossings that pose a challenge to the waters and fish. Besides the waters are not safe during floods and the monsoon.
The fate of Lakshman jhula is a warning sign of the over-exploitation and over-tourism posing a serious challenge to the hill economy. And places like Rishikesh, which serve as a base town and a resource hub for both adventure and pilgrimage trails, have indeed come under tremendous pressure in terms of providing basic services like adequate hotel rooms, water and electricity. The Uttarakhand High Court had to ban all water sports and paragliding camps in the state, citing water pollution, ecological damage, and garbage piling up on beaches and hills, mostly around Rishikesh. River rafting in Uttarakhand is hugely popular, especially with weekend travellers from Delhi, and generates sizeable business. Thailand and the Philippines are already shutting down over-run tourist sites at the cost of the exchequer and laying new guidelines to open them once they recover. There is an urgent need for eco-friendly guidelines and rationed permits on the basis of an impact assessment report until 2050. Except for the Amarnath yatra, there are no unified codes for the Char Dham yatra yet. Because without sustainable and equitable tourism, the Himalayas may turn into a wasted paradise
Courtesy: Editorial-The Pioneer
As record heat waves strike across the northern hemisphere this summer, climate change seems beyond our control
The northernmost US state of Alaska is not a place where you would expect temperatures to exceed 30 degrees celsius or people to slap on sunscreen and sit under parasols. But it is happening so this year despite large parts of its geographical territory being above the Arctic Circle. This would be an odd occurrence if it happened in isolation but it is in continuity with warming trends of the last few years linked partly to a decline in sea ice and Arctic Ocean warming. Permafrost or the frozen ground that makes up about 85 per cent of Alaska, is thawing and affecting life as we know it, from building foundations of liveable structures, saving wildlife habitats and growing Tundra berries. Last year, puffins died in huge numbers because their prey fish had migrated away from warmer waters. Concurrently, Europe is suffering some of the highest temperatures in living memory with parts of France and Spain seeing temperatures more akin to an Indian summer. Scientists have, therefore, concluded that such persistent highs were not just about a micro-climate zone but had indeed been brought about by climate change. Europe reported the hottest June since 1880, according to the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. The temperature was 3oC above the June average a century ago. And because heat waves now have a repetitive pattern of occurrence, there is no doubt that global heating, caused by carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels and other human activities, is manifesting itself sooner than expected.
Some are saying that the warm draft from the Indian sub-continent is the reason behind the heat wave in continental Europe. With the delays in the monsoon rains and their lower than expected volumes this time, weather patterns are worrying not just climate scientists but even the general public and governments. We may be staring at a new wave of climate migrations, refugees and deaths of vulnerable people unused to temperature shocks. The toll on human health is already visible with estimates that thousands of elderly and infirm people across Europe will succumb to high heat. In India, we cannot even contemplate the results of a poor monsoon and resultant drought, desertification and starvation in outlier pockets. Warmer waters mean rising sea levels which will threaten hundreds of millions of people staying in low-level areas, both in India and in neighbouring countries. So we have to start preparing for the worst and have an original green template than be ostriches burying our heads in the sand. India is doing its utmost to ensure equitable and sustainable development that will allow citizens to grow economically and consume more energy while harming the planet lesser. Water conservation should be in mission mode, too.
Writer & Courtesy: The Pioneer
Young social entrepreneurs are using the language of tourism to redefine the contours of the Thai economy, identity, outlook and culture
They could be rebels but they chose to be who they are, not ashamed or diffident or overtly proud, but honest and true to their grain. And in a country inured to a democracy that is now governed by militarists, they embody a new kind of nationalism and people’s power that’s subtly changing the socio-economic narrative of Thailand, demolishing every known stereotype and forcing a policy change. You could call them social entrepreneurs, who are rescuing vulnerable communities, redrawing the Thai identity beyond the sex-tourism gaze, lending voices to real issues and solving them in their micro-environs. These little dots of resistance to status quo may not qualify as protests or political movements but are more collective impacts of individual efforts that can no longer be brushed under the carpet. There’s an old Thai proverb, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” And this second best time is being spearheaded by the country’s globalised youth, who are back to reclaim their destiny on home ground, one that is buried in the legends of Siam. And they are talking in a language that everybody understands — tourism.
Beginning as a marine biologist, Sirachai Shin Arunrugstichai had a passion for photography and hoped to be a journalist covering stories like protests, religious events and politics in Thailand. But lost in a crowd, he applied his newly-acquired skill set to something that his years as a deep sea diver had taught him, the need to conserve marine habitats which Thailand was fast losing to over-tourism and the beach economy. His photo stories on what once was and what it has become are telling reminders of human depredations of natural resources that could spell doom for Thailand’s tourism sector, which constitutes 20 percent of the nation’s GDP. His work on Maya Bay, the sharks of the Andamans Sea, the plight of water nomads, the reappearance and disappearance of fish, restoration and regrowth of corals and mangroves has gone a long way in influencing tourism policy and getting a global audience. Thanks to him, the authorities have bravely shut down the fragile Maya Bay for four years, crumbling as it was under the weight of 5,000 footfalls when it is equipped to handle only 170 visitors at a time. As the sharks are slowly making their way back to the waters there, Shin asserts he isn’t against tourism as such but over-exploitation. He argues if there is no sustainable management module, then there would be no tourist economy or marine resources left for livelihood or humanity. “With our dependency on rich resources of the surrounding two seas, the marine and coastal ecosystems of Thailand have borne the cost. In accommodating mass tourism, which does not exactly serve the purpose of conservation of resources, and unable to prevent continuous degradation throughout the years, we need to change now. Some specks of islands have completely changed in five years and I document the changes to build a consciousness.” Shin now works closely with the Tourism Authority of Thailand, which for the first time is regulating the beach economy with permits, graded arrivals and limiting stay periods on the country’s pristine stretches. Shin’s narrative-driven photo stories are now what he calls Lego blocks that make for a larger story of exploitation and a new-age colonisation by greed. Even the Western tourists, who once turned Thailand’s sylvan beaches into an indulgent and hedonistic hideaway, are now being forced to reshape their ideas of the permissive and expansive Orient.
Then there is Lee Ayu Chuepa, who has turned Thailand coffee, traditionally very bitter and had with condensed milk, into a specialty brew with applied research and his US training on growing and roasting techniques. Born to the Akha hill tribe, the traditional growers of coffee, he wasn’t really committed to it till he completed university, worked for an NGO and learnt how curating specialty coffees could lead to high economic worth. So he turned agriculturists into agri-preneurs and made coffee, a crop he had grown up with, as a tool of community development. Having experienced the creature comforts that he obtained through a Western knowledge system, he realised they would have no meaning in a resource-scarce or depleted world. “Look at what our conveniences and aspirations have given us. We chased gains but look where it has landed us, a plastic sea, no water and poverty of our people,” says Lee, highlighting the growing Thai consciousness to save neighbourhoods, culture, communities and people without subjecting themselves to the approbation of others. Today Lee’s Akha Ama Coffee is both a national and international brand, with a chain of boutique cafes in Chiang Mai and other cities. Lee’s social enterprise is based on smart logic and the right market linkages. His farmers follow sustainable cropping methods, adapt them to customise the coffee to flavour profiles in demand, rotate other crops like avocado in lean times and directly sell to the buyer networks, primarily the tourism industry. So all boutique hotels in Thailand pick up curated batches of Akha Ama coffee from the farmers themselves. Not only that, Lee emphasises on creating a bio-diversity rich plantation that is complete with living organisms, birds and honey bees, allowing natural processes like pollination to improve the ecosystem for his coffee. He even consults R&D and knowhow specialists on growing best coffee varietals and ensures a zero-waste model where leftovers of a harvest are used as fertilisers, manure and even body scrubs for the cosmetic industry.
He has made every young person of the community a stakeholder in the coffee enterprise so that each knows how to present his/her products and where to sell. In short, the growers collectively dictate the market than the latter forcing them into a straitjacket. “We need to start a movement in our agriculture sector,” he says, his idea already cascading into local fruit buffets at every tourist hotspot, allied products at every shopping hub, plantation tourism and more importantly international branding of local fruits. The much sought after Durian is a Southeast Asian favourite but the Thais have marketed a superior variety that sells at $10,000 a kg! “The dream may not be as beautiful as you imagined, so I am motivated by new dreams. I have followed the ancient wisdom of banana leaves from our people. This is not a textbook project. More than money, social values matter,” Lee tells us, summing up the resurgent face of Thai entrepreneurship from the hinterland.
But in Bangkok itself, the luxuriant world city that’s ever ready to serve your every craving, its repressed underbelly has found a voice in Somsak Boonkam. He has been inspired by India’s Dharavi to conceive his own slum tourism project at Klongtoey and transform the community that the city hides under its flyways. “We are using our backward clusters as a powerful communication tool. We are not denying but owning up to the reality and helping tourists get a rounded perspective of this city that I was born in and not see it through borrowed lenses,” he tells us. He isn’t looking for sympathy or empathy but is pooling limited resources of small host communities and sharpening their collective competitive advantage in the booming tourist economy. He keeps it real, training communities to design travel packages based on local carrying capacity, skilling local youth as savvy tour guides, empowering women to set up craft and cuisine classes, forming collaborative clusters of communities which can share limited resources and offer homestay facilities. And he uses social media to market his tours to keep a steady flow of visitors.
His beehive approach has helped individual tour operators from getting wiped out in a highly competitive tourism market and developed a system of affordable tourism seen from an insider’s perspective of Bangkok, taking you to unknown sights and experiences. Financial sustainability is on the top of Somsak’s agenda, so he allows local hosts to keep 70 per cent of the tourism revenue and diverts five per cent for public projects such as education and waste management. Through his module, Somsak has been able to restore pride among local communities who tend to become subservient and faceless employees of the large hospitality industry in a global tourist destination like Bangkok or set up formulaic home-unit massage parlours. But with the slum redevelopment project, locals are for the first time becoming an equal stakeholder and owner of the throbbing tourist economy. With 36 million tourists coming into Thailand and Bangkok being its catchment area, locals continue to be excluded from a lion’s share of profits although they lend their resources, culture, heritage and skill sets to define the Thai experience for the world. Somsak is continuously upgrading his tourist packages and creating specialist groups of tour guides, transport operators, pricing experts and hosts. He has even created a system of an elected body to manage the community development fund that comes from tourism and allocate it for addressing the most pressing need of the community that he might have overlooked himself. That could be something as basic as creating a playground for children of the host community. This has encouraged a democratic participation in everyday lives among locals outside the semi-dictatorial governance structure at the central level. Somsak believes that tourism can be a sustainable business only if it enhances and does not replace local businesses and jobs. Thailand’s young brigade are applying the rules of Muay Thai and championing their own causes that are setting off a slow revolution of ideas and independence. Despite the obstacles.
(The writer is Associate Editor, The Pioneer)
Writer: Rinku Ghosh
Courtesy: The Pioneer
Maldives is a country nothing less than a dream. Surrounded with water, spread over 1200 dispersed islands of which barely 200 are inhabited, this is what we call paradise. Interested to go but the costs are burning a hole in your pocket? Many would be surprised to know that this country can be visited on a budget. You do not have save it for a special occasion like a honeymoon or an anniversary, but visit this country multiple times as it is bound to surprise you every time. Here is how you visit the Maldives without splurging your savings.
Book flights early
This is a key to travelling within the budget. International carriers flying to the Maldives are a mixture of scheduled and charter airlines. Indian low cost carrier like Go Air operates from Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.
Travel in low season
Go during low season, which runs from May to November, Maldives will surprise you with the rates of accommodation. However, since this period coincides with the monsoon season (May to October), you will get cloudy skies and rains, which has a charm of its own.
Stay in a local island
Maldives offers two types of islands: local and private. The private islands are usually owned by resorts while the local islands are the ones that are inhabited and offer the true Maldivian flavours and also offer a wider range of shops and restaurants. An ideal stay at this destination would include a guesthouse at a local island along with a few days in resort islands.
Since the tourism industry has been booming, the type of guesthouses are nothing less than a 4-star hotel and offer exclusivity as its unique selling point. Consider this, an island which has only 30 inhabitants including the staff of the guesthouse and you. Such could be your stay at Plumeria Boutique Maldives on the Thinadhoo Island (Vavoo Atoll). Enjoy a sandbank breakfast or swim with the sharks at reasonable prices here and be assured this would change your perspective on affordable luxury.
For those who wish to consider staying at private islands, the Aitken Spence properties—Adaaran Club Rannalhi (Kaafu Atoll) and Adaaran Select Hudhuranfushi (North Male Atoll), are some good options to consider. At these properties stay in ocean villas to experience the ocean up close like never before.
Travel by ferries
Since 99 per cent of the Maldives is covered with water and only one percent contributes land mass, it is quite natural that most of the transport is by ferries and boats. Though speedboats are a faster way to travel, they cost much higher for a single trip as compared to a local ferry. Local ferries run on a somewhat infrequent schedule but are quite cheap. Avoid the seaplanes if you’re on a budget but if money is not your concern then this too is an experience not to miss.
Good to Know
When staying a local island be aware of the restrictions on wearing a bikini in public beaches. There are designated bikini beaches for tourists.
If you want to visit a resort, you’ll have to pay for a speedboat, as the local ferries don’t stop at the resort islands.
Maldivian Rufiyaa (MVR) is a nonconvertible currency only available in the Maldives. US dollars, all major credit cards and currency are acceptable.
Alcohol is only permitted for foreigners in resorts or on liveaboard vessels. Alcohol and alcoholic beverages are not allowed on any inhabited island even for guests staying in a guesthouse or hotel.
A Green Tax of $6 per person per day is levied on guests staying at resorts, hotels and liveaboards. For those staying in guesthouses, the Green Tax is $3 per person per day.
Writer: Ankita Saxena
Courtesy: The Pioneer