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Reimagining Indian tourist destinations as sustainable cities of the future

Photo by Shashank Hudkar on Unsplash

India's rich tapestry of history, culture, and natural beauty attracts millions of tourists each year.  Domestic tourism is also on the rise in India, and being the world's most populous country, domestic tourism itself has a potential to contribute more than overseas tourists. However, the surge in tourism often brings challenges such as traffic congestion, pollution, littering compounded by inadequate infrastructure of tourist locations which are often small-towns. As I wrote of Nainital in my previous post, most Indian tourist destinations are grappling with these problems resulting in destruction of ecology, as well as local culture and heritage. Over commercialization of tourist related activities also leads to depletion of natural beauty offered by many of these destinations. 

Many of these issues are complex, and outside the wherewithal of local communities to manage. The only way these problems can be tackled with a government-backed project focusing on sustainability, allocating funds, setting standards, and providing a roadmap for local authorities to follow. The goal is to ensure uniform development while preserving the unique character of each destination. This strategy draws inspiration from initiatives like the JNNURM and AMRUT, which applied to major urban centers in the last two decades, and have yielded positive results across several Indian cities.

Below are certain measures focused on needs of tourist destinations which can be clubbed into a Union government scheme to be rolled out across India:

First, traffic congestion is a major issue in most tourist spots. Introducing one-way loop roads with appropriate lay-byes can streamline traffic flow, reducing the volume of vehicles in the most congested areas and enhancing accessibility and mobility for tourists. The next logical step is relocating government and private offices outside the tourist centers, to nearby areas thus reducing daily commuter traffic. This move not only alleviates congestion but also promotes the development of surrounding regions, balancing urban growth. Parking facilities for any essential services like Fire engines, Ambulances and Police vehicles can be developed underground to alleviate congestion and preserve surface space for pedestrian activities and green areas. 

The success of pedestrian-friendly areas in cities like Copenhagen and Barcelona demonstrates the potential benefits of prioritizing walkable spaces and reducing vehicular traffic in urban center. By drawing on these examples and implementing tailored solutions, Indian tourist destinations can achieve a harmonious balance between sustainability and enjoyment. For example, to manage the influx of tourists, cities could implement fixed entry rates and create parking lots outside the main areas. From these lots, tourists would use internal transportation options such as trams, or autonomous electric vehicles (AEVs), reducing traffic within the city while providing efficient and eco-friendly transport options. The precinct itself will be developed with promenades and walkable tracks to tourist experience, encouraging exploration on foot. For mobility challenged tourists, electric golf carts and Segways can provide alternative mobility, making it easier for tourists to navigate and enjoy the city without contributing to traffic congestion.

Next comes the problem of excessive littering and garbage generation due to tourist activity. A duct-based garbage disposal system can revolutionize waste management in tourist cities. The concept is inspired from Hammarby Sjöstad district in Stockholm, Sweden where a modern waste management system is in place where household waste is collected through an underground pneumatic tube system. This system, known as Envac, uses a network of underground pipes to transport waste to a central collection point. The waste is sucked through the pipes at high speed, significantly reducing the need for traditional garbage trucks and minimizing traffic congestion and pollution. Coupled with strict regulations on plastic use, such an approach can be employed in public places and shopping areas. In addition, enhanced sanitation infrastructure, including public washrooms that are clean, accessible, and plentiful, is also crucial. This infrastructure will not only cater to tourists but also improve the quality of life for residents.

The key to sustained and equitable development is public-private partnership. In the context of tourist destinations, while the government and the local community own the tourist location, private businesses can provide much-needed funding. Every part of the city, from "mall roads" to parking lots, can be leased to private players in return for their investment. This model is similar to how the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme or the redevelopment of old buildings in Mumbai operates. The space is redeveloped into new businesses by creating taller structures and better infrastructure, but old residents also get larger spaces in lieu of their smaller, old spaces. The new space is leased out by the private party to recover their investment. This model can be applied to multiple facets of the tourist city. 

Take food - an essential part of tourism economy. People go to every tourist destination not just to enjoy its scenery but also local food and cuisine. Existing markets in tourist destinations are often a mix and match of souvenir shops, local utilities and food eateries. Through the above private-public model, existing shopping precincts should be redeveloped with private funding. Most tourist cities have ground or two to three storied shops at best, mostly along old roads and by-lanes. Often the higher floors of  these shops are also temporary - built using scaffolding material than concretized. 

Private funding for redevelopment of these individual shops can be used to enhance them into multi-level integrated buildings in the same available space but with higher FSI. New space (higher floors) created, can be leased to major eatery brands such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Subway, Dominos etc. to attract tourists looking for familiar options. Simultaneously, the existing shops can be given more space than what they have today, and that too at a subsidized rate or free, from the revenue generated from leasing the paid upper floor space. Local eateries getting free space will ensure that tourists continue to have access to authentic regional cuisine as well. Guidelines should be laid out such that the architecture of these food parks should reflect local aesthetics, blending seamlessly with the city’s heritage.

Then comes recreation areas, especially for kids. This is especially relevant when you consider domestic tourism given that India is a young country with over 65% under the age of 30. It is essential that high-quality infrastructure is available to all children without prejudice. At the same time, fully public funded free play areas often get crowded and misused. To create an equitable, yet high quality play infrastructure a dual strategy can be adopted - the city can create two sets of equal infrastructure - one paid and one free. The paid play areas will limit crowding and also generate revenue - this revenue should be utilized to maintain both play areas. The free play areas will ensure all children have access to safe and enjoyable recreational spaces, and its cost will be borne by those utilizing the paid play area.

Transforming tourist destinations in India into sustainable and enjoyable cities requires a multifaceted approach. By integrating innovative traffic solutions, enhancing infrastructure, engaging local communities, preserving cultural heritage, and fostering public-private partnerships, we can create vibrant, sustainable cities that offer memorable experiences for tourists and a high quality of life for residents. This vision, supported by government initiative, can set a new standard for sustainable urban tourism in India.

The above ideas however, should not be thrust upon the existing residents of the tourist location by the government. The success of initiatives like the Swachh Bharat Mission highlights the importance of community participation in achieving a cleaner and more sustainable environment. Engaging local communities in garbage disposal, pollution and traffic control efforts is imperative. Revitalizing old shops and precincts as heritage walks not only offers tourists a glimpse into the city’s past, but gives the local community a sense of pride and also promotes local businesses while preserving cultural heritage. Community-run shops enhance the authenticity of the tourist experience. Programs to educate and incentivize residents to participate in these activities can foster a sense of ownership and responsibility. Local involvement ensures that initiatives are culturally appropriate and supported by those they affect.



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