The Bhilangana Valley, located within the Gharwal Region of Uttarakhand in India, is part of the Northern Himalayan chain, with some of the highest mountain peaks in the world including Kairi, Draupadi-ka-Danda and Janoli, all over 5500 m. The region draws many adventurous hikers who seek to traverse the valley to reach the spectacular Khatling glacier. Despite being a rather pristine valley, the Bhilangana draws a steady stream of tourists annually. In 2012, the region was visited by 56.7 million domestic tourists (mostly pilgrims) and 1.6 million foreigners.
From the base camp, Guttu, there are villages interspersed throughout the 42 km glacier hike. These communities rely and invest in nature-based tourism as they believe in the economic and social benefits it begets. “Locals are involved in eateries, restaurants, and tea stall businesses through which they can provide the taste of local cuisine to the tourists. Transport, guiding, and porting services are also provided by the host community members including the facility of homestays, hotels, and guest houses,” Dhodi explains. “Besides, rural areas are rich in natural and socio-cultural resources as they have large diversities of flora and fauna, pilgrimage places, fairs and festivals, and traditional agricultural practices which they can showcase to the tourists.”
Hiker Tejas Damle, who participated in the glacier hike in May 2011, told GlacierHub, “The local homes were basically furnished with all essentials from a hiker’s perspective – food, firewood, water and a good place to sleep. Locals of the villages were totally friendly and very interactive. Little kids would gather around saying ‘namaste mithai’ and the happiness they displayed is priceless.”
In fact, this satisfaction goes both ways. Based on 500 surveys conducted by the authors, all of the communities were reportedly very satisfied with their villages’ current level of engagement in tourism-related activities. The top three perceived positive impacts were an increase in employment opportunities, improvement in living utilities and infrastructure, and enhanced preservation of the physical environment.
Yet, Dhodi also warns that “tourism development should only be taken as a tool for community development but not as a goal,” implying that communities should not aim to solely rely on tourism for social and economic progress. While nature is used as a major selling point in nature-based tourism, it is also its greatest threat. Communities are vulnerable to changes in climate which are beyond their control. Currently, a rapid warming trend that surpasses global averages plagues the Himalaya mountain region. Glacier retreat, glacier lake expansion and halving of glacier depth were observed in the region.
Apart from the slow disappearance of their main tourist attraction – the Khatling Glacier – the villages of the valley may also need to deal with other hazards associated with high mountain living such as flash floods, landslides and debris flow. This raises questions about the sustainability of relying on nature-based tourism. An occurrence of a single disaster is enough to turn tourists off.
As Michal Apollo from the Department of Tourism and Regional Studies of the Pedagogical University of Krakow told GlacierHub, “The effects of climate change in the Himalaya have been shown by many scholars and may have significant impact on mountaineering in the future. Climate change is already affecting the length of the climbing and trekking season. Although some areas are responding positively to climate change and are becoming easier to traverse, the changing climate also makes some routes unpassable, especially those requiring glacier travel on the way to the summit.”