food / travel

India's Short-Sighted Push For Himalayan Tourism

The government recently gave foreigners the go-ahead to visit 137 peaks in four states, paving the way for a potential flood of visitors to the world's tallest mountain range.

Tourists hiking in the Himalayas
Tourists hiking in the Himalayas
Narendra Patil*

-OpEd-

"Walking is a virtue, tourism is a deadly sin." – Bruce Chatwin

The more ethereal reasons to live by are definitely to be found in the higher reaches of a mountain. We might climb one for recreation or in search of some deeper emotion, or both, but doing so is indicative of the idea that we have of ourselves as humans and our relationship to our environment. And this is where the fine line between a virtuous pursuit and consumerism lies.

With its remarkably consistent position of overlooking environmental concerns, the Government of India on Aug. 21 opened 137 peaks in four states to foreigners for mountaineering and trekking. The economic imperative of this move, couched in the fashionable ideals of neoliberalism, is obvious.

The existing guidelines for regulating mountain tourism are not up to the mark. Last year, the Uttarakhand high court banned adventure sports in the state for what it perceived to be inadequate regulation by the state government. But given that the international track record of regulating mountain tourism has been generally subpar, the Centre's new decision is likely to adversely impact the mountains and the people that depend on it.

Experts recognized the ill-effects of high-altitude tourism in the 1990s. At a meeting organized by the British Mountaineering Council in 1993, they agreed that mountains should not be treated as "giant cash cows." But this hasn't been enough to give the tourism industry pause. Driven by commercial success and indifferent to regulatory mechanisms, its growth continues unabated.

This apathy to the health of mountains manifests in the soaring number of climbers. Ed. note: 807 people reached the summit of Mount Everest in 2018, a high-water mark that could be broken this year).

Tour operators bank on aspirations of ordinary people to experience something extraordinary.

The Himalaya hold the world's third-largest ice mass, hosting 46,298 glaciers and covering 0.4% of Earth's total surface area. They are home to 52.7 million people and the drainage basins of rivers originating among these peaks are settled by 600 million people. The Himalaya effectively provide a great amount of ecological security and ecosystem services to the world.

Now that 137 peaks are open to tourists, the states and the Centre will build walkways and roads, and clear areas for campsites. Green cover will be lost, the soil will erode, streams will change course, environs will become polluted and wildlife will be disturbed. Who knows, an invasive species or two might creep in and make things worse for the indigenous flora and fauna.

When a government introduces tourism to a remote region, it is often with the excuse of development and prosperity, but non-local tour companies often take the bigger slice of economic benefits. Additionally, local residents often don't receive an adequate share of the tourism revenue.

About a fifth of all tourists in the world are visiting mountains. Adventure tour companies are relentless with their profit maximization strategies. Tourists are usually people with money to spare but not skill, so tour operators bank on aspirations of these "ordinary" people aspirations — to experience something extraordinary — to make their profits. Thanks to their efforts, waiting in a queue to reach the summit of Mount Everest may have just become the most asinine form of adventure.

A group of people climbing Mount Everest, Nepal — Photo: Charlie Neuman/San Diego Union-Tribune/ZUMA

Then there is also the elite adventurer looking for a big enough challenge. Such athleticism, perceived as a hard mountain sport, offers promise to rescue mountains from the clutches of mass recreational tourism. Sadly, their climbs are rarely designed to be anything other than spectacles, particularly in the form of documentaries financed by companies promoting their gear.

Indeed, there is a great charm in the way advertisers package these sports. There are the audacious climbers and there is the awe-inspiring landscape, brought into our very drawing rooms. Cinematographers claim to use high-resolution cameras, there is often a host providing incisive analysis, and commentators wait in the wings to have their takes heard.

The American climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson scaled the Dawn Wall, a 3,000-foot-high rock face in Yosemite National Park, in 2015 and the footage of their feat hit theaters last year as a film.

The democratization of these sports is induced less by the growing penchant for challenge and more by bringing urban facilities to the mountains. It is no wonder then that tour operators are starting to include such sports in their packages.

Then there is also the elite adventurer looking for a big enough challenge.

If we have begun to articulate the river's right to flow, we should also be able to conceive of a mountain's right to remain aloof. Some climbers may embody such secular reverence towards the mountains but this cannot be expected of an average tourist, whose wont has been to trash.

However, given the anthropocentric thinking that pervades so much of our public lives, regulating access remains outside the realm of the possible for now. Equal opportunities and laws against discrimination are the hallmarks of modern democracies, so we balk at the thought of restricting entry to protected areas and mountainous regions.

The Kanchenjunga is one of the 137 peaks that is now open for business. But the local population considers it sacred; while humans are allowed to climb the mountain, they are prevented from standing on top of it and to scale it. It is likely that the government will make an exception for these beliefs but for the mountain itself, it will mean little.


*Narendra Patil has worked for Wildlife Conservation Society (India Program) for a decade and with an NGO towards snow leopard conservation.

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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