Indian army personnel help stranded people cross a flooded river after heavy rains in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand Photo: Reuters
Indian army personnel help stranded people cross a flooded river after heavy rains in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand Photo: Reuters

How to safeguard the environment and let the boom times roll in the US$460 billion global adventure-tourism business? The ancient Himalayan town of Rishikesh has become an unlikely entrant in the worldwide struggle to save jobs and enable happy tourism while saving Earth’s great rivers and mountains from pollution.

In March, India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT) lifted its two-year ban on camping on the banks of the River Ganges, but with conditions that left South Asia’s adventure-tourism hub in Rishikesh frustrated and confused.

The latest NGT ruling to permit camping sites only if they are 100 meters or more from the river seemed to stakeholders as practical as allowing restaurants to serve food only between 1am and 5am.

Permitting beach camps only if they are far from the beach adds to the problematic chapters in the unique story of Rishikesh, 240 kilometers from New Delhi, in the northern state of Uttarakhand.

One of the world’s oldest towns, Rishikesh now experiences an adventure-tourism version of the California gold rush. At the core of this rush is governmental failure to regulate an adventure-tourism industry that has been forecast to grow by 46% worldwide between 2016 and 2020 (Global Adventure Tourism Market Report from Sandler Research, October 2016).

Other Asian countries such as China, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the Mekong River region actively resolve adventure-tourism challenges.

From April 1 to 4, China’s National Tourism Administration is hosting the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Adventure Conference and Travel Mart in Luoyang to discuss how adventure tourism can develop alongside nature, without corrupting it.

Corruption and careless regulation have unleashed unprofessional, greedy outfits that herd to the Himalayas noisy, polluting hordes of as many as 50 trekkers in a group (10 is a safe limit). They shout, play loud music, litter and ruin the quiet and solitude for which genuine nature lovers trek to the mountains.

The landmark Laxman Jhula (bridge) over the Ganges in Rishikesh, the ancient Himalayan town trying to bridge the global challenge of prosperity in harmony with nature.

Long known as the “yoga capital of the world”, Rishikesh has changed its biographical script during the past two decades to being a captivating global cosmopolitan confluence of rafters, meditators, bungee jumpers, and yoga schools – most of which forget to share the deeper, beneficial aspect of yoga – music teachers and pilgrims.

When I first went Rishikesh around 2005, I could see the Ganges walking down the main Rishikesh road connecting New Delhi to the India-China border, and I have noticed changes during my frequent visits in subsequent years. But this March 27, after a few days practicing Vipassana in a nearby forest, I went to the Tapovan area and was stunned to see a market jungle seemingly erupting overnight, like one of the Oklahoma Land Rush towns of 1899. And I had last been in Tapovan only about six months ago.

Nearly 300 adventure-tourism companies are in operation there (seems like 500), with attendant hotels, shops, restaurants (including Korean), spas, Domino’s Pizzas, banks, gyms, Baskin-Robbins, Cafe Day, and others steamrolling into millennia-old Rishikesh, a name that means “Abode of Sages”.

A four-hour rafting experience on the Ganges gave some insight into the growing global interest in adventure sports, with more than 60% of Americans since 2015 having indulged in it.

The Ganges becomes a different entity aboard a raft, turning into sometimes ferocious rapids from Marine Drive to the outskirts of Rishikesh. Blistering waves strike rafters with astonishing force that is exhilarating when they are not hurled into the suddenly raging river –the whitewater rapids formed where the riverbed has steep gradients or dips, causing turbulence and violent increases in the surface water speed.

Red Chilli Adventure guide William Tanner from Colorado and Mahavir on the safety kayak helped our seven-member Indo-US-Australian rafting team remain afloat on rapids celebrating names like “Three Blind Mice”, “The Wall”, “Club House” and “Crossfire”. The tough “Golf Course” rapids had the raft with seven paddlers and the hard-working guide soaring giddily up and down repeatedly like a surfer riding ocean waves – with fortunately none of us getting the chance to put rescue instructions into practice should a fellow rafter or oneself be hurled overboard. Then the periods of calm, blissful cruising under a blue summer sky, through one of the world’s great, picturesque rivers.

But those few  incredible minutes in the Grade 3 to 4 rapids (Grade 6 is classified as the toughest, as at Niagara Falls) teach literally rapid lessons on staying calm when struck with overwhelming force, not to fight the river, respect Mother Nature, trust the guide. For the non-arrogant, the Ganges gives safe passage.

Regret at the 26km rafting experience ending too soon explained the traffic jams of vehicles carrying rafts and rafters that now regularly clog the Rishikesh main road.

But insufficient governmental support, confused regulations, unsafe growth and turf wars cause stress enough for even dedicated adventure-sports pioneers like Vipin Sharma to admit, “I want my son to be interested in adventure sports only as a hobby and not a profession.”

Local residents too are wary of this unplanned tourist boom violating the ascetic spirit of Rishikesh, particularly in the Tapovan area where alcohol and meat are forbidden.

“We expect some tourists to drink, but open revelry can offend those coming to Rishikish with devotional intent,” said Ashok Mehta, who owns a bike-rental service in Tapovan. “We do not want Rishikesh to become another Goa” – a popular western Indian tourist state degenerating into a vice den of drugs, sex and criminal mafias.

The Ganges flowing past Devprayag town, 74km past Rishikesh en route to the higher Himalayas.

But the official Uttarakhand state tagline “Land of the Gods” is more than a mere slogan. Protective forces, as I experienced, ultimately work to throw out polluters in any form – and keep the Himalayas true to their core missions, such as being a secluded home to ascetics working to serve all beings.

So some good news arrived, with one of the pioneering adventure-tourism leaders, Arvind Bharadwaj, informing me of the new Ganga River Rafting Management Society, Tehri Garhwal, formed on April 1, with local governmental agencies and 262 adventure-tourism companies.

The new nodal organization intends better regulation, stopping illegal operators, and ensuring safety standards – a beginning for people from around the world to continue happily experiencing one of most special, beautiful regions on Earth, and ensuring local prosperity while safeguarding the Ganges and Himalayas in a win-win situation for all.

Raja Murthy

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.