Nestled in the Himalayas, Uttarakhand attracts increasing numbers of visitors every year. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of visitors to the state rose nearly 200 percent to 30.3 million. With major Hindu shrines located in the state, about 70 percent of the tourists who visit the state visit religious sites. That is a worrying sign for ecologically fragile areas such as Kedarnath – a small temple town located 3,583 metres (11,755 feet) above sea level and almost entirely washed out in recent flash floods.
The rush to the Himalayas has been accompanied by a haphazard pattern of growth that might not be sustainable. A study by infrastructure group IL&FS IDC Ltd showed that the carrying capacities – maximum number of persons an environment can support -- of various tourist centres in Uttarakhand reached saturation levels in 2010.
It is in this context that some environmentalists have been calling the devastating floods a man-made catastrophe. “Ecological fragility sets limits. Today these limits are being violated … and the pilgrimage to the Char Dhams is being turned into crass consumerist mass tourism,” said activist Vandana Shiva in an email conversation with me. (To see pictures from the flood crisis, click here)
A booming economy, young population and better infrastructure led to about 900 million visits to various domestic destinations, including to another Himalayan shrine, the Amarnath cave, in 2012. Located in a narrow gauge in Kashmir, this snow-covered shrine attracted more than 600,000 Hindu pilgrims last year, up more than 30 percent from 2010.
This year, the tour operators in the state expect even more pilgrims, though the board overseeing the pilgrimage arrangements refuses to put a number to the expected rush. “Number (of pilgrims) is fixed – 7500 per day, per route (there are two routes to the cave),” NK Choudhary, CEO of the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board told me in a telephone interview.