And so castles made of sand fall into the sea eventually


We have arrived in Jaisalmer, on the edge of the great Thar Desert. It is a sleepy little town where the main attraction is the imposing medieval fort which looks like a giant sandcastle; and as with any sandcastle – the walls are actually mostly made of sandstone and rest on foundations of clay – it is vulnerable to water…

jai-old-door.jpg Water usage has increased dramatically in the last few years – mostly as a result of tourism. Guesthouses inside the fort consumed far more water than the century old pipes could cope with and this has started to affect the walls of the castle. Two of its towers have already collapsed as a result of increased water usage. The growth in population and tourism is putting a lot of pressure on this ageing city’s infrastructure. The original drainage system – a network of open gullies running alongside the streets – was never intended to bear the pressure of the much larger amount of waste water there is today. While the sewage and drainage system does need a makeover, this does not absolve people of their responsibility to use water wisely.

Water is a precious resource here. The entire region is semi-arid desert and women from the surrounding villages sometimes have to travel several kilometres in order to reach a well. A number of NGOs such as ‘Jaisalmer in Jeopardy’ have helped raise awareness regarding water conservation amongst the local and visiting populations and to encourage some of the guest-houses to relocate to premises outside the fort.

This should serve as a good reminder of our responsibility as tourists. In 2006, international tourism accounted for about two thirds of trade in commercial services in developing countries according to the UN WTO (World Tourism Organisation) and figures are on the rise. This means that the impact of tourism on the local economy, society and environment is going to increase also, therefore putting more responsibility on the tourism industry as well as tourists. In India, this is particularly relevant as the number of Indian tourists is rising sharply with the growth of the economy.

jai-kid-by-the-window.jpg Whether it is water consumption in the desert of Rajasthan or wood cutting in the Himalayan forests, tourists – if ignorant of the ecological fragility of such places – can be demanding and unknowingly participate in the depletion of local resources. It is a shared responsibility, of course; it is up to the local tourism industry to educate travellers as well as to help local communities managing resources more effectively. NGOs and governmental organisations must also engage in the process. But as is often the case, the pressure that tourism places on populations plagued with social and economic problem makes it too tempting for a minority few to consume resources in an unsustainable way – at the expense of others and the environment.

With a rising awareness about environmental issues, a large number of tourists are now turning towards eco-tourism or equitable table tourism – although it seems that some places do not seem to understand what this means and have simply jumped on the green bandwagon for better profits. It seems also that a number of tour operators are trying to develop more sustainable forms of tourism examining the economic, social and environmental aspects more seriously. I suppose it comes from the realisation that once a destination is spoilt, it is bad for business.

In Jaisalmer in the last few years, a large number of guest houses have moved outside the city walls. This may well save the fort from crumbling down but this does not solve the problem of water consumption and the inadequacies of the ageing sewage system, and it certainly does not make it any less imperative for visitors to be frugal when using water. As Harold Goodwin, the director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism in the UK, puts it: “responsibility cannot be outsourced”