Learning from the Golden Triangle: Rethinking Tourism

A conscientiously designed tourism program can benefit both tourists and communities while leaving a light impact on the environment (Schaul, 2014). My host organization, Udyogini, hopes to develop such a program in rural Khandar. But to do so, it is important to understand the negative impacts that unplanned mass tourism can have. India’s Golden Triangle, connecting Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, is the most touristed route in the country. The area’s amazing cultural heritage and the ease of travel between its three corners make it easy to understand why. But while it has benefited economically from the tourism industry, the Golden Triangle also illustrates some of these negative impacts.

The Taj Mahal obscured by people taking pictures
What you usually don’t see in the Taj Mahal pictures.

The increasingly large tourism industry in the area has a blind spot for ethical concerns, and sometimes bypasses authenticity for marketability. For example, slum tourism, increasingly popular in Delhi, raises questions of who benefits from the transformation of impoverished communities into spectacles for wealthy international tourists to view (Nuwer, 2015). While certain tour operators make an effort to give back to the slums they walk through, not all of them do, and almost none are owned and operated by slum residents themselves. Chowki Dani, a popular village themed resort in Jaipur, packages rural India for tourist’s consumption, but in a fully artificial environment that does not actually interact with real rural communities.

Furthermore, the ubiquity of tourism in these cities has arguably cheapened visitors’ experience of the places as well. Instead of the massive, diverse, and living capital of the world’s largest democracy, New Delhi is marketed for a few key sites – Humayun’s Tomb, the Red Fort, Qutub Minar, India Gate – often completely stripped of their contextual importance and experienced purely aesthetically as a stop on a bus tour. The same can be said of Agra and Jaipur. Clearly, the Golden Triangle tourism industry has not been a purely positive phenomenon for the people who live there, or the tourists themselves.

Learning from the Golden Triangle is especially important for my project because increasingly, tourists are adding a fourth stop to their Golden Triangle itinerary: my placement site, Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan, which is home to Ranthambore National Park. Aided by its excellent rail connectivity to all three cities in the Golden Triangle – it sits two hours from Jaipur, four from Agra, and six from Delhi – hundreds of hotels have opened up on the main road from the city to the park entrance (Singh, 2017). Sawai Madhopur is routinely included on guided tour operators’ Golden Triangle tours and features prominently in the various routes of the super-luxury Maharaja Express tourist train.

Golden Triangle style mass-market tourism has firmly established itself as the main pillar of Sawai Madhopur’s economy. But the area’s small population, poor economy, and ecological sensitivity only magnify the tourism industry’s effects on the district. Exclusive hotels charge 60,000 INR per night for rooms in the high season despite sitting in a district that has been ranked one of the 126 most “backward” in India. While certain lucky residents win low-level jobs in the hotels, the industry’s profits flow to outsiders who by-and-large own the properties (“Wildlife Tourism: Can,” 2011).

Sawai Madhopur is even more closely tied to a single tourism experience, the tiger, than Delhi, Agra, or Jaipur (Karanth, 2015). Ranthambore National Park is home to the highest density of tigers in its history, making it one of the best places to see the animals in the wild (Khandal, 2017). This has brought tourists who are single-minded in their reason for visiting the area. The majority of visitors spend only one or two nights in Sawai Madhopur, shuttling between their hotel and the National Park in pre-booked safaris. During popular times of the year, guests who have not pre-booked sometimes arrive in the area only to find that safaris during their stay are already full, and have to spend their time idly, with few other sites to see in the area (Pinjarkar, 2018).

Furthermore, tourism is endangering the very natural environment that supports the industry. Hotels have taken up more and more land directly outside of the buffer zone of the park, threatening to cut it off from other natural lands (Karanth, 2015). Water tables have fallen dramatically in recent years, and while this is partially attributable to agriculture, the tourism industry uses an outsized share of the area’s groundwater (Karanth, 2015). And the Forest Department, which aims to protect the park from encroachment, has provoked widespread anger from local residents, whose traditional livelihoods are often in conflict with the department’s notion of conservation (Karanth, 2017). Far from being a natural respite from the problems of tourism in the Golden Triangle, my placement site sees in many ways an intensification of the same issues.

While addressing the negative aspects of tourism can seem daunting, there are multiple examples both throughout the world and within India of tourist facilities conducting themselves in a respectful and sustainable manner that elevates local communities and enriches tourists’ experiences. I will address these in a future blog post. For now, I have outlined what Udyogini is striving not to replicate in its community tourism program.


  1. Karanth, K. K. (2015, November 21). “Wildlife Tourism in India — New Challenges for Park Management.” Conservation India. Retrieved from http://www.conservationindia.org/articles/nature-based-tourism-in-indian-protected-areas-new-challenges-for-park-management-2
  2. Karanth, K. K. (2017, September 4). “Opportunity to Build Conservation Support: Local People’s Perceptions of Parks in India and Nepal.” Conservation India. Retrieved from http://www.conservationindia.org/articles/opportunity-to-build-conservation-support-local-peoples-perceptions-of-parks-in-india-and-nepal
  3. Khandal, D. (2017, August 2). “How We Turned Ranthambore Into A Tiger Conservation Success Story.” HuffPost India. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.in/dharmendra-khandal/how-we-turned-ranthambore-into-a-tiger-conservation-success-stor_a_23059566/
  4. Nuwer, R. (2015, April 15). “Who Does Slum Tourism Benefit?” Retrieved December 29, 2018, from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/slum-tourism/
  5. Pinjarkar, V. (2018, June 28). “Look Beyond Tiger-Centric Ecotourism, Say Researchers.” The Times of India. Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/nagpur/look-beyond-tiger-centric-ecotourism-say-researchers/articleshow/64770551.cms
  6. Schaul, J. (2014, July 1). “Conserving Wildlife Through Responsible Tourism: An Interview With Dr. Michael Hutchins.” Retrieved December 29, 2018, from https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2014/07/01/conserving-wildlife-through-responsible-tourism-an-interview-with-dr-michael-hutchins/
  7. Singh, R. (2017, May 24). “Ranthambore Tops All Tiger Reserves in Earnings.” The Times of India. Retrieved from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/jaipur/ranthambore-tops-all-tiger-reserves-in-earnings/articleshow/58817058.cms
  8. “Wildlife Tourism: Can India Turn It Into A Conservation Tool?” (2011, June). Sanctuary Asia. Retrieved from http://www.sanctuaryasia.com/magazines/cover-story/6827-wildlife-tourism-can-india-turn-it-into-a-conservation-tool.html

Kieran was born and raised in New York City, which fostered in him a passion for urbanism and sustainability. He Graduated from Cornell University with a degree in Urban and Regional Studies. After his second year of university, Kieran interned with Kota Kita, an NGO based in Solo, Indonesia, where he worked on participatory mapping with informal settlement residents in the area. Since then, he has pursued international experience, with the goal of entering the international development planning field. In his third year of college, Kieran studied abroad in Kotagiri, Tamil Nadu, where he researched human-gaur conflict in the rapidly urbanizing Nilgiris district. During his time there, he learned about the AIF Clinton Fellowship. He is excited to work with Udyogini in Rajasthan on an eco-tourism project that will take him back to India and see him bridging the divide between people and nature once again

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