Crowding the Ganga's white waters could cost tour operators dear.
It's getting crowded on the rapids and issues of boat jams, pollution and ecological damage are beginning to raise their ugly head on the banks of the Ganga, near Rishikesh.
On the Shivpuri stretch, where river rafting was first introduced in the early '80s, a war is likely to break out over where the 48 licencees will pitch their tents in a bid to grab a slice of the rapidly growing rafting market in India.
Pioneered by tour operator Avinash Kohli (who is currently president of the Indian Canoeing and Kayaking Association), the initial hurdle had to do with importing the right equipment and ensuring safety processes for the nascent sport in the absence of any regulation. Having overcome those to some extent, the industry will now have to grapple with the more serious issue of oversupply.
Seen by some to be easy pickings, the number of promoters of white water rafting on the Ganga has grown exponentially. The 18 companies that were operating at Shivpuri as recently as 2002, will increase to 48 by end of 2006.
The sharp increase in those applying for allocation of space on the river's banks has much to do with government policy. The state government issues only one-year licences to tour operators, making them register sub-companies in a bid to ensure that they stand a good chance of getting at least one of their licences approved.
These tour operators say that unless there is a guarantee that they will get a licence, they cannot promote the sport to their overseas principals (which requires selling a year to two years in advance), nor would they be able to spend on quality equipment.
A spin-off is the overcrowding of licenced operators that has led to a price war, cutting into profits (and the ability to spend on better tents and boats). This, in turn, is detrimental to the long-term safety of the sport.
Tour operators unsure whether their licenses will be renewed are reluctant to invest in quality equipment. For instance, a raft alone costs Rs 2 lakh. Add to that the cost of lifebelts, jackets, head gear, canoes and kayaks, and trained lifeguards.
Given the competition, tour operator R K Sharma says a fallout is likely to be quality arising from lower tariffs charged from visitors, which could imperil safety. But those aren't the only problems.
Already, he says, "We are working against odds to keep the rafts afloat. The major areas of concern that need top priority are infrastructure by way of proper roads and coordination between government departments on the issue of licenses and permits."
And now there are newer issues, such as the holding capacity of Shivpuri, where (and how) waste is disposed, and possible damage to the environment.
Avinash Kohli, though, appears optimistic, "Rafting, is being recognised as a potential for attracting tourists to Rishikesh from all parts of the country," he says.
"If the government continues to support the operators then there is no doubt it will do a lot of good to the tourism of Uttaranchal."
But what's good for the state's coffers in the short-term might just deal the death-blow to its interests in the long-term. But is anybody listening?