Sustaining Ecotourism in India – The Way Forward – The Hans India | Ad On Picture

“Rethinking Tourism” is the theme chosen by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (WTO) for this year’s World Tourism Day on September 27 to address the challenges of sustainability and climate change. Ecotourism obviously finds a rightful place in this context, given its inherent quality of finding a perfect balance between environment and sustainable development.

The International Ecotourism Society, 1993, defines ecotourism as responsible travel to natural areas that protects the environment and improves the well-being of local people. Ecotourism is therefore characterized by its four distinctive features – responsible travel, contact with nature, environmental protection and local people’s welfare – which sets it apart from other forms of tourism.

Forests in our country with rich biodiversity (12% of the world’s plant species and 7% of the world’s animal species), diverse geographical features, wide-ranging forest types, a large number of natural heritage sites, incredible cultural heritage and the largest tribal population offer tremendous potential for ecotourism development in the country.

The development of ecotourism in India

Although the term ecotourism only emerged in the 1980s, people’s visit and travel to forests and wilderness areas is nothing new in our country. Communities protect and visit some patches of forest as sites of their culture (sacred groves) practiced since time immemorial. Some traditional practices like Jataras, KartikaVanasamradhana and others associated with visiting forests and natural areas have been in fashion for centuries. Recreational forestry in Europe and America in the 1950s and ecotourism in different parts of the world in the 1980s gave birth to organized forest and wildlife tourism. Jungle lodges in Karnataka and wildlife tourism initiatives in Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala were some of the early examples of this kind in our country. The success story of community-based ecotourism at Tekkady Wildlife Sanctuary began in Kerala in the 1990s, where former hunters turned forest protectors and became an inspiration to start such initiatives in other parts of the country. Today, community-based ecotourism, with its wide spread, is a rapidly growing sector in our country.

National Strategy

Ecotourism is increasingly recognized as an effective means of conservation, a sustainable source of non-extractable benefits for local communities, and a means of service to people (visitors). To give impetus to the development of ecotourism, the Ministry of Tourism of the Government of India released a document of the National Ecotourism Strategy on April 29 this year. The strategy identifies seven strategic pillars, namely government evaluation and ranking, government ecotourism strategy, capacity building and certification, marketing and promotion, destination and product development, public-private partnerships, and government and institutional frameworks to foster the development and growth of ecotourism in the country .

The paper also refers to the roles of central and state governments, Panchayat Raj institutions, industry, NGOs and the local community and the importance of intersectoral coordination and convergence to create synergies for ecotourism development. It is a very comprehensive document made with rich professional inputs from the tourism sector.

One of the operating procedures outlined in the strategy is to contract out forest-demarcated ecotourism blocks to private sector operators with long-term ecotourism management agreements. Not only is this a major departure from the existing policy and legal framework related to forest and environment, but it is also at odds with the underlined theme of ecotourism. Extensive consultations with a wide cross-section of stakeholders will therefore be required on this subject before it can be applied in practice.

small is beautiful

In forest areas, natural features/attractions constitute the ecotourism resources that do not require investment to create. However, funding is required to take on site-specific, reasonable, low-cost and environmentally friendly measures such as trekking/hiking trails, safari routes, rain shelters, seasonal tented camping facilities, tree platforms/machans, etc. to facilitate tourism activities. Political and legal regulations also dictate minimal work with little or no environmental impact in the forests, requiring a limited effort.

Therefore, the proposal to involve the private sector to mobilize investment finds no reason. In general, long-term agreements are considered to allow time to recoup the operators’ huge investments. But it is not the case with ecotourism works in the forests, where there is not much expenditure. Furthermore, the principle of “economy of scale” finds exceptions when the goal is to find a balance between conservation and the common good. The larger an activity, the more resources are exploited/consumed, ignoring the carrying capacity limits. The optimal size of an ecotourism activity will work towards effective conservation and community well-being in a sustainable manner. Therefore, the involvement of the private sector is not a strong contradiction given its advantageous position to manage large-scale operations.

With extensive and highest forest dependency (about 400 million people depend on forest, TERI, 2015) and one of the lowest per capita forest area in the world (0.06 ha), it becomes necessary to embrace ecotourism as a socio-economic activity rather than commercial ventures in our Country. The private sector has proven efficient and competent to successfully conduct commercial ventures but not socio-economic activities. In addition, the experiences of ecotourism projects undertaken in the past in Public Private Partnership (PPP) mode in Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh (United State) by the concerned state forest companies and met with great failures and negative consequences suggest that a private participation is not suitable for the promotion of ecotourism. Therefore, the proposal to hand over forest-bound ecotourism blocks to private-sector operators with long-term agreements is not justifiable.

Local communities, on the other hand, have greater strengths in guiding and organizing ecotourism activities such as trekking, nature walks, rock climbing, jungle safari, bird watching, wildlife viewing, botany, wildlife photography, boating, rafting, etc. They offer a unique experience compared to a private operator dedicated to the forest and the surrounding area is foreign.

Community management also has advantages for reasons of efficiency, cost-effectiveness, cultural affinity, low impact, and socio-economic orientation. As ecotourism areas are ecologically sensitive and the communities associated with them belong to vulnerable groups, active community participation becomes all the more important. In our country and other parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, there are several success stories of community-based ecotourism businesses showing positive results in improving the livelihoods/economic prosperity of local people and improving the quality of forests.

need of the hour

Ecotourism should be viewed as an integral part of forestry and not a mere segment of tourism, given its specific characteristics, the need for sustainable management and its impact on the forest and community livelihoods. Promoting community-based, small-scale, well-connected ecotourism activities as opposed to large, privately or corporately run ecotourism ventures will contribute to the development and growth of sustainable and genuine ecotourism.

However, depending on needs, private sector support in marketing and hospitality (outside the forest) can be enlisted to complement community efforts. Community empowerment through skills development, capacity building, entrepreneurship development, as well as establishing appropriate institutional mechanisms to manage ecotourism activities in each of the states is the need of the hour.

Institutional arrangements in the form of autonomous bodies such as government ecotourism development boards, foundations, ecotourism companies with a coordinating role for the forest service can pave the way for effective management and growth of community-based ecotourism activities. State governments should take the lead in creating an enabling environment for promoting community-based ecotourism through appropriate policy and legislative measures to maximize the benefits of both forest improvement and community prosperity. (Views expressed are personal; the author is former Principal Chief Conservator of Forest & Head of Forest Force, Andhra Pradesh)

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