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Sustaining Ecotourism In India – The Way Forward

‘Rethinking Tourism’ is the theme adopted by United Nations’ World Tourism Organization (WTO)for this year’sWorld Tourism Day, September 27, in order to lay thruston meeting the challenges of sustainability and climate change. Ecotourism, obviously finds a rightful place in this context in view of its inherent attribute of striking a perfect balance between environment and sustainable development.

International Ecotourism Society, 1993, defines ecotourism as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.Ecotourism, therefore, with its four distinctive characteristics – responsible travel, exposure to nature, conservation of environment and local people’s welfare –stands apart from other forms of tourism.

Forests in our country with rich biodiversity (12% of plant and 7% of animal species of the world), varied geographic features, wide-ranging forest types, a good number of natural heritage sites, incredible cultural heritage andlargesttribal population offer tremendous potential for ecotourism development in the country.

The evolution of ecotourism in India

Though the term, ecotourism, is of recent origin from 1980s, the visit and travel to forests and wilderness areas by the people is not new to our country. Communities protecting and visiting a few forest patches as abodes of their culture (sacred groves) is a practice existing since time immemorial. A few traditionalpractices such as Jataras, KartikaVanasamradhana and others associated with the visit to forests and natural areas have been in vogue for centuries. Recreation forestry of Europe and America in 1950s and ecotourism in different parts of the world in 1980s gave birth to the organised forest and wildlife-based tourism. The initiatives of Jungle Lodges in Karnataka and Wildlife tourism in Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala were some of the early examples of such kind in our country. The success story of community-based ecotourism at Tekkady wildlife sanctuary started in 1990s in Kerala where former hunters turned into protectors of forestsbecame an inspiration to start such initiatives in other parts of the country. Today, community-based ecotourism with its wide spread coverage is a fast-growing sector in our country.

National strategy

Ecotourismis increasingly realised as a powerful tool for conservation, a sustainablesource of non-extractive benefits to the local communities and a facility to serve the people (visitors). In order to provide an impetus to the development of ecotourism, the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, has brought out a document of National Strategy for Ecotourism on April 29 this year. The strategy identifies seven strategic pillars namely state assessment and ranking, state strategy for ecotourism, capacity building and certification, marketing and promotion, destination and product development, public private partnerships and government and institutional frame work to promote development and growth of ecotourism in the country.

The paper also refers to the roles of central and state governments, panchayat raj institutions, industry, non-governmental organisations and local community and the importance of inter sectoral coordination and convergence to create synergies for development of ecotourism.It is a very comprehensive document prepared with rich professional inputs from tourism sector.

One of the operating procedures stipulated in the strategy is to give ecotourism blocks delineated from forest to private sector operators with long term agreements for managing ecotourism. This isnot only a major digression from the existing policy and legal framework pertaining to forest and environment but also inconsistent with the basic underlined theme of ecotourism. Detailed deliberations with wide cross section of stakeholders, therefore,become necessary on this subject before it finds application in the field.

Small is beautiful

In forest areas natural features/attractions form theecotourism resources which need no investment for creation. But finances are required to take up site-specific, appropriate, cost-effective, eco-friendly interventionssuch as trekking/hiking paths, safari routes, rain shelters, seasonal tented camping facilities, tree platforms/machans etc., to facilitate the tourism activities. The policy and legal provisions also prescribe minimal works with little or no impact on environmentinside the forests which require limited expenditure.

Therefore, the proposal to involveprivate sectorfor the sake of mobilising investments finds no rationale. In general, long-term agreements are contemplated to give time to recover the huge investments made by the operators. But it is not the case with ecotourism works in the forests where huge expenditure is not involved. Further, the principle of ‘economy of scale’ finds exception when the objective is to strike a balance between conservation and community wellbeing. The larger the size ofan activity, the more would be the exploitation/usage of resources by disregarding the carrying capacity limits. The optimum size of an ecotourism activity will work towards effective conservation and community welfare on sustainable basis. Therefore, associating private sector on the grounds of its advantageous position to manage large-scale operations makes no strong contention.

With extensiveand highest rate of dependence on the forest(about 400 million people are dependent on forest, TERI, 2015)and with one of the lowest per capita forest areas(0.06 Ha) in the world, it becomes necessary to promote ecotourism as socio-economic activity rather than commercial venture in our country. Private sector is proved to be efficient and competent to successfully run commercial ventures but not socio economic activities. Moreover, the experience of ecotourism projects taken up on Public Private Partnership (PPP) mode in Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh (combined state) through the concerned state forest corporations in the past which met with big failure and negative consequences suggest that private participation is not suitable for ecotourism promotion. Hence the proposition of handing over ecotourism blocks delineated from forest to private sector operators with long term agreementsis not justifiable.

Local communities, on the other hand, have better strengths in guiding and organising the ecotourism activities of trekking, nature walks, rock climbing, jungle safari, bird watching, wild animals sighting, botanisation, wildlife photography, boating, rafting etc., and to provide unique experience as compared to private operator who is stranger to the forest and locality.

Community management has also edge due to the reasons of efficiency, cost effectiveness, cultural affinity, low impact creation and socio economic orientation. Since ecotourism areas are ecologically sensitive and communities associated are of vulnerable groups, active participation of communities becomes all the more important. There are several success stories of community based ecotourism enterprises showing positive results on improvement of livelihoods/economic prosperity of local peopleand quality upgradation of forests recorded in our country and other parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Need of the hour

Ecotourism should be seen as an integral part of forestry and not as a mere segment of tourism in view of its special characteristics, need for sustainable management and its impact on forest and community livelihoods. Promoting community-based, small scale ecotourism activities with good networking as opposed to large-scale ecotourism enterprises under a private or corporate management will aid in development and growth of sustainable and true ecotourism.

However, the support of private sector in marketing and hospitality (outside the forest) can be taken to complement the efforts of communities depending on the need. Empowering the communities through skill upgradation, capacity building, entrepreneurship development besides placing appropriate institutional mechanism to manage the ecotourism activities in each of the states is the need of the hour.

Institutional arrangements in the form of autonomous bodies such as state ecotourism development boards, foundations, ecotourism corporations with coordinating role to forest service can pave the way for effective management and growth of the community based ecotourism activities. The state governments should take lead in creating enabling environment to promote community based ecotourism through appropriate policy and legislative measures in order tomaximize the benefit of both forest improvement and community prosperity. (The views expressed are personal; Writer is former Principal Chief Conservator of Forest & Head of Forest Force, Andhra Pradesh)



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