Ecotourism activities in the World Heritage Sites of the Western Ghats may be streamlined after assessing the carrying capacity of the individual sites.
While inscribing the 39 serial sites of the Ghats, the World Heritage Committee has asked India to initiate “proactive responsible tourism management in anticipation of increased future visitation, and to ensure that visitation remains within the capacity of the property.”
The world heritage tag is expected to increase the global attention and visitation to these sites. The inscribed sites from Kerala include the Silent Valley and Eravikulam national parks and the Periyar Tiger Reserve, which are some of the preferred ecotourism destinations in the State. Similar activities are there in the Shendurney, Neyyar, Peppara, Chinnar, and Aralam wildlife sanctuaries, the forest ranges of Kulathupuzha and Palode, and the forest divisions of Ranni, Konni, and Achencoil.
Ecotourism activities are permitted in 60 forest destinations including 12 of the nominated sites in the State.
The visitor attraction to Eravikulam is the vast expanses of Neelakurinji ( Strobilanthes kunthiana), which flowers gregariously once in 12 years, and the possibility of watching Nilgiri tahr, an endangered mountain ungulate, in close quarters.
During the last mass flowering of the plants in 2006, over 5 lakh visitors reached there in three months. The maximum turnout for a single day was around 8,000 persons.
The heavy turnout did not have much ecological impacts, thanks to the vigil and strict enforcement of visitor management measures, said Roy P. Thomas, who was the then wildlife warden. Visitors were not permitted to pluck flowers and overstay in the area. They were provided vehicles for accessing the park, Mr. Thomas said.
In the tiger reserve, a boat ride along the Thekkadi lake and high chances of watching wildlife including elephants and deer in action are the key attractions. The average annual tourist turnout is around 7 lakh. Of this, around 3 lakh opt for boating, said Sanjayankumar, deputy director of the reserve.
Ecotourism activities such as bamboo rafting, boating, and trekking are allowed in a limited scale, based on the findings of the carrying capacity, he said.
The Silent Valley had 23,241 visitors including 5,000 students during the last financial year. The ecotourism activities are restricted to around one sq km of the 89 sq km park.
The maximum turnout was around 200 persons during the peak season, the park authorities said.
N.V. Trivedi Babu, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Eco Development and Tribal Welfare), said that the Kerala Forest Department was planning to asses the carrying capacity of the ecotourism sites in the State. All divisional forest officers of the State were directed to carry out the assessment. The support of agencies such as the Kerala Forest Research Institute will be sought wherever required.