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The eco-tourism juggernaut

Eco-tourism should not be regarded as a passing fad or a gimmick, but rather as one of the trump cards of ... tourism. And for a simple reason. It is crucial to the problem of developing a balanced, sustainable and responsible tourism sector. In a year that the U.N. has declared as the International Year of Ecotourism, PANKAJ SEKHSARIA looks at how India fares.

Elephants and tourists in the Corbett National Park ... Who's watching whom?

IT'S actually like a wave sweeping through wild and natural India, capitalising on the diversity and beauty of this country's rich and varied natural heritage. Capitalising, commercialising, commodifying! Natural India is now being asked to pay for its very existence. It does not matter that our forests, grasslands, wetlands and rivers are the very basis of our life systems. The ecosystem services water, clean air — these don't count. The payment has to be made in hard cash, better still if it's foreign exchange, and eco-tourism seems to be the answer everyone has found. The conditions are right, the atmosphere is right and so is the jargon. If it's eco-tourism, anything goes. Literally. It's not what eco-tourism is, or how it is defined. It is all about making use of the right terminology. Across the length and breadth of this country, from Maharashtra to West Bengal, from Kerala to Uttaranchal, the eco-tourism juggernaut is on the roll, particularly in those areas that are being protected and conserved for wildlife.

For the last few years, I have been putting together and editing a small bi-monthly newsletter called the Protected Area Update. It carries news and information on wildlife sanctuaries and national parks from across the country, detailing what is happening to the exclusive four per cent of our landmass that we have set aside as protected areas. One of the most significant developments one has seen over the last couple of years is the coming in, or rather bringing in, of tourism, particularly under the banner of eco-tourism.

It is the magnitude of this development, the universality of its acceptance and the overarching use of the term that is overwhelming. Everybody now is into eco-tourism, be it state forest departments, state tourism development corporations, state forest development corporations, state industrial development corporations, tour operators, the hospitality industry, big and bigger business houses, NGOs, local communities, foreign consultants, research and academic institutions ... everybody is in the fray. Everybody seems to believe that eco-tourism is a magic wand that will help them get that piece of cake.

A very relevant articulation of this is seen in the recent draft paper on "Biodiversity and Tourism" prepared by the Bangalore-based group Equations, that works on issues of tourism. Prepared as part of the ongoing National Bio-diversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP), the paper says, "The recent tendency to qualify tourism in ecologically sensitive areas, like the forests and the coast as `eco-tourism' or `nature tourism' is a terminology that is applied for the convenience of tourism service providers. The very reason why the tourism industry opted for this terminology was because wherever tourism is practised, it has proven to be detrimental to the environment and the social fabric of local communities." So, rather than changing what you are doing, the solution has been to simply change what you call it. Not tourism, but eco-tourism!

Anything and everything is now being pushed through under this banner and here's a sampling. In Andhra Pradesh, the major players for eco-tourism development are going to be the A.P. Tourism Development Corporation and the A.P. Forest Development Corporation. The forest corporation has been designated as the nodal agency for the implementation of tourism projects in 12 sanctuaries and three zoological parks in the State. Last year, ironically, key wildlife posts in the State fell vacant and some protected areas were left unstaffed because senior officers were transferred to the forest corporation for eco-tourism projects.

In Karnataka, a Rs. 100 crore night safari project, with a 300-room luxury "international resort" in tow, is being planned in the Bannerghata National Park with the help of the Singapore Zoological Gardens. Funds for the wildlife wing of the forest department or for proper management of the park may be difficult to come by, but the State Tourism Minister has no problem considering Rs. 25 crores as State participation in the project.

In Kerala, the forest and tourism departments have just initiated a process by which all the 12 wildlife sanctuaries in the State will be opened for tourism. The Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), meanwhile, has initiated a World Bank funded study aimed at selectively opening some wildlife areas that include the Eravikulam National Park and the Parambikulam and Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuaries.

In Maharashtra, the forest department has initiated a massive scheme for the promotion of eco-tourism in forests across the State, and all its divisions have been issued instructions to identify tourist spots for the purpose.

In West Bengal, the Sahara group has proposed a mammoth Rs. 900 crore project to develop eco-tourism in the mangroves of the Sunderbans, with the State Government slated to take up token equity participation through the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation. This will be five star eco-tourism which will include catamarans, luxury launches, house boats, helicopters and even an exclusive jetty on the Hooghly in Kolkata for the esteemed eco-tourists.

In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the forest corporation, which has been asked by the Supreme Court to shut down, is trying hard to reinvent itself through the eco-tourism route. For more than three decades, the corporation did nothing but cut trees. Now, almost overnight, it has developed the skill and the expertise to start and sustain an eco-tourism operation here!

Forest corporations across the country were created with the mandate of cutting forests and making timber available. Surprisingly now they have the expertise for eco-tourism as well. The issue in the Nandadevi National Park in Uttaranchal underlines another critical issue of our PA system. For almost two decades the park had been completely closed to human intervention and activity on the grounds that it needed rest.

Then suddenly, about a year ago, a cash strapped (at least that's what they claim) State of Uttaranchal realised that money can be made from opening it up for tourism and mountaineering. It was made clear, however, that though tourism will be allowed, the ban on human activities, which includes use of resources and grazing of livestock will remain. The State Forest Minister even said that the locals will be allowed to act as porters and guides when tourism starts, as if it was a favour. The Nandadevi proposal may have been shelved, but this is the very attitude that can be seen all around.

What we have to remember is that though only a little more than four per cent of the country has been set aside for wildlife as protected areas, this very land is home to thousands of tribal and rural communities that depend on them for their survival. At a conservative estimate, anywhere between three to five million people live inside these protected areas and several millions more around them. Many generations of these people have depended on these lands and resources and they really have nowhere else to go. Wildlife conservation and protection policy in this country does not allow people to access these resources even for their bonafide survival needs.

Tourism, meanwhile, has managed to become a holy cow that can be let in anywhere. In this (almost) mad rush to generate funds, we seem to neglect the fact that tourism can have a very serious, and adverse, impact on these areas. More importantly, we seem to have forgotten the basic purpose of the creation of the protected area network of the country. It has to be conservation, not tourism promotion. It has to be primarily used to ensure the livelihood securities of the local communities and the environmental security of the country, not just as a cash cow that benefits the fortunate few. The recent National Wildlife Action Plan (NWAP) too clearly says that "tourism demands must be subservient to and in consonance with conservation interests of PAs and wildlife", that "maximisation of income must never become the main goal of tourism", and that "eco-tourism must primarily involve and benefit local communities".

There sure are examples, where eco-tourism is being attempted in ways that are both socially and ecologically sensitive.

Attempts are also being made so that local communities can be involved in this process and to build their capacities to take responsibility. Systems and institutions are being created and efforts are being made.

These, however, are more in the nature of exceptions, not the rule.

Looking at many of the developments and proposals across the country, it is difficult to feel confident that the eco-tourism parameters will be met, or that there is even an attempt at that. Meanwhile, there seems to be no stopping this juggernaut that has started to roll.

* * *

Long-term hope

NOT long ago, a small group of ecotourists landed on a remote beach on Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula. An hour later, they were deep in the rain forest of Corcovado National Park, hiking along a trail flanked by giant ferns and shaded by 70-metre-tall trees anchored to the thin soil with buttress roots.

Thousands of species of plants struggled toward the sun, clinging and swarming over their taller neighbours, colonising their trunks and feeding on their fallen leaves. Here and there, narrow paths were worn into the forest floor by the million tiny legs of army and leaf-cutter ants. Palm-sized blue morpho butterflies flitted between flowers.

The Pacific-coast park is a jewel box of biodiversity and one of the top nature destinations in a country long associated with the emergence of ecotourism, which became defined as a travel activity in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The guide stopped the visitors on the trail and urged them to listen to the symphony of forest sounds. The humid air was thick with the squawks and cries of birds, the distant roar of howler monkeys, the electric buzzing of cicadas, and mysterious rustlings in the dense undergrowth.

But in the distance, they also heard something that didn't belong here — the sound of a chainsaw. Corcovado, like other Costa Rican parks and preserves, is threatened by illegal logging and precarista (squatter) families, waiting for the forest to be cleared, occupied and cultivated. Unfortunately, there is not enough money or park staff to stop the poaching and illegal timbering that are nibbling at the edges of the rain forest.

Later that day, a naturalist and guide, told the visitors that ecotourism was the only long-term hope for the survival of the country's nature preserves. "This is our greatest wealth and attraction," he said. "The more income the government sees from tourists (who are drawn to the natural landscape), the more seriously it will take the need to protect the wild lands." Costa Rica's conservation issue illustrates why there is growing international interest in ecotourism. Although it accounts for only two to four per cent of the global tourism industry, as more consumers demand experiences beyond the sanitised confines of a resort environment, this niche market is growing rapidly — and can have a significant impact on efforts to protect sensitive environments and indigenous cultures.

* * *

The stakeholders

Over the past two decades, ecotourism activities have expanded rapidly and further growth is expected in the future. Recognising its global importance, the United Nations designated the year 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism, and its Commission on Sustainable Development requested international agencies, governments and the private sector to undertake supportive activities.

In this framework the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) organised a pioneering forum earlier this year that was conducted solely online. The prime objective was to provide easy access for a wide range of stakeholders involved in ecotourism to exchange experiences and voice comments. The discussion was focussed on four main themes: Theme 1: Ecotourism Policy and Planning: The Sustainability Challenge; Theme 2: Regulation of Ecotourism: Institutional Responsibilities and Frameworks; Theme 3: Product Development, Marketing and Promotion of Ecotourism: Fostering Sustainable Products and Consumers and Theme 4: Monitoring Costs and Benefits of Ecotourism: Ensuring Equitable Distribution among all Stakeholders.

A major point was that well designed certification programmes can help achieve the objectives of ecotourism by providing incentives to certified ecotourism operators with a marketing advantage. National broad-based coalitions have the best records for developing certification.

The general recommendations that emerged were: Ecotourism should balance top-down and bottom-up development strategies. Effective standards are the result of a consensus building process among all affected interests.

Priority should be given in the training of local people and park managers and to monitoring the delivery of services and products to ensure they meet expectations. Accessible financing (grants, inexpensive long-term loans) is needed for ecotourism projects and must include ways to measure whether these monies are being used effectively. Internet communication provides a low-cost and efficient mechanism for both promotion and development; it needs to be complimented with other communication strategies. Media professionals need to provide better insights into ecotourism without losing the human dimension.

Source: The Internet

The writer is a member of the environmental action group, Kalpavriksh.

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