Revel in early morning birdcall, mist-wrapped trees and lush greenery. Become an eco-tourist, says Lakshmi Sharath

The first rays of the sun caress your cheek gently awakening you from the deep slumber. A soft knock on your window sill; the early morning visitors are birds calling out to you. Your eyes take in the endless green spectacle. The dew is fresh and the air nippy. A lone peacock cries out, a bulbul flies above, squirrels chase each other and rabbits scurry around. I am cut off from the ugly trappings of civilisation in a comfortable homestay, enjoying the simplicities of life.

The buzzword in travel today is eco-tourism. It simply means that an average tourist can choose among destinations that are rich in natural heritage, and where the emphasis is on living close to nature. The package includes treks to waterfalls and streams, wildlife safaris, bird watching and fishing.

“The mystery is always built around the tiger, and big mammals draw huge crowds,” says ‘Tiger’ Ramesh, CEO of Cicada Resorts that promotes wildlife and eco tourism in Karnataka.

Take in the experience

However, the emphasis is on the experience, not just sighting. “We do not take more than 20-30 people on a safari at any given point of time as the jungles cannot accommodate more than that. We ensure the animals are not disturbed in their natural habitat,” says ND Tiwari, Managing Director, Jungle Lodges and Resorts (JLR), pioneers in promoting such tourism in Karnataka.

Swarna Venkatraman, who runs Wild Ventures, is an avid bird watcher herself. She travels extensively to the avian haunts around the Western Ghats in South India, forest zones such as Top Slip and Anamalais and exotic destinations such as the North East and Uttaranchal. “Nowadays, people are keen on exploring off-beat destinations. This helps in developing virgin areas in eco-tourism, ” she adds.

Bonding with birds

Gowreesh Kapani, a graphic designer and a bird watcher, makes weekly trips to Bandipur to capture the birds in his lens, and he says the feeling is inexplicable.

In Tamil Nadu, Mudhumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, a plastic-free zone, is a great place to go if you are planning a wildlife holiday. Stay at the foothills of the Nilgiris in Masinagudi and go trekking in the hills or ask your resort to provide you a glimpse of rural tourism or live with the tribals.

“Trekking not only brings us closer to Nature but also shows us the lifestyle of rural people, who still harmoniously blend with Nature,” says Ajeya Rao, design engineer.

A member of BMC (Bangalore Mountaineer Club) Ajeya takes off every month on treks in the Western Ghats. He explains: “Trekking is filled with unexpected learning experiences such as staying at a temple priest’s house at the mesmerising Kodachadri peak; speaking with sages who live in the caves of Chitramulla; and joining perfect strangers-turned-friends in a trek to enchanting Thadiyandmol…”

“Trekking tests my fitness levels,” says Adit Madan who markets Hill & Sea Hotels and Resorts, which promotes eco-tourism in the Himalayan belt.

Adit treks in the Uttarakhand region almost every quarter and says it is a spectacular experience.

Sashi Kumar, who runs Holiday Mantra, ensures that he treks at least once a year to the Himalayas. “No matter how old or unfit you are, the mountains keep beckoning. Each time I trek, I see something different.” he says. Eco-tourism also takes one right inside the agricultural belt, where you get a chance to understand farming. Plantations and farms are slowly opening their doors to strangers. You learn how coffee is picked, cheese prepared or rubber collected.

Homestays and boutique resorts have mushroomed in these destinations as rustic tourism has picked up as well.

So, you have options such as Coorg and Chikmagalur for coffee, Kottayam and its surroundings for rubber, Munnar and the Nilgiris for tea, Thekkady for spice plantations, Mahabaleshwar for strawberries, Mysore for sericulture, Bangalore’s outskirts for vineyards and Kodaikanal and Connoor for organic farms.

However, responsible tourism and conservation is the key in developing eco-tourism. “The trend, as I see it, is tourism that is “green-washing”. There are not many resorts today in natural areas that are truly eco. One should not mistake rugged cottages, lesser number of rooms and not washing guests’ towels every day as eco-tourism,” says Swarna. There are many laws, and it is important to maintain them. Some zones are car-free and plastic-free.

A different life

And, as tourists, you will probably have no TV or Internet and no mobile connectivity; and you might be in a place where you might have to travel by foot, where hot water comes from solar power and food is cooked over firewood. Cicada Resorts only hires and trains locals while Club Mahindra promotes “Adopt a Rare bird”.

JLR explains how a tourist helped trap a poacher on seeing a photograph of a wounded tiger. “Eco-tourism is, therefore, a necessary evil as it helps conservation and prevents poaching,” sums up ‘Tiger’ Ramesh.

But, remember that the jungle has its rules and that we need to adhere to them.

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