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The Evolution of Ecotourism in India

Ecotourism can be used to walk a fine line between sustainable habitats and income generation. But it needs a robust will on the part of the stakeholders an a whole host of management systems. In this long form essay, Mandip Singh Soin tackles some important issues around the tourism industry in India. The essay was originally published in the Times of India Coffee Table Book – Towards a Green India.

Tourism was alternately seen as an economic saviour for the region it patronised and as a destroyer of the environment. Through the 70s and 80s, it was thought of as a negative impact on local cultures, values and traditions and often seen as impacting the environment including the wildlife, be it within national parks or outside. In a sense, it is good that finally tourism is considered more than a detrimental force – as a spoiler of places that left garbage in its wake – literally and metaphorically.

The global leaders and thinkers in the tourism industry knew that we could not stop the juggernaut of tourism and indeed we should not, as everyone has an innate desire to travel and discover. Rather, it was thought, let tourism (now the world’s second largest industry) evolve such that it doesn’t stomp about mindlessly, but retains sensitivity on its journey and goes beyond – assisting communities, cultures and the fauna and flora. At this time, the juggernaut of tourism began to take into account the smaller, localized experiences that opened the avenue for hitherto unobserved tourism options.

In the process tourism began to take into account its impact upon the small local communities, in terms of financial revenues being generated by the continuation of their traditions and traditional way of life. Traditional tourism, in turn, got a peek into the secret traditions and dances of different cultures and all the amazing animals and plants and the magical creations of our wonderful planet.

Ecotourism was born as tourism of responsibility and eco consciousness. My friend, Hector Ceballos Lascaurian, who is credited with coining the word ecotourism, defined it thus, “Ecotourism is that tourism that involves traveling to relatively undisturbed natural areas with the specific object of studying, admiring and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural aspects (both past and present) found in these areas. Ecotourism implies a scientific, aesthetic or philosophical approach, although the ‘ecotourist’ is not required to be a professional scientist, artist or philosopher.”

ECOTOURISM
This is no different from today’s world of mass tourism where one can participate in cookie cutter trips, often with a superficial experience of the destination. However, there are a number of options for a tourist to embark upon journeys that are reflective of ecotourism principles, and as Hector said, “to have the ability of immersing him or herself in nature in a way that most people cannot enjoy in their routine, urban existences. This person will eventually acquire a consciousness and knowledge of the natural environment, together with its cultural aspects, that will convert him into somebody keenly involved in conservation issues.” By 1989, the International Ecotourism Society was launched and they defined ecotourism as , “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” The key principles were:

  • To allow people to discover and travel to natural areas in a conscious way so that every visitor could make a small difference.
  • Minimize the negative impacts of tourism.
  • Contribute to the conservation efforts.
  • Employ locally and give money back to the community.
  • Educate visitors about the local environment and culture.
  • Cooperate with local people to manage natural areas.
  • Provide a positive experience for both – the visitor and the host

This was an effort at showcasing how ecotourism, with its enormous potential to do good, was the antithesis of mass tourism, which generally comprised tourists lazing on crowded beaches, with their hotels depleting fresh water reserves in the area. The cultural impact on the local communities was adverse and such that they made the locals feel inadequate. In contrast, the subtle re-affirmation of the local communities’ beliefs and traditions, which are the hallmark of true ecotourism, allowed the local communities to invest their traditions and traditional way of life with a sense of value that could also bring in revenue. As the interactions became more intensive, tourists started to look for ways of giving back and helping communities and many years later this gave rise to ‘voluntourism’. This is a type of tourism where the essential component of a ‘give back’ is often reflected in tourists coming and spending weeks sharing their skills – be it teaching in schools or helping with patients at hospitals, for the upliftment of the communities.

THE RISE OF ECOTOURISM

What ecotourism was basically doing, was to bring to the table a consciousness that allowed even the non-nature based tourists to adopt what is now popularly called responsible tourism principles and actions. This, in a sense, was a direct result of two key interventions at a global level. First, the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 adopted Agenda 21 of Sustainable Development of the UN and tourism needed to adapt and support it. The resolution defined sustainable tourism as, “tourism that meets the needs of present tourists and host regions, while protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future.”

This, years later, led to the formulation of the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC) in 2008, a collaborative effort between the UN and other advocacy groups. The criteria, which are voluntary, involve the following standards, “effective sustainability planning, maximum social and economic benefits for local communities, minimum negative impacts on cultural heritage, and minimum negative impacts on the environment.” (Clarkin and Kähler)

In India, our own journey on the ecotourism path started way back in the 80s.

In 1989, a personal turning point made me more of an eco-warrior/pacifist than I had imagined as a result of taking part in a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) supported Arctic environmental expedition called Icewalk. The Polar explorer Robert Swan, who had organized this expedition, communicated, in a strong message, that the problem was created by us and, therefore, we must find the solutions. He inspired us and made us believe that each one of us can make a difference. So, I decided upon my return, to try and make the tourism sector in India ecosensitive. Being a mountaineer and explorer I already had an innate respect for the outdoor world. Now, I decided that my company, one of India’s pioneering adventure travel company, Ibex Expeditions would try to prove that good environmental sense is also good business sense and began signing up for the Himalayan environment code of good practice. We also learned that when they understood the logic behind it, travellers were more than willing to abide by the code.

It was such practices and more that we wanted to bring about in the travel industry. This needed to be jointly dealt with by the government as well as the industry. So, at PATA (the Pacific Asia Travel Association), which was the largest advocacy group in our part of the world, we started to log in best practices and keep abreast with ecotourism developments the world over. In 1998, we helped draft the national ecotourism policy for the government through an interactive process between government officials, NGOs and the industry. The idea was to identify our ecotourism resources and enumerate the principles that would lead to sensitization for sustainable tourism growth.

PATA’s international sustainable and social responsibility committee created a traveller’s code, which initiated travellers into becoming auditors of the organisations they chose to travel with, as well as the lodges and hotels they stayed in. Soon, the same committee evolved simple environmental guidelines for airlines, railways, cruise liners, transporters, and national tourism boards. For the first time the leaders of the tourism industry in India took a public environmental pledge on the World Environment Day on June 7, 1999.

Next came the publication of the ‘Environment & Ecotourism Handbook – A Practical Guide for the Tourism Industry’.

Now in its 4th edition, this compilation of do’s and don’ts, handy facts, best practices, resources, etc., continues to be the guiding star for many. This edition also contains a vital document called the Sustainable Tourism Criteria of India for the tour operators and the hotels and accommodation sectors, which came about as a result of year-long consultations amongst the industry stakeholders and the government.

This was based on the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC) and our mission was to adapt it to India, keeping in mind, the diverse geographical regions as well as differing cultural sensitivities. The Sustainable Tourism Criteria of India was first launched at the UNWTO meeting in Hyderabad in 2013 and once again comprehensively launched on World Tourism Day in New Delhi on 27 September, 2014.

ON THE GROUND

The impact of this knowledge; that was being relentlessly disseminated through meetings, conferences and workshops; was visible. First, we saw a wonderful experiment of the Kerala Tourism and the Forest Departments coming together to rehabilitate the bark poachers of Periyar as tourist guides, with the help of the Kerala tourism industry. This was a win-win solution towards preventing poaching and providing a livelihood for locals.

Ecotourism implies a scientific, aesthetic or philosophical approach, although the ‘ecotourist’ is not required to be a professional scientist, artist or philosopher.

Over the Cauvery, in Karnataka, the Jungle Lodges Corporation launched a programme of Mahaseer fishing where guests would use local people as fishing guides or Gillies. Based on a catch and release principle, the programme was a sustainable operation, employing ecotourism principles and enabled locals to profit from preserving the river rather than depleting its fish. In Kerala, around the lake of Kumarakom, Jose Dominic, the visionary behind the CGH Earth Group hotels, embarked on an eco-sensitive journey in conceiving resorts where one of the core values was to save heritage homes from being destroyed or sold. Instead, they were reassembled beautifully against the Vembanad Lake in the resort called Coconut Lagoon.

In Nagaland the youngsters of Konohma village near Kohima were hunting down even endangered birds like Blyth’s Pheasant and Tragopans because they needed meat on their table and didn’t have the resource to buy chickens from the market. Involving the village community and the tourism department of Nagaland, we helped these very bird poachers to become guides for tourists who were interested in bird watching. Another ambitious rehabilitation and ecotourism project has been undertaken in the Chambal valley. We are helping rehabilitate the famous Chambal dacoits as ecotourism guides as the area is teeming with wildlife. Two river expeditions have been undertaken on the Chambal along with the MP Ecotourism Development Board.

Our native village, in Karnataka, the brain child of an advertising entrepreneur C.B. Ram Kumar, is built on a 12-acre farm and all its 24 rooms are naturally cooled through a good wind flow design. As a first, his swimming pool resembles a natural pond where a special algae cleans the water better than chlorine! Every brick used has been made from the soil in the land and the bricks have been sun-dried rather than being baked in a kiln. They have a solar plant for electricity, they use bio gas, and they harvest rain water, and generally have a zero waste attitude.

Close to Nagarhole Wildlife Sanctuary, the Orange County resort at Kabini, under Cherian Ramapuram’s leadership, succeeded in bringing tribals back from their search for work. Today, many of them find employment in the resort and restaurants. Back in Kerala, a dynamic young IAS officer launched Kudumbashree in 1998 for eradicating poverty through concerted community action under the leadership of local self-governments. Today, the Kudumbashree initiative of providing the women a more dignified life and a better future has succeeded. It did so through an interface with tourism stakeholders like the hotels and resorts. They started to procure their food supplies from these local groups after shedding their fears of lack of quality control, etc. This has led to the tilling of otherwise fallow land and was a good way for a tourism entity to engage with the neighbouring community.

THE ECOTOURISM SOCIETY OF INDIA

In 2008, after an interactive Indo-Australian inter-governmental meeting on ecotourism, the Ministry of Tourism asked us to form a national body that could focus on ecotourism with its wider mandate of driving responsible tourism through all the sectors. Thirteen founding members from diverse backgrounds like state government departments of tourism and forests, the tourism industry, NGOs and even a member of Parliament came together to found the Ecotourism Society of India (ESOI). These founding members are P.D. Rai, member of Parliament; Dr Venu V, IAS, former Secretary of Tourism, Kerala; Jose Dominic, CEO, CGH Earth Hotels; Ravi Singh, Secretary General, WWF India; Steve Borgia, managing director, Indeco Leisure Hotels; Rakesh Mathur, Indian Hotel and Heritage Association; K.K. Singh, former MLA and environmentalist; Toby Sinclair, wildlife film maker; C.R. Sarath, naturalist; Sudhir Sahi, UNDP consultant, Niranjan Khatri, former GM, Environment, ITC Hotels; and Avay Shukla, former Additional Chief Secretary Forests of Himachal and I.

We also have five illustrious personalities as our honorary patron members. Over the course of six years and after 12 national workshops on responsible tourism, environmental law and best practices, we have helped raise the consciousness of the stakeholder participants and some more wonderful examples have been added at an accelerated pace to the handful that were swimming against the current earlier. Most notable is that of Ishita Khanna, a young lady from Welham Girls’ who went to the Spiti valley and, with a bunch of friends, formed Ecosphere, a social enterprise, that uses tourism revenues, generated through experiences offered to the tourists, for the betterment of the people in the area of Dhankar. Ecosphere has helped develop comfortable homestays in the attractive homes of the villagers thus augmenting the income of the local community and has trained locals to become guides to spot the elusive Himalayan Wolf.

Even the Ministry of Tourism implemented ecotourism principles through the launch of their rural tourism project that seeks to showcase rural life and immersive interactions to the tourists. Their Hodka project in Gujarat won the PATA Gold Award.

THE POSSIBILITIES

All ecotourism experiences and projects need not only be basic and budget. Taj Safaris changed that definitively by bringing in deluxe properties in Madhya Pradesh and enhancing the quality of the tourism experience many fold by quality guiding and interpretation. For their help to wildlife survival they officially partnered the MP Forest Department in relocating the Gaurs from Kanha to Bandhavgarh. Otherwise, the Gaurs would have been wiped out in the event of any epidemic. They also support local communities in several initiatives.

So, I am very hopeful that India will continue its journey towards sustainable tourism. But intent alone cannot win the day. I worry when I hear of the tourism industry and government trying for a double digit increase in India’s share of tourists. Despite the great examples I have focused on, there are also many challenges. If we don’t put the principles of responsible tourism into practice in every tourism policy that the government draws up, or indeed every action the industry takes, it is simply not going to work because we are also sometimes too lax with our management systems.

The success of Aamir Kahn’s film, which used Ladakh and the picturesque Pangong lake as a locale, brought in its wake an increased awareness of Ladakh. From a prior daily visitor number of eight jeep loads of tourists per day, it has reached an astounding 350 jeep loads of tourists per day in the high season. This impacts the tourism experience, creates non-biodegradable garbage, but worst still is the uncontrolled behaviour. The marmots are being fed by the tourists and that is an epidemic waiting to break out. This is a classic case where basic tourist management could ameliorate the situation. A couple of years ago, the tourism industry went through a crisis when the Tiger/ Wildlife tourism almost came to a grinding halt after the intervention of the Supreme Court. This was because of the absence of proper land use regulations around sanctuaries and national parks by the government and the greed displayed by the industry to exploit the loopholes and make a quick buck even to the detriment of the wildlife and the tourist experience!

CARRYING CAPACITY

So, the crying need is to institute a set of carrying capacity studies in all different geographical zones and across all tourism “products”; be it trekking or jeep safaris or rafting or wild life visits or indeed even our heritage sites and monuments. In theory, the government has accepted the committee’s recommendation for the 12th Five-Year plan and hopefully created a budget. However, on the ground, nothing has been initiated. This needs to be speed tracked while at the same time allaying the fear of the industry that there will be severe caps on numbers. It is interesting to note that carrying capacities are very flexible and much depends on how strong a management system is in place in order to harmonize the tourist flow to the diverse sites. If we can use these ecotourism principles to also protect our eroding traditional vernacular architecture, it will be a step in the right direction. Guidelines for constructing resorts and hotels, which must reflect the local character of the landscapes and cultures, are needed but these guidelines need to be implemented at both the centre and state levels.

We can actually aspire to be one of the world’s leading ecotourism destinations by 2025 if we can fix the loopholes like poor management systems and really develop the tourism potential of India, which is immense, in accordance with the principles of ecotourism and responsible and sustainable tourism. Of course, this requires a true partnership between not just the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Environment but also between the people and the land and its equally important non-human inhabitants.

Written for the Times of India Coffee Table Book – Towards a Green India