Chanting the ecotourism mantra in India

Posted: 30 September 2002

If there is an ideal ecotourism destination in India, it is Sikkim. This eastern Himalayan state of India with its pristine mountains, crystal clear lakes and rich cultural and natural diversity, is fast gaining popularity. Attracting some 200,000 tourists a year, of which 12,000 are foreigners, it has witnessed a 15 per cent growth in the past three years. Rustam Vania reports on the country's potential for ecotourism development.

Recognising the opportunities this sector offers to Sikkim, the Chief Minister Pawan Chamling says, "the enormous biodiversity of Sikkim is for the people. Sikkim cannot afford to have large polluting industries. Along with education, computers and agro based industries, ecotourism is a way towards sustainable development for us." The State has had a record of taking tough decisions to protect the environment.

Lam Phori at the base ofMount Jopuno, West SikkimTree felling has been severely restricted, grazing has been banned in the reserved forests and attempts are on to make Sikkim a plastic free state. Ecotourism is seen as the developmental option for the future. Inaugurating the South Asian meeting on ecotourism in the state capital Gangtok in January (2002), Union tourism minister Jagmohan grandly announced, "We want to make Sikkim a model of ecotourism for India and the world."

The state government now has a tourism plan, which includes orchid tourism - over 454 species of orchids are found in the region - to butterfly parks - 50 per cent butterflies of the Indian subcontinent are similarly found in Sikkim. "We should target this high value market. Last year, ten groups came from rhododendron societies across the world, spending over Rs 80 lakh," says K C Pradhan, retired chief secretary of Sikkim and a keen promoter of rhododendron tourism.

Pema Gyaltsen, from Yuksom in western Sikkim understands the gap between rhetoric and reality. "We don't want the government to dole out tin sheets to spruce up our houses for tourists...We want to know about guest management skills, a greater share in tourism benefits," he demands.

Worried that with the rush to the pristine corner of the eastern Himalaya will come with garbage, deforestation and immigration - and no economic benefit to the local people, Gyaltsen and a group of young people have formed the Kanchenjunga Conservation Committee (KCC) to start a conservation education programme for tourists and porters.

Old wine in a new bottle?

The Indian government has also discovered the ecotourism mantra. The National Tourism Policy, 2002, is keen to promote of nature and cultural destinations. It plans to market just about everything - from coastal resorts, cruise destinations, to traditional cuisines, to "village tourism", to adventure tours in the Himalaya, to wildlife.

The kettuvallom houseboat on thebackwaters of KeralaIt parrots the right words about sustainability and community involvement, saying that ecotourism "should be made a grassroots, community based movement through awareness, education and training of local community as guides and interpreters".

States are also following suit. Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh both have ecotourism policies. According to a document from the Wildlife Institute of India, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh are tinkering with the idea of recycling the entry fees collected from visitors to national parks, for conservation in the park itself. Uttaranchal is preparing plans for ski resorts, cave tourism, trekking and even wants to sell a visit to the environmentalist bugbear, the Tehri dam, as a green wonder.

But plans are easy to make, difficult to undertake. India's track record in tourism, leave aside nature tourism, is abysmal. According to government documents, a majority of tourists visiting India rate facilities - from roads to accommodation - as average or poor. No wonder, the country gets less than 0.38 per cent of the share of tourists of the world - fewer visitors than tiny Singapore.

In nature tourism too - the 'tiger tourist' kind - policy is equally disjointed. The National Action Plan 2002, prepared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, plans to "use increased tourism revenue entirely to augment available resources for conservation".

Yet, on the ground, the handling of the increasing tourists in national parks tells an entirely different story. Park management is ill prepared to deal with tourists and without this, tourism is creating new problems - increasing pressures on the carrying capacity of these protected areas on one hand, and sharpening tensions between the park and the local community, which is not benefiting from the visitor's economy, on the other.

Tiger tourists

Take Ranthambore - a prized tiger reserve in the Aravalli hills. Tourism has boomed here. Big hotel chains - from the Tata owned Taj hotels to the luxurious Oberois have set up shop here. Many say, this is former US president Bill Clinton's legacy. His visit to Ranthambore has made it a popular destination, attracting - according to some estimates - over 60,000 tourists last year. Tourists pay phenomenal rates - from Rs 10,000 to Rs 30,000 a night - in some of these hotels, which promise a ride into the park for a near certain view of the tiger. Indian tigerIndian tigers attract the tourists© Martin Harvey/WWFSo what does the tiger reserve itself gain from this increased tourist traffic? The economics are simple. Indian visitors pay Rs 25 per visit and foreigners, Rs 200 as park fees. In addition, Rs 200 for a video camera and Rs 125 for a jeep comes to the park. The rest - from hotel rooms, to guides, to jeeps and canters - a small bus - stays with the industry. G V Reddy the park director concurs," We only earn from the park entrance fee. I feel a 10 per cent fee should be paid per tourist by hotels to the park."

In the absence of a policy, tourism is adding to the pressures working against conservation. Reddy says they have no legal control over where hotels are erected. Hotels are mushrooming in the buffer zone around the park.

The only control Reddy and his colleagues have is to restrict entry. They have done this by limiting the number of jeeps into the park. The park management signs a contract with the operators, binding them to the rules. But as can be imagined, this has led to a virtual gold mine for the jeep operators and their jeeps are booked months in advance. The money for hiring jeeps and guides is not shared with the tiger they market.

Contrast this with the National Wildlife Action Plan 2002-2016, which says that "all tourism receipts and the penalties collected in a protected area should go to a local trust fund headed by the park manager. It should be used in the proportion of 70 per cent for community benefit works and 30 per cent for park management and development activity, not covered by the protected area's budget."

And what of the local people? The wildlife action plan says, "preference in regular or occasional employment has to be given to local people". Yet, opportunities for employment generated by tourism in Ranthambore, as in most parks, are unevenly shared.

Ran Singh, a guide in the park, grumbles, "Hotels employ trained staff from outside and the forest department rarely hires locals for development work or as forest guards within the park. On the other hand local villagers often lose crops to animals from the park."

Now, with the entry of the big "outside" hotels, local jeep operators, who ferry tourists within the park, are an unhappy lot too. These hotels are buying their own fleet of jeeps so that they can milk the benefits directly.

To conserve the park, local people are faced with severe restrictions on grazing and fuelwood collection, but no benefits. It is not surprising that villagers living near the park feel it is for foreigners only. Their alienation and desperation makes for annual 'battles' between desperate graziers with slingshots and helmet wearing park officials.

More hopefully, managers of the Periyar National Park in the Western Ghats of southern India are creating tourism products that they hope will not only benefit the local communities but also help the short staffed and poorly funded forest department to achieve their conservation goals. With funding from the Global Environment Facility's (GEF), park authorities working on an ecodevelopment project have created committees to work with villagers on creating alternative livelihood options and enhanced agricultural productivity.

Members of one such ecodevelopment committee have set up the Periyar Tiger Trail project, which includes 23 former poachers, who previously made a living by trading forest goods illegally. This ecotourism project is a joint collaboration between the Kerala forest department and the ex-vanaya-bark collectors ecodevelopment committee.

The ex-cinnamon bark poachers turned tourist guides' intimate knowledge about plants and animals, and their survival instincts make them ideal guides for ecotourism activities. Besides taking small groups of tourists on foot into the forest, they also assist forest guards in patrolling. The intelligence network of the park authorities has improved tremendously. Poachers have been caught redhanded. A fast regeneration of cinnamon trees is seen in Periyar forests. An unprecedented 89 cases of sandalwood poaching were reported since the scheme was launched.

The idea of ecotourism is still at a nascent stage in India and the country is beginning to see the first steps towards guidelines and policies.

This is a shortened version of an article, originally titled, Ecotourism: Scrambling for Paradise, which first appeared in Down to Earth (July 31, 2002), published by the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, India.