Vanguard Of Ecotourism

The South Asian nation has been making rapid strides in promoting ecotourism

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By Aftab H. Kola

Published: Mon 15 Aug 2022, 12:00 AM

Watching a skein of colourful birds flapping away and getting soaked in the gliding mist, peacocks taking iridescent flights, herds of elephants ambling down the path, a bevy of deer perfectly camouflaged in the light-speckled forest and that elusive tiger making a sudden guest appearance in a spectacular forest setting sans human interventions, this is what I witnessed up close during a wildlife safari in Kabini River Lodge, Karnataka, one of India’s great ecotourism success stories.

Years ago, this was possible only on Discovery or National Geography but in recent years, many states in India have taken the lead in promoting ecotourism, now recognised across the globe as a powerful tool for the conservation of forests, wetlands, biodiversity/wildlife and rural scenic landscapes. It does so by offering sustainable alternative livelihoods for forest and tribal dependent communities and by generating conservation awareness among the masses. It offers an opportunity to show respect for the local environment and culture.

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”.

India is one of the few countries that have taken a lead in ecotourism. Little wonder then that central and federal governments are taking up new initiatives to promote ecotourism. India is in the vanguard of a UN pledge to develop a sustainable model of tourism after the pandemic pushed the sector’s levels of resilience to breaking point.

The impact of global warming and the degradation of nature have threatened ecotourism. Promoting and preserving fragile and raw nature, reducing carbon footprint and connecting isolated environments with the mainstream are a few concerns that ecotourism has to encounter. Farmstays, rural stays and eco-friendly hotels offer a natural retreat in many popular tourist destinations.

India's Ministry of Tourism recognises the following cardinal principles for the development of ecotourism:

  • It should involve the local community and lead to the overall economic development of the area.
  • It should identify the likely conflicts between use of resources for ecotourism and the livelihood of local inhabitants and attempt to minimize such conflicts.
  • (The type and scale of ecotourism development should be compatible with the environment and socio-cultural characteristics of the local community; and
  • (It should be planned as a part of the overall area development strategy, guided by an integrated land-use plan while avoiding inter-sectoral conflicts and ensuring sectoral integration associated with commensurate expansion of public services.

The Ministry has also drafted a national strategy on sustainable tourism which focuses on promoting environmental sustainability, protecting biodiversity, promoting economic sustainability and promoting socio-cultural sustainability. The strategy aims to mainstream sustainability into the tourism sector.

Key ecotourism projects

India, as a whole, is focusing on promoting ecotourism. States like Kerala, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Sikkim and a few others are now actively engaged in enhancing the facilities at their ecotourism destinations.

Aimed at the union government's larger goal to promote sustainable ecotourism through the site-specific plan, the environment ministry has released an indicative list of 90 potential ecotourism sites in the country. It has asked states and union territories to come up with a plan for every ecotourism destination considering its five key objectives, including enhancing the "potential of India as a global ecotourism destination".

The ministry in its note to states/union territories said the "overall goal" of these guidelines is to promote a better understanding of nature and wildlife conservation while "generating income and opportunities for the local communities in an ecologically, culturally and economically sustainable manner".

Prominent sites on the list of 90 are: Gir National Park & Gir Landscape in Gujarat, Morni Hills in Haryana, Pong Dam Lake in Himachal Pradesh, Dalma Wildlife Sanctuary in Jharkhand, Cauvery Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka, Silent Valley National Park in Kerala, National Chambal Wildlife Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, Thane Creek Flamingo Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra, Beas Conservation Reserve in Punjab, Chilika Wildlife Sanctuary in Odisha, Mount Abu Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan, Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park in Tamil Nadu, Valley of Flowers in Uttarakhand, Neora Valley National Park in West Bengal, Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh and Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary in Goa. Besides these, projects initiated for ecotourism development in India include:

  • Development of Horsely Hills near Madanapalle in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh into a vibrant tourist attraction.
  • Development of the Satkosia Tiger Reserve (STR) in Odisha to re-establish it as a tiger habitat.
  • An ecotourism project in Morni-Pinjore Hills and Sultanpur National Park, Gurugram, Haryana.
  • The project on integrated development of tribal circuits with a focus on ecotourism in Himachal Pradesh.
  • Expansion of Wayanad in Kerala.
  • Development of Tourist Circuit (Western Assam Circuit) Dhubri Mahamaya-Barpeta-Hajo.
  • Expansion of Mechuka, a picturesque Himalayan Buddhist hamlet in Arunachal Pradesh.
  • Development of tourist destinations in Khensa, Nagaland.
  • Development of Udhagamandalam-Mudumalai-Anaimalai circuit in Tamil Nadu, known for best tiger conservation practices.
  • Jungle Lodges and Resorts, Karnataka, which gives the experience of living in the wilderness.
  • 1GEF Project-Gulf of Mannar, Tamil Nadu
  • Sikkim Biodiversity and Ecotourism Project
  • Some others include Periyar Tiger Reserve, Binsar-Nainital Ecotourism Initiative (Uttarakhand) and the Great Himalayan National Park in the Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh.

Message to wildlife seekers

Responsible tourism is one critical aspect of ecotourism, says Manojkumar, IFoS, Managing Director, Jungle Lodges & Resorts Ltd., Government of Karnataka, “Most people come with a conceived notion that they want to see the tiger. But, they miss out on the real fun of enjoying nature. They should look for beautiful winged creatures and lesser-known mammals as well, which our destinations are full of. Listen to the call of the birds, observe the animal behaviour.”

For ecotourism to succeed, the role of tourists and the local community is of paramount importance. Kshitij Kumar, IFoS, District Forest Officer, Sidhi, Madhya Pradesh, said: “Tourists need to be very responsible and sensitive while enjoying various activities. Littering, feeding wild animals, getting too close to animals, being adventurous, not following the rules, engaging in anti-social activities and unethical behaviour like bribing, and teasing wild animals are unwanted acts. With good efforts from various quarters and the availability of social media to create awareness, there has been significant increase in good behavior from ecotourists across the country. Famous successful ecotourism projects include Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Ranthambore, Corbett, Periyar, etc. After the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a significant increase in the demand for ecotourism. Hence, all available potential sites of ecotourism need to be harnessed at the earliest. In doing so, the participation of CSOs/NGOs as well as private and corporate sector needs to be proactively encouraged across the country.”

Lose Yourself In Indian Wilderness

In an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times, Manojkumar, ( IFoS), Managing Director, Jungle Lodges & Resorts Ltd., Government of Karnataka, and a veteran on forest issues, delves into different aspects of ecotourism

Why ecotourism?

Bringing people closer to nature so that they appreciate nature and the conservation efforts. This concept creates ambassadors for nature. Ecotourism envisages a major role for local communities in its implementation in getting employment and economic activities and thus helps get a better future for them. Ecotourism ensures that the ecosystem is not harmed despite allowing people to savour nature.

While ecotourism destinations across India are expecting a rise in footfall, unregulated activities can cause serious ecological damage. What measures are being taken to address this?

The law does not permit taking up any ecotourism activity in forest areas by private parties and thus the wildlife and its habitat in protected areas are regulated. Only the government can. Some other measures we have taken are: to cap the number of vehicles (for safaris) permitted inside the forest, restrict the number of rooms, etc so that they are not crowded at any point of time.

Sustainable tourism has become the buzzword for the tourism sector. Your observations?

Our aim is to further enhance sustainable tourism activities across the state through ecotourism projects. The need of the hour is to manage tourism sustainably from an economic, social, cultural and environmental perspective. Sustainability has been talked about since 1987 and initiatives have been taken to reduce carbon footprints to an extent possible. Tapping solar energy, adopting groundwater and rainwater harvesting techniques, procuring vegetables from local communities, etc are some of the ideas that are being implemented or planned. We promote the use of electric cars and thus we are planning to install power points for charging such vehicles at some of our destinations.

The Karnataka-government owned Jungle Lodges and Resorts is a success story of ecotourism projects. Could you take us through its journey?

It was in 1980 that the state government opened its door to the Jungle Lodges and Resorts’ River Kabini Lodge, India’s first ecotourism destination. And now with 24 forest resorts and four hotels, the story of Jungle Lodges and Resorts is aptly the story of India’s awakening to wildlife preservation. Little wonder then that our premier resorts are so much sought-after that even during weekdays and the so-called off season, we get very good business. The pendant among the jewels is the resort at Kabini, a beautiful, sequestered destination where you experience first-hand the forest in its raw form with top-class facilities that are in consonance with nature.

What is next for the Karnataka government on this front?

There is demand to increase rooms in our premier eco-resorts but doing that will defeat our very purpose. Considering the increasing demand of people to get close to nature, away from the hustle and bustle of the cities, we are in the process of opening new beach destinations. One is Sasihithlu Surfing Jungle Lodges at Sasihithlu near Mangalore and the other is at Ottinene, in Udupi district, an elevated cliff that offers panoramic views of the beach below. All these will be taken up by adhering to the CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone) norms.

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