INDIA CLIMBED UP 13 ranks in the World Economic Forum’s 2015 travel and tourism competitiveness index—moving from the 65th position in 2013 to 52nd in 2015. As per figures released by the ministry of tourism, the number of foreign tourist arrivals in India in January this year was 9.83 lakh compared to 8.44 lakh in January last year. But despite these positive numbers, it’s tough to really pick ecotourism destinations—where tourism and conservation of nature are managed in such a way that there’s a fine balance between the needs of sustainable tourism, natural ecology and local community—in the country. Over the years, instances of over-development, man-animal conflict, poaching and pollution in protected areas and wildlife reserves have also increased.
Ecotourism becomes all the more important for a country like India, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), an international organisation that works in the fields of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, describes India as a “mega-diverse country” that accounts for “7-8% of all recorded species, including over 45,000 species of plants and 91,000 species of animals.” Good numbers, rich description.
On the other hand, a recent article in Scientific American, one of the oldest American science magazines, quoted a researcher from the University of Oxford describing his experience from a tiger research trip to India, where he saw tourism “take a wrong turn in a national park.” “There were jeeps going all over the place, hounding this one animal,” the researcher was quoted as saying. Sad state of affairs.
But it’s not as if efforts are not being made towards ecotourism in the country. If recent developments are anything to go by, things might become greener soon, as many states are preparing to embark on initiatives to promote ecotourism. Himachal Pradesh, for instance, has plans to set up as many as 37 ecotourism sites in the coming years. Last year, the state also approved a revised ecotourism policy, which will focus on involving local communities in ecotourism activities.
In Odisha, there are plans to transform select forest areas into ecotourism hubs with eco-friendly tourist accommodations. These 18 sites will add to the existing 42 ecotourism facilities in Odisha, which are spread over 23 forest divisions. Then in Uttarakhand—home to Jim Corbett National Park—a new corporation to promote ecotourism is being floated in which the state government and forest department will share 51% and 49% equity, respectively.
Not just that, already popular wildlife locations are also undergoing transformation. Take, for instance, Mangalajodi, a birdwatching paradise on the northern banks of Chilika lake in Odisha. With the forest department planning to construct at least a dozen rooms, watch towers and nature trails there, Mangalajodi is soon going to be converted into an ecotourism destination. The Amirthi forest range in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, too, is set to attract more ecotourism enthusiasts, with the forest department constructing solar-powered eco-huts there as tourist accommodation.
That’s not all. In March last year, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis announced that Nagpur, which is surrounded by important tiger tourism destinations like Pench National Park, Bor Tiger Reserve and Umred Karhandla Wildlife Sanctuary, would become the nucleus of ecotourism in India.
This nationwide push towards ecotourism is sure encouraging, but wildlife experts say it’s also important that we look towards other avenues and proponents to promote it. “There are many ways of doing it,” says Julian Matthews, founder and chairman, TOFTigers, a non-profit organisation that promotes awareness about tiger conservation and sustainable tourism. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a top-down government approach. In Africa, many national parks are run by NGOs, trusts and wealthy people, including Warren Buffett. Millions visit these reserves, which are some of the best on the planet. India, too, has many billionaires, but they are putting their money into buying reserves in Africa. Why not put that money into nature resorts in India?”
Showing the way
With 103 national parks and 531 wildlife sanctuaries, there is no shortage of potential ecotourism locations in India. The problem, however, is to build and maintain these places as sustainable tourism destinations. A few establishments, however, are setting the standard in this regard. Singinawa Jungle Lodge at Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh is one such example.
The Singinawa Conservation Foundation works closely with national park authorities and tribal communities for the conservation and protection of the ecosystem. Lodge authorities take utmost care to ensure there are no cases of man-animal conflict in the area, which is home to animals like the Bengal tiger, Asiatic leopard, Indian wild dog, hard ground swamp deer and the barasingha. “Safaris are conducted by national park authorities and they are accompanied by our naturalists and a park guide,” says Tulika Kedia of Singinawa Conservation Foundation. “Guides and naturalists are well-trained and know how to deal with a wild animal when it approaches or is close by. We also maintain distance from wildlife, so there’s almost no man-animal conflict during safaris.”
Miles to go
While all these are encouraging signs, experts say India can do a lot more when it comes to ecotourism. The country could perhaps learn a lesson or two from Costa Rica. The central American nation was almost entirely devoid of forests by the turn of the last century. Today, it’s the best-known and most-visited ecotourism destination on the planet. The transformation happened because the country managed to convert and restore about 50% of its rainforests. “In India, you have about 2-3 lakh sq km of forests that are unprotected and undervalued,” says Matthews of TOFTigers. “We could have 20,000 tigers in there. These are huge areas in which people can invest.”
Anyone planning to build lodges near wildlife enclosures, says Matthews, needs to get a few things right. Apart from ensuring there’s enough land to start with, one needs to ensure that no rivers or forests are destroyed. You also can’t build close to animals’ water sources or near corridors used by migratory animals.
Another important consideration is carrying capacity. “You need to ask yourself a few questions: how many visitors can this place take? Will tourism become a burden on the area? We haven’t worked out that process in India yet. What we have is too many people trying to get into small places,” says Matthews.
Sejal Worah, managing director, Jabarkhet Nature Reserve in Mussoorie, believes that with a little more hard work and commitment, India can achieve its ecotourism goals in the years to come. “It’s not so much about money… it’s about passion and commitment. You don’t need a lot of science or technical knowledge. Nature will bounce back if you look after it.” With the UN declaring 2017 as the international year of sustainable tourism for development, India must prepare to leave its mark on the global tourism map.
Here are some examples of establishments from across the country, which are actively engaged in promoting green tourism…
Beyond the lights
Mela Kothi—The Chambal Safari Lodge in Chambal, Uttar Pradesh, shows how an accommodation can be in sync with the various facets of nature. “We limit the amount of electricity used by lighting only pathways and exit points, and by using low-intensity yellow-light CFLs,” says conservationist Ram Pratap Singh, who owns the lodge with wife Anu Dhillon Singh, an environmental scientist.
Additionally, the lodge uses energy-efficient equipment like solar torches.
They have also initiated the process of setting up solar power generation, which would enable them to become self-sufficient in power in years to come, says Singh. They also try to curb vehicular pollution by using fuel-efficient outboard motors. “We don’t permit the use of electronic distress signals, etc, for attracting wildlife. The number of safaris conducted in a day and their duration is also restricted to limit disturbance to a minimum,” Singh says, adding, “Recreational activities are about hearing the music of nature. We don’t host any corporate events or DJ nights. Even a festival we conducted recently was at a distance from the main lodge area to limit disturbance.”
The right move
Dependence on vehicles at Reni Pani Jungle Lodge at Satpura Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh is minimal, which helps bring down pollution levels. “We encourage nature-based tourism… people can explore the forest on foot, using canoe, or on elephant back. This ensures that we have a low environmental footprint,” says owner Aly Rashid.
Also, except for guests rooms, where power-saving bulbs are used, Reni Pani uses very little electricity in the outdoor areas. The pathways are not lit up at all, and guests are escorted by the staff to their rooms at night. The lodge shuts down the grid supply when heavy electricity is not required.
Another important issue pertaining to ecotourism is ensuring that the surroundings
remain clean and visitors don’t litter. In addition to following a zero-noise policy, Reni Pani also
has strict cleanliness guidelines. “Garbage disposal here is carried out responsibly. We regularly conduct village and forest clean-up drives to ensure that the area around Reni Pani remains plastic-free,” says Rashid.