The eco-tourism trail

Written by Kirtika Suneja | Updated: May 6 2012, 07:08am hrs
The debate over wildlife tourism becoming too intrusive is getting noisier. It helped that Jim Corbett park was recently declared a silent zone. What could help protected areas more is a nationwide eco-tourism policy, the draft guidelines of which are already in place. Heres a look at these proposed measures and how they could change tourism for the better

On April 25, the Uttarakhand government, acting on the orders of the high court, imposed a blanket ban on noise pollution in a 500-metre radius around Jim Corbett National Park.

While this action was taken following a PIL filed in the court, similar measures are on the cards nationwide. The ministry of environment and forests is preparing the grounds for a policy that will govern eco-tourism in the country.

A draft of guidelines has already been prepared that lays the grounds for the actual policy, expected to take form before the country hosts the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in October this year.

The environment ministry set up a seven-member committee in December 2010 to formulate directives and guidelines for eco-tourism that would be applicable to protected areas, whether rural or urban, including national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, community reserves and conservation reserves, among others.

The committee, after making an appraisal of ecological issues, tourist visitation and suggesting measures for carrying capacity of reserves and giving recommendations for regulating tourism in ecologically sensitive non-forest areas in and around tiger reserves, forwarded its suggestions to the environment ministry, following which these guidelines were prepared.

The seven-member committee was constituted under the chairmanship of former tourism secretary Sujit Banerjee and the members comprised Divyabhanusinh Chavda, AJT Johnsingh and Bittu Sahgal, all three from National Board of Wild Life (NBWL); RM Ray, retired principal chief conservator of forests, Karnataka, and Prabhakar Dubey, director, tourism ministry. Rajesh Gopal, additional principal chief conservator of forests, (APCCF) and member secretary, National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), was the member-convener of the committee.

The guidelines, which cover all states, state that the primary benefit of wildlife and nature tourism must be the destination itself and then the communities living around the destination. Such tourism is low impact, educational, and conserves the environment, while directly benefiting the economic development of local communities.

In fact, the government's long-term goal regarding eco-tourism, especially for tiger reserves, is setting aside 75% of core areas to enhance predator and prey densities by 2020. These would be outside the purview of the regular tourism routes. This measure is likely to be implemented from October this year in a phased manner.

Under the current policy, the development, promotion and implementation of tourism projects, including the projects relating to conservation of heritage and eco-tourism, are primarily undertaken by the states themselves. The tourism ministry provides central financial assistance (CFA) for tourism projects, identified in consultation with them, subject to availability of funds.

The tourism ministry, which is also formulating the policy along with the environment ministry, has identified 53 mega tourism projects in consultation with state governments, of which 35 have been sanctioned. Mega tourism projects are a judicious mix of culture, heritage, spiritual and eco-tourism and aim to give tourists a holistic experience.

Tourism minister Subodh Kant Sahai had recently said that sustainable and not five-star tourism or mass tourism is the way ahead, as the latter can permanently damage the habitat and society of innocent people living in fragile ecosystems, especially in the north-east of the country.

Of late in many countries, there has been an increasing demand for a broader perspective on the facts of tourism that go beyond any physical impact on natural environment and includes the consideration of how poorer sections of the community can obtain more benefit from tourism. This has been matched by a growing awareness amongst tourists that a non-inclusive attitude towards local people is no longer sustainable. The anticipated growth in tourism can be managed wisely and can then be used to alleviate poverty, promote sustainable and equitable development, the tourism minister had said.

For instance, while Brazil is using eco-tourism to protect its rain forests, Kenya's eco-tourism policies are used to protect the wildlife existing outside the country's national parks.

In India, the new guidelines instruct all states to check unplanned tourism in and around natural ecosystems in the country. Under the state-level eco-tourism strategy, the respective states will have to prepare a comprehensive plan to ensure wilderness conservation in ecologically sensitive landscapes, local community participation and benefit sharing, along with evaluation of the impact of eco-tourism activities.

Besides, states also need to prepare a site-specific eco-tourism plan for each protected area and ensure that no new tourist facilities are set up on forest lands.

Interestingly, the policy also talks about the funding of these eco-tourism activities and has proposed levying of a conservation cess as a percentage of turnover on all privately-run tourist facilities within five km of the boundary of a protected area.

"The rate of cess should be determined by the state government, and the monies thus collected should be earmarked to fund protected area management, conservation and local livelihood development, and not go to the state exchequer, say the guidelines.

In fact, the Tiger Task Force Report in 2005 recommended that hotels within a radius of 5 km from the boundary of a reserve must contribute 30% of their turnover to the reserve. Further, the hotels can be allowed to claim 100 % income tax benefit for the same, as incentive. Moreover, a core area in a tiger reserve from which relocation has been carried out, cannot be used for tourism activities.

As for the benefit-sharing for communities living inside the protected areas, the new guidelines state that forest dwellers who have been relocated will be given priority in terms of livelihood generation activities inside the area.

The ministry had given time till December 31, 2011, to state governments to constitute various committees and create a fund so that the guidelines become applicable from January 2012, but the states are yet to do so. "Though the policy had to be finalised early this year, the delay and time taken are a cause of worry, admits an environment ministry official.

What the guidelines say For state govts

* The state government must develop a state-level eco-tourism strategy, under which ecologically sensitive land-use policies should be prescribed for landscape surrounding protected areas

* Provisions to ensure that eco-tourism does not get relegated to purely high-end, exclusive tourism, leaving out local communities

* Site-specific eco-tourism plan

* A local conservation cess as percentage of turnover be levied on all privately-run tourist facilities within 5km of the boundary of a protected area

* No new tourist facilities are to be set up on forest lands

For protected areas

* Develop own ecotourism plan consistent with state eco-tourism strategy

* If larger than 500 sqkm, 20% of the area may be permitted for regulated eco-tourism access, 30% of the surrounding buffer/fringe area should be restored as wildlife habitat in five years

* If smaller than 500 sqkm, 15% of the area is permitted for regulated eco-tourism access, 20% of the surrounding buffer/fringe area should be restored as wildlife habitat in five years.

* Any core area in a tiger reserve from which relocation has been carried out not to be used for tourism activities

For tourist facilities/ tour operators

* Tourism infrastructure must conform to environment-friendly, low-impact architecture, including solar energy, waste recycling, rainwater harvesting, natural cross-ventilation, reduced used of asbestos, controlled sewage disposal, and merge with the surrounding habitat

* All tourism facilities located within 5km of protected area must adhere to noise pollution rules

* All tourist facilities, old and new, must aim to generate at least 50% of their total energy and fuel requirements from alternate energy sources

* Tour operators must not cause disturbance to animals while taking visitors on nature trails