Ecotourism in India

Header_ecotourism makes local youth into good naturalists (2)

Leading by example: Ecotourism in India

A few years ago, I travelled to Periyar to explore one of Kerala’s best and probably India’s finest National Parks. I was on my way to study the famous Periyar Tiger Trails, a unique community oriented and forest centred ecotourism project. The uniqueness of this experiment was that the very same people who had earlier made a living by illegal means inside the forest were now its protectors. As forest guides and naturalists accompanying tourists on walking trails into the Periyar National Park, the local youth had now found a source of making a legitimate livelihood. While on the trail inside the forest, which these youth knew like the back of their hands, they served as forest guards keeping an eye on illegal activities. In the process, the forest department was successful in making these ‘converted’ ecotourism guides, the stake-holders in the conservation of Periyar National Park.

This ecotourism model had long fascinated me for it had passed the test of time and provided an innovative solution to the humongous problem faced by all our protected areas. Though the term ecotourism is not totally new to India, the true spirit of the word has widely been misrepresented. Most of the times, organizations and operators have marketed their wildlife, adventure or cultural packages as ecotourism products. These operators probably have at best, satisfied just one of the requirements of ecotourism – of helping generate respect for our wilderness, mountains, forests or cultural heritage. However, the term ecotourism is not just this. Instead, like in the example of Periyar Tiger Trails, it has a much more important goal, one which takes care to not disturb the integrity of the natural ecosystem and the ethnic culture, while creating economic opportunities that make conservation and protection advantageous to the local people. And it is as simple as that.

Excited by the learning from the Periyar Tiger Trails, I drove into the Spice Village resort on the outskirts of this forest. When I entered my room I was surprised to find the ‘idiot box’ (TV) missing. Soon I realised that the air-conditioning too was missing, and so was the customary fridge. I had paid a hefty sum to book a room and here I was staring at wooden beds, terracotta flooring and a very basic setting. But then, there was something very different about this room. Very soon it dawned upon me that the simplicity of the room gave it a very warm feel.

Soon, I was pleasantly exploring other biotic and abiotic components that made up this resort; the thatched roofs, simple furniture, very traditional Kerala décor, simple waste management scheme and the lush green surroundings. Complimenting this impressive setting were the smiling faces of the staff dressed in their traditional white attire – all of whom who were from the neighbouring villages. Each smile on those faces was worth a million dollars… it was truly a welcome home feel. The more I explored the resort and spoke to the personnel, the more I understood another concept of ecotourism practiced here.

Very commonly resort owners equate providing satisfying experience with lavish paraphernalia The race is on for branded air-conditioning units, higher-resolution flat screen TVs, marble flooring, fully-stuffed fridges and even jacuzzis in the bathrooms. On the contrary, what Spice Village had displayed was exactly the opposite -they chose to provide the client with an experience instead. In their own words: “We have only continued an ancient wisdom, a way of living that sustained itself from nature, yet respected it and left it uncorrupted”. And the best part is that this wisdom had created a tremendously successful business model. Little wonder that many of the neighbouring ‘well equipped’ resorts were envious of the occupancy levels of Spice Village. Interestingly, more and more operators now understand the successful formula of this model. It is probably also an outcome of the increased demand from the ‘aware and eco-conscious’ traveller.

Interestingly, environmental fads, like waste management, power saving, water recycling and conservation also make better economic sense. And, investing in the training of locals has also reduced the antagonism that many neighbouring communities had towards these tourism projects.
Equipped with this knowledge of ecotourism, I started to search for examples from near home. This is when I realized, that Maharashtra was actually the home of this concept that has now become a mantra worldwide. Tourism in the Konkan belt, from Nagaon Bundar and Akshi, all the way to Ratnagiri and further south, had always been ecotourism in its purest form. I always remembered staying at the homes of the locals and eating the same food as what they ate, and not something that was exotic to the place. Instead of watching TV or searching for an amusement park, I would be fascinated by a small fishing village, an old temple, a beetle nut plantation and everything else that was totally local.

Today, I realise that all the money from my stay went directly to the local community. The family in turn, by cooking ethnic cuisine, supported the local agriculture and businesses. One important learning from Spice Village, and here also, was the fact that by using local materials, they had actually helped in reducing the unnecessary transportation and thereby the environmental cost of the material. These are the foundations of ecotourism.

Even today, with the tremendous tourist influx, the local flavour of Konkan is vastly intact and the benefits of tourism remain in the community, instead of adding to the kitty of good marketers and urban resort owners. Fortunately the travellers have also realised that there is more to a local experience than just watching soap operas inside a lavishly decorated room. The simple entrepreneurs of Konkan have disproved two major misconceptions that have hounded the tourism industry – that it would be unfeasible to run an ecotourism operation, and that only the inbound tourists would provide patronage.

Even as I was studying this unique tourism movement, a little known fact came as a pleasant realisation – our own MTDC has nurtured and created a very strong ecotourism initiative in Maharashtra. Unparalleled in the country, the state government body has managed to create a wide-spread network of small ecotourism initiatives in its ‘Bed and Breakfast scheme’, thereby helping many families to become entrepreneurs. These small operators too have always promoted local experiences, while taking care of other local business interests.

Here too, like in other examples, local people have found that tourism has provided them with sustainable livelihood options. And by incorporating the local theme, they have indirectly supported a very large number of other local initiatives; the farmer in his fields, the trader in the small kirana shop, the fisherman who earlier only dreamt of sending his catch to Mumbai, the poultry owner with just a few dozen hens, the cobbler under the banyan tree and even the car mechanic in his garage. This is the power of ecotourism.

The Maharashtra Forest Department (MFD), in the meanwhile was not far behind. Under the stewardship of the Pravin Pardeshi IAS, the Principal Secretary of Forests, the MFD has initiated a programme to involve the forest’s neighbouring communities to benefit from local tourism and thereby become participating stake-holders in protecting their forests in a unique way.

MFD supported many such forest neighbouring villages to form their own Eco Development Committees (EDCs) and Village Development Committees (VDCs). These committees have not been made dependent on Government grants for their survival; instead they have been made self-sufficient by allowing them to officially man and collect the gate money from the tourists at the entry points to the forests. In the past, there was very little collection from the tourists and whatever little was collected at the expense of precious Department manpower, would go to the state treasury.

Not the case anymore. The fund generated through the gate money is utilized jointly by the EDCs and the local Forest office for local conservation activities. All the works implemented create employment in the village and thereby ensure local benefits. The MFD, without spending from its own pocket, has created much-needed additional manpower. And more important, instead of a hostile neighbourhood, has developed partners in conservation.

It was a well-known fact that in the past there was a strong local resentment towards the MFD, which had displaced many households from within the forests to outside, as a part of the process to create inviolate habitats for wildlife. Today by reaping the benefits of tourist entry, many youth from the same communities have become partners in conservation. They have been made stakeholders, who find an economic incentive to protect the forests against fires, poaching and destruction. Pravin Pardeshic I.A.S., has thus managed to tap the financial power of tourism to support community-based conservation.

Taking the participation of the local communities further, many girls and boys are being trained as naturalists and adventure experts. Most of these skills are already deeply ingrained in them. Efforts are being made to enhance the ‘naturalist spirit’ in them to communicate better, and to educate them in providing interesting interpretation of all facets of the forests, not just the tiger. At many locations, local boys, who at best were herding cattle or ploughing subsistence-yielding fields, are today taking tourists into wilderness areas or conducting trekking, rappelling, rock climbing and other adventure activities. They are also being trained in safety requirements and standard operating procedures to ensure accident-free adventure activities.

A few people, from these remote villages have also taken one of their biggest steps of their lives, of starting home-stay accommodation arrangements in their simple homes for urban tourists. This unique exercise is aimed at providing the tourists with the opportunity of experiencing real back-to-nature rural living, while providing the local family with an economic incentive. The facilities at these home stays are definitely quite basic, but the experience gained during the stay is cherished for a long time to come. The home-stay owners are now undergoing capacity building to make the tourists’ stay a little more comfortable. Needless to say, the other family enterprises in the village also benefit from the incoming tourists.

This community-based model of ecotourism serves a very important benefit for the local administration. It will be successful in weaning away a number of local youth from any illegal activities that they would otherwise be tempted to adopt, in the absence of any worthwhile occupation. Our planners have realised the potential danger of keeping such a strong youth population unemployed. It is not too difficult to notice that terrorism, poaching, naxalism, and smuggling are most deeply rooted in areas where employment opportunities for the youth are the least.  And interestingly, there is a realisation that ecotourism is the only sector that can provide a lasting solution to these problems in these areas.

By developing multi-disciplinary ecotourism activities in these areas, we will be able to disperse large crowds of tourists from our glamorous National Parks and also provide the incoming tourists with more options to explore. Presently the wildlife tourism only involves driving in a safari vehicle in search of the glamorous cat (the tiger). Instead, a walking trail with a trained local guide can help a tourist fully experience the forest, while birding is one of the most rewarding nature experiences. Urban tourists will take these experiences home with them, having learnt from the local communities that immense happiness can be found even in the most gadget and technology-free lifestyles.

Thus, we will in the end have an urban society which will look forward to exploring the forest with its ‘dangerous beasts’ in company of a local youth, who is empowered to conduct good wildlife and adventure tourism experiences. The youth will in turn look at this sustainable employment opportunity and thus help in the protection and conservation of the habitat. The other families in the village will also see the indirect benefits that the increased influx of eco tourists can bring them.

Yes, ecotourism can conserve, provide employment and also cure terrorism – ecotourism is here to stay!

Words & images courtesy © Anirudh Chaoji

Our Planet Travel Editor’s note: Anirudh Chaoji manages Pugmarks Eco Tours and Nature Trails Resorts, an ecotourism operator in India. He is heavily involved in ecology restoration and environment education. This unedited version of his story is his personal experience. We sincerely thank Ani for his wonderful story contribution.