Focus Areas

Trouble With Tourism

A solar heating system, water recycling unit or use of paper bags has become reason enough for establishments to lay claim to the eco-tourism label. True benefits to the environment and society will accrue only when local communities are made central to the tourism enterprise
04 June 2012
Bangalore, Raghunandan H and Smithin G:
The shocking incident of drunk tourists beating up an official of the Forest Department, Madan Nayak in Dandeli – because he objected to them feeding wild crocodiles – and his subsequent death, is a harsh reminder of the often overlooked problems of tourism.
Post liberalisation, as India continues to motor along the path of pro-market economic and trade regimes, major shifts have occurred in the way people travel. With an increase in disposable incomes, people are seeking ‘offbeat’ destinations, and hitherto virgin locations are rapidly opening up for tourism without taking into account the environmental, social, cultural and economic impacts that are created. The mainstream perception that all forms of ecotourism are favourable for people and the environment needs to be critically examined.
The prerogative of eco-tourism seems to be tourist ‘satisfaction’. As a result, entertainment of the tourists is considered more important than meaningful immersion; big animal sighting is preferred to flora, fauna and small animals. Also, there is no space for local communities to interact or engage with tourists. It is no surprise then, that the interpretation of tourism has such a stark urban focus – alcohol, bonfires, loud music et al.
Wildlife tourism, which has received a boost in the past 10 – 15 years, from the government as well as the tourism industry, was an activity was once limited to naturalists, wildlifers and researchers. Over the past five-seven years, wildlife tourism has started seeing an increasing number of excursionists and picnickers visiting wildlife sanctuaries, interest being especially in the big animals like the lion, tiger, rhino and the elephant or in specific animals found in a region like crocodiles and alligators in the Kali river and Bhitarkanika, Odisha or the turtles of Gahirmatha and the Masheer fish in some parts of the Cauvery river. This has led to unscrupulous tourism practices causing increased pressure on wildlife and the environment.
Tourism is probably the only industry which sells what it does not create, not conserve. Adding insult to injury is the voyeuristic format of ecotourism today. Tourists consider the sighting, feeding, taking pictures of the big animal their birthright. There are ever so many examples of tourists having verbally abused guides, safari jeep drivers if a tiger/lion/rhino is not sighted. No amount of consolation is to be had even if the tourists see some good patches of forests of sal, teak and other trees or if there is a sighting of a rare bird or even the majestic bison.
The nature of ecotourism activities are common across all ecotourism sites, irrespective of where they are situated in the country. Clearly, the activities don’t take into account the cultural and social specificities of communities in the region, nor the special role that each of the communities has played over several centuries in terms of conservation. On the other hand, even cultures of adivasi and other forest dwelling communities are used as tourism products in cultural / tribal tours thereby making people themselves tourism products to be consumed. The tribal tours in Odhisa and the Andaman & Nicobar islands are testimony to this.
What is eco-tourism?
Often, tourism in ecologically fragile areas is easily and mistakenly passed off as ‘eco-tourism’. Key components of eco-tourism include contributions to conservation of biodiversity, benefits to adivasi communities, minimum consumption of resources, addressing site specific issues, local participation, ownership and business opportunities, catering to small groups by small-scale businesses, including an interpretation/awareness experience and involving responsible behaviour on the part of both tourists and the tourism industry.
The government outlines basic principles for ecotourism as defined in the Ecotourism in India - Policy and Guidelines (1998), including compatibility with, and lower impact on, the environment. Biosphere reserves and forests are identified as eco-tourism resources.
This policy is does not say very much about the role of communities in eco-tourism development. In January 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued draft guidelines for ecotourism in and around Protected Areas. Even this document failed to take into account important legislations such as the Forest Rights Act, 2006 and the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, which decentralise decision-making to the Gram Panchayats and Urban Local Bodies.
Resorts have come up illegally in ecologically sensitive areas and are promoting tourism without adhering to basic principles. A solar heating system, water recycling unit or use of paper bags has become reason enough for an establishment to lay claim to the ecotourism label. The growing popularity of eco-tourism has paid scant attention to the rights of adivasi people which have been raised by civil society organisations. Growing evidence points to the fact that eco-tourism does not directly contribute to conservation due to the extractive nature of tourism. Tourism has the potential to raise resources for conservation through collection of fees through gate receipts and that too only in reserve areas. In this context, ecotourism has become a mere ‘greenwash’, and the underlying principles are misunderstood and misinterpreted by both tourism establishments and tourists alike, either wilfully or in ignorance.
The demands most often placed by ‘ecotourists’ are contrary to the idea of tourism which is supposed to be environmentally friendly and set in local context. Many resorts operating in forests have facilities such as airconditioners and swimming pools, and exotic food. Research has shown that tourism establishments are unwilling to give up on these facilities since they fear that if they don’t offer these to tourists, they will lose out on business.
Reclaiming core principles
For eco-tourism to achieve its stated purpose of conservation, conservation education and community development, a drastic and fundamental change in attitude towards tourism in general and eco-tourism in particular is essential. True benefits to the environment and society will accrue only when local communities are made central to the tourism enterprise.
There is a dire need to impart environmental and cultural education, as part of an experience in a protected area. The government should develop mechanisms for the regulation of ecotourism with space for community representation. Tourism in ecologically-sensitive areas should be in the framework of authentic community-based, low-footprint, small-scale tourism with sustainable benefits and minimum negative impacts. The local governing bodies – the Panchayats in villages and municipal corporations in urban areas – should be officially made part of the decision-making processes.
The fundamental issues of eco-tourism need to be addressed, and attempts must be made to make ecotourism democratic, socially just and sustainable in a way so that both communities and tourists benefit.

(The writers are part of EQUATIONS, a research, campaign and advocacy organisation working on the impacts of tourism.)