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Holistic approach to sustainable tourism

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The Bhopal International Conference on Sustainable Tourism (BICST), 2013 organised by Ecotourism Society of India (ESOI) in association with Madhya Pradesh Tourism saw 150 delegates from India and overseas carry out two days of focused discussions on creating a balance between tourism, conservation and local livelihoods. The subject of the conference was ‘Tourism: Enabler for Conservation, Livelihood and Sustainable Growth’, and brought together experts from diverse fields who shared a common interest. The conference was represented by NGOs, conservationists, forest department officials, tourism authorities, the travel trade and hoteliers.

BICST 2013 was inaugurated by R Parasuram, chief secretary, Government of Madhya Pradesh. The speakers included many notable names like Mandeep Singh Soin, president and founding member, ESOI; Sujit Banerjee, secretary general, WTTC India; Raghwendra Kumar Singh, managing director, Madhya Pradesh Tourism; Enrico Ducrot, CEO, Viaggi dell’Elefante and ECO Luxury, Italy; Les Carlisle, group conservation manager, &Beyond, South Africa; Guy Chester, founder & MD, EcoSustainAbility, Australia; Lynn Woodworth, wildlife researcher from Australia; Heidi Bernsdorff, travel journalist; Richard Vigne, CEO, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya; Manori Gunawadena, director, Environment Foundation, Sri Lanka; Krishna Kumar Singh, founder and governing body member, ESOI; Hashim Tyabji, director, Wild India Camps; Rohini Chaturvedi, research associate, University of Cambridge, UK; Ravi Singh, secretary general and CEO, WWF-India, and others.

R Parasuram stated that ecotourism bridged the gap between those who live in hotels/resorts and the village / local populace of the area, “It enhances participation, livelihood and promotes partnerships. Ecotourism has brought back people to the centre stage. Sustainability should be the outcome of any effort and not an objective. That’s what will promote the future of these people through ecotourism intervention.” Pointing out that eco tourism as a concept is not often understood by the operators and hotels, Mandeep Singh Soin, founder president, ESOI said that the government on its part has made efforts like printing and distributing free of cost 10,000 copies of Ecotourism and Environment Handbook. He also spoke about how tourism can create alternate livelihood in areas like Chambal, which has a great potential to be a World Heritage Site.

Krishna Kumar Singh acknowledged that the conference has emerged out of need/a particular problem being faced at that point of time. Following the Supreme Court ruling on core areas for tigers, BICST 2013 is an effort to bring the conservationists, NGOs and hotel operators on one platform. “We are looking at the big picture and hope it will turn out to be a policy document for central or state governments,” said Krishna Kumar Singh.

Global learnings

For the development of sustainable tourism in India, it is necessary to take best examples from around the world and take it forward. This also involves bringing about change in the way things function in the country. Carlisle stated, “For tourism, it is essential to have well managed parks. Our guests are key, unless we make money we cannot make a difference.” For this the support of local communities is important. He spoke about how &Beyond’s model in Phinda Private Game Reserve, South Africa has benefited conservation and local communities. Carlisle had been involved in the successful Gaur Translocation project in India that saw the reversal of extinction. He believes that if wildlife is translocated from agricultural areas to wildlife parks then it can make a big difference. Initiatives like mechanical tiger dispersal can make sure that the animals reach their destination.

Vigne gave a very interesting presentation on the use of livestock to provide conservation space in support of eco tourism. Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a not-for-profit wildlife conservancy in the Laikipia district of central Kenya. Covering an area of 360 sq km, it is the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa. Vigne has pioneered the creation of wildlife / livestock integrated system of land management that resulted in increase of profitability. The conservancy hosts 80,000 tourists per annum and provides employment to 700 people.

Ecologically sensitive ecosystems worldwide have witnessed conflict between interested parties – from the government to local communities to conservation experts and tourism people. Woodworth, who has led many Antarctic expeditions pointed out how the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) that promotes and practices safe and environmentally responsible travel to the Antarctic has strict guidelines for all ships and visitors. Everybody has to operate through IAATO which has the overriding authority. In Arctic region, it is the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators (AECO) that has guidelines for tourism in the region with the Norweigian government as the driving force. AECO’s structure is similar to IAATO.

Regenerative tourism is an important aspect – there should be restoration of eco system without human management. Bernsdorff asserted that the community should not bear the brunt of tourism – what tourists impact they must pay for. A wildlife scientist from Sri Lanka, Gunawadena gave an interesting insight into conservation, integration and tourism beyond protected area boundaries. “Landscape based conservation approach entails understanding the character of the landscape, how it functions to support internal and external communities. Though there are few protected areas, there are many areas where elephants and human coexist and share the same resources,” stated Gunawadena. Interestingly, Sri Lanka is looking at integrating wildlife tourism within mainstream tourism.

Ducrot spoke about his Eco Luxury global endorsement and classification brand that has 100 members worldwide. It involves global promotion of its members and enables them to provide long term support to the community.

Sustainable tourism management

Sustainable tourism management includes several factors – ranging from the fact that the carrying capacity will not adversely affect wildlife behaviour to ensuring that the impact will not damage wildlife habitat and eco development of protected areas and surroundings. “In terms of education and interpretation for tourists, there should be connectedness with nature. The interpretation centres should be developed better,” said Dr Erach Bharucha from Bharatiya Vidyapeeth Institute of Environment Education and Research. He added that there is a need to reorient nature education – there is a newly defined syndrome of ‘nature deficit disorder’ – children in urban areas can have psychological and physical changes if they are not exposed to nature. Carrying capacity has become one of the critical factors, there are many pertinent points related to it. For instance – are the PAs overburdened with tourists? Can tourism be managed within the carrying capacity? There are different categories of PAs – national parks, sanctuaries, conservation reserve, community reserve. The impediments to conserving wildlife, specially long ranging animals are caused by factors like the small size of PAs in India (average 262.04 sq km), depletion of potential habitats due to population growth and increasing dependence on PA resources and of course, shortage of funds for protection and conservation of PAs. “Conservation in PAs cannot be isolated from whatever is happening in the country – the political and economic dynamics,” remarked Chaturvedi.

There is also another important question that needs be evaluated – has eco tourism in the country become increasingly ‘tiger centric’? The fact however remains that it is not possible to protect tigers only in small areas. There has been a large spurt in growth of tourists in Bandhavgarh and Pench. Hotels are on migration route of tigers.

Legal tangles

Supreme Court advocate Sanjay Upadhyay who is also the founder and managing partner of the India’s first environmental law firm, Enviro Legal Defence Firm, mentioned that India is the only country where every policy was written after the Act, which is an anomaly. “The CRZ notification has been amended 29 times. You can actually do a trend analysis of which lobby was working,” he said. According to Upadhyay it is important to look at tourists in different legal categories. Geographical context in ecotourism is important. “Concepts such as core areas, critical tiger habitat, PAs, etc, should not be depended on courts,” he asserted.

“Ecotourism is not about wildlife tourism, we are still grappling with basic issues like regulatory law. We have conducted about 12 workshops in various states, however we have to see how much of that training gets translated into better environmental practices,” said Rakesh Mathur, VP, ESOI.

It was the ban in early 1970s that some state governments started investing in these areas. The main thrust came from the private sector. “All the early pioneers had strong conservation ethics. They were former shikaris or wildlife enthusiasts who wanted to share their lifestyle. They never saw that this will lead to ‘mass tourism’. The government was unprepared for the new lodge owners who did not necessarily share the same mindset. Many rules and regulations were based on personal bias of individual officers and changed with them,” remarked Tyabji. It is necessary for regulations to follow firm policy and must be based on evidence and common sense.

Relationship with community

Community based ecotourism is the future, however the standards, rules and regulations must be in place. For example, the homestays in Ladakh follow the Global Sustainable Tourism Counci (GSTC) guidelines. The relationship between the tourism industry and the local community varies according to the level of engagement. From tokenism which involves employing members of the community to collaborative like Himalayan homestays. Communities are also informed and involved through employment like what is done by Jungle Lodges & Resorts. “The informal sector consists of 70 per cent of the industry in India. There is unequal power equation, there is no representative of the informal sector in tourism industry associations,” said Swati Seshadri of Equations.

Giving an operator’s perspective, Mridula Tangirala, director operations, Taj Safaris stated that they have a small footprint (four lodges) inspired by local traditions that lets people experience nature in very different ways. “A big challenge was to create a cadre of naturalists. Our staff are from the rural areas and were trained for English speaking guests.” The company also has many focused CSR initiatives for the local communities.

Involving the local community is an important part of Madhya Pradesh Tourism’s strategy, pointed out R Parasuram. “In MP, ecotourism is at a very nascent stage and we would like to take this forward,” he said.

Ecotourism has a lot of significance for a state like Madhya Pradesh that has one-third of its total area covered by forests. There are nine national parks and 25 wildlife sanctuaries in the state. Raghwendra Kumar Singh mentioned that they are looking to organise ecotourism conferences in the future in different places in the state. There are also plans to hold an ecotourism mart.

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