The devil is in the detail. When land is held in public trust, the question of who constitutes the public needs clarity. In India’s protected areas this question has become pertinent in light of the Supreme Court’s interim decision on tourism. This order requires states to declare buffer zones for tiger reserves. Tourism within the core of the reserves without notified buffer zones has been banned. Proponents and detractors have written reams about tourists versus local people versus forest officers, and the media has exploded with dire scenarios of livelihood lost due to the ban. Missing in this drama is the philosophy of ecotourism.
Beyond labels and epithets, it is important to compare what tourist operators believe constitutes ecotourism with the definitions of academics or policy-makers. As ever, there are large differences between counsel and practice. Take the Baghira Log Huts at Kisli within the boundary of the Kanha National Park. Tourists give it full score for location and low scores for everything else. Run by the Madhya Pradesh government and made of concrete, the only thing ecological about it is proximity to wildlife. Compare this with a high-end resort on the border of the park run privately by conservationists, using local material, restoring native vegetation, and recycling organic waste. But the resort’s 10 guest cottages provide air conditioners—though they run on “energy efficient” techniques—and the resort has a swimming pool in a bone-dry region. The resort services fewer, but high-end guests. But, the crucial point in both cases is the balance-sheet of what guests take away and leave behind.
Mushrooming resorts, especially around tiger reserves, raise demands for regulation. In 2011, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) drafted a set of guidelines for regulating ecotourism. They attempted to make the process inclusive by involving various stakeholders, including tourism operators. The guidelines state that ecotourism should be “low-impact, educational and conserve the environment”. However, these guidelines have remained on paper. Often, impact is not measured, and education is a low priority for tourists who want fresh air.
Sustainability in tourism operations is elusive. Operators have differing definitions of sustainability. Some argue that low-impact means they must charge high fees and cater to a few elite customers. Mass-tourism reaches across economic classes, but consumes resources in sheer numbers. The problem, however, is not just absolute numbers, but per capita resource consumption. Conservationists who own tourism outfits may be following the best practices, but when they write on behalf of tourism without specifying their credentials, they erroneously shape public opinion. If nature-based tourism ventures are to be considered truly successful, they have to win on three counts: ecological, social and financial. Ecotourism, ideally, should foster a healthy relationship between the tourist and a locale with all its inhabitants, human and non-human. But long-term strategies to build these sensibilities in tourists are dismally lacking. Not many tourists are oriented by operators to respect wildlife or understand local issues. Tourists don’t develop conservation ethos.
Limits to luxury
The most obvious criticism of ecotourism has been its impact on the very ecosystems it markets. In an effort to recreate African-safari magic in India, high-end resorts intertwine diametrically opposite tenets of comfort and wilderness. Tourists have come to expect such experiences as the norm in “wilderness holidays”. But somewhere costs accrue. Luxury resorts consume enormous energy, water and other resources, leaving a huge footprint on surrounding landscapes. Efforts to go organic, or use local material are annulled by high-maintenance furnishings and private vehicles. The attitude that tourists can demand anything they pay for does not help build conservation-friendly ecotourism. The trend towards expensive tourist outfits leaves many out—students, locals and backpacking nature enthusiasts, often belonging to the lower middle class. Since a protected area can hold a limited number of tourists, the opportunity to see these areas should be distributed equally among all sections of society.
Studies have shown that most people who live around parks do not get any financial benefit from ecotourism. They continue to depend on other kinds of forest use. Many believe that protected areas were declared just to start tourism operations. “Ecotourism” operators talk about unfair denial of access to forests, the need for inclusiveness and livelihood concerns. They forget applying the same argument for the locals. The larger question is not just about economic rights, but about what is necessary for conservation. If communities have to be involved in conservation, they need to have a stake in the economic benefits that accrue from parks, and tourism is one way of doing so.
One approach is to have private operators directly contribute funds to conservation. Tourism operators argue that they should not have to bear a disproportionate onus for conservation. But benefits come with responsibility. Operators can and should aid in restoring buffers, but they are reluctant, believing it to be the state’s responsibility. Some part of the tourism revenue should pay for the restoration of the buffer area. In this vein, the apex court’s proposal that 10 per cent of profits must be shared locally looks good on paper. However, unless the operational details are hammered out, the money might just breed corruption and laxity. Discussion of the issue in the media has not been backed by a cohesive work plan.
Most tourism ventures focus on profit. Sustainability is secondary. Regulating guest capacity is just the tip of the iceberg. Every resource consumed needs to be monitored—both overall and at the level of individual outfits. “Low impact” has to be measurable. Everything counts—fuel, wood, water, electricity, building material.
The other crucial element is location. While location brings business to Baghira Log Huts, it can also interfere with animal movement. Thus, the MoEF guidelines are right in not allowing any new “tourism infrastructure” in core areas, and in calling for regulated, wildlife-friendly construction elsewhere. It is vital to get private land owners around protected areas to keep their land wildlife-friendly. This does not prohibit the use of core areas. Clearly, 100 jeeps waiting in line for a “tiger show” is wrong. But within reasonable limits, people should get to see wildlife. Government-run vehicles should be the majority transport for game-drives, rather than private jeeps. Free VIP tourism should stop.
Conservation is MoEF’s prerogative, but the tourism ministry has a responsibility to curtail damage by ecotourism. Dialogue is crucial here. Different wings of the government need to team up on cross-departmental issues and provide a forum for public involvement. The forest department’s own tourism operations divert manpower and resources from wildlife protection. An option is appointing separate forest department personnel for tourism at range forest officer and divisional forest officer levels, requiring people with training in tourism and forest management. A separate cohort of guards can be recruited for ecotourism. The ministry of tourism needs to step in with an enforcement wing for ecotourism. Existing forest staff can then focus on the more vital task of conservation.
We need a vision for tourism and MoEF and the tourism ministry must come together for this. It will also pay dividends to have interactive workshops with tourism operators on healthy promotion of wildlife and conservation needs. These workshops should be held by professional educators who have been informed by forest managers, scientists and conservationists, and also advocate respect for people, local rules, and culture. Forest use in India is regulated, be it for livelihood or research. Ecotourism alone cannot be free-for-all. The fact that the Supreme Court has stepped in allows some room for hope. Tourism is a conservation tool and its success depends on the ability and ingenuity of the user.
Divya Karnad and Meghna Krishnadas are wildlife biologists