If there is an ideal ecotourism destination in India, it is Sikkim. This eastern Himalayan state of India with its pristine mountains, crystal clear lakes and rich cultural and natural diversity, is fast gaining popularity. Attracting some two lakh tourists a year, of which 12,000 are foreigners, it has witnessed a 15 per cent growth in the past three years.
Recognising the potential this sector offers to Sikkim, the Chief Minister Pawan Chamling says, "the enormous biodiversity of Sikkim is for the people. Sikkim cannot afford to have large polluting industries. Along with education, computers (high tech), agro based industries, ecotourism is a way towards sustainable development for us." The State has had a record of taking tough decisions to protect the environment. Tree felling has been severely restricted, grazing has been banned in the reserved forests and attempts are on to make Sikkim a plastic free state. Ecotourism is seen as the developmental option for the future. Inaugurating the South Asian meet on ecotourism in the state capital Gangtok in January this year, Union tourism minister Jagmohan grandly announced, "We want to make Sikkim a model of ecotourism for India and the world."
The state government now has a tourism plan, which includes orchid tourism -- over 454 species of orchids are found in the region -- to butterfly parks -- 50 per cent butterflies of the Indian subcontinent are similarly found in Sikkim. "We should target this high value market. Last year, ten groups came from rhododendron societies across the world, spending over Rs 80 lakh," says K C Pradhan, retired chief secretary of Sikkim and a keen promoter of rhodendron tourism.
Pema Gyaltsen, from Yuksom in western Sikkim understands the gap between rhetoric and reality. "We don't want the government to dole out tin sheets to spruce up our houses for tourists. The management of land and business remains in the hands of the forest department and tourism industry sitting in Gangtok, Delhi and abroad... We want to know about guest management skills, a greater share in tourism benefits," he demands.
Worried that with the rush to the pristine corner of the eastern Himalaya will come with garbage, deforestation and immigration -- and no economic benefit to the local people, Gyaltsen and a group of unemployed youth have formed the Kanchenjunga Conservation Committee (kcc) to initiate a conservation education programme for tourists and porters.
Old wine in a new bottle?
The Indian government has also discovered this mantra. The National Tourism Policy, 2002, is eager about development of nature and cultural destinations. It plans to market just about everything -- from coastal resorts and turning Andaman and Nicobar islands into international cruise destinations to traditional cuisines, to "village tourism" to adventure in the Himalaya to wildlife. It parrots the right words about sustainability and community involvement, saying that ecotourism "should be made a grassroots, community based movement through awareness, education and training of local community as guides and interpreters". Minister Jagmohan reiterates this saying, "poverty will be forced to destroy the environment. Unless we tackle the question of inequity, nothing will change. Our ecotourism policy must reflect this goal."
States are also following suit. Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh both have ecotourism policies. According to a document from the Wildlife Institute of India (wii), Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh are tinkering with the idea of recycling the entry fees collected from visitors to national parks, for conservation in the park itself. Uttaranchal is fascinated and preparing plans for ski resorts, cave tourism, trekking and even wants to sell a visit to the environmentalist bugbear, the Tehri dam, as a green wonder.
But plans are easy to make, difficult to undertake. India's track record in tourism, leave aside nature tourism, is abysmal. According to government documents itself, a majority of tourists visiting India rate facilities -- from roads to accommodation -- as average or poor. No wonder, we get less than 0.38 per cent of the share of tourists of the world. Less visitors than tiny Singapore. It was noted in a conference in Uttaranchal that mindlessness does not make for good tourism. So when toilets are built on the lake or mountain view side and rooms face cement and concrete walls, why should visitors be charmed?
In nature tourism too -- the 'tiger tourist' kind -- policy is equally disjointed. The National Action Plan 2002 prepared by the Ministry of Environment and Forests plans to "use increased tourism revenue entirely to augment available resources for conservation". Yet, on the ground, the handling of the increasing tourists in national parks tells an entirely different story. Park management is ill prepared to deal with tourists and without this, tourism is creating new problems -- increasing pressures on the carrying capacity of these protected areas on one hand, and sharpening tensions between the park and the local community, which is not benefiting from the visitor's economy, on the other hand.
Ranthambore's tigers make money
Take Ranthambore -- a prized tiger reserve in the Aravalli hills. Tourism has boomed here. Big hotel chains -- from the Tata owned Taj hotels to the luxurious Oberois have opened shop here. Many say, this is former us president Bill Clinton's legacy. His visit to Ranthambore has made it a popular destination, attracting according to some estimates over 60,000 tourists last year. Tourists pay phenomenal rates -- from Rs 10,000 to Rs 30,000 a night -- in some of these hotels, which promise a ride into the park for a near certain view of the tiger. Tigers make for good markets.
So what does the tiger reserve itself gain from this increased tourist traffic? The economics are simple. Indian visitors pay Rs 25 per visit and foreigners, Rs 200 as park fees. In addition, Rs 200 for a video camera and Rs 125 for a jeep comes to the park. The rest - from hotel rooms, to guides, to jeeps and canters -- a small bus -- stays with the industry. G V Reddy the park director concurs, " We only earn from the park entrance fee. I feel a 10 per cent cess should be paid per tourist by hotels to the park."
In the absence of a policy, tourism is adding to pressures of working against conservation. Reddy says they have no legal control over where hotels come up. Hotels are mushrooming in the buffer zone -- area at the periphery of the park. The only control Reddy and his colleagues have is to restrict entry. They have done this by licensing the jeeps into the park so that only 14 jeeps or 20 canters are allowed into the park at one time. The park management signs a contract with the operators, binding them to the rules. But as can be imagined, this has led to a virtual gold mine for the jeep operators and their jeeps are booked months in advance. The money for hiring jeeps and guides is not shared with the tiger they market. Why should it?
Contrast this with the National Wildlife Action Plan 2002-2016, which says that "all tourism receipts and the penalties collected in a protected area should go to a local trust fund headed by the park manager. It should be used in the proportion of 70 per cent for community benefit works and 30 per cent for park management and development activity, not covered by the protected area's budget."
And what of the local people? The wildlife action plan says, "preference in regular or occasional employment has to be given to local people". Yet, opportunities for employment generated by tourism in Ranthambore, as in most parks, are unevenly shared. Ran Singh, a guide in the park, grumbles, "Hotels employ trained staff from outside and the forest department rarely hires locals for development work or as forest guards within the park. On the other hand local villagers often lose crops to animals from the park." Now, with the entry of the big "outside" hotels, local jeep operators, who ferry tourists within the park, are an unhappy lot too. These hotels are buying their own fleet of jeeps so that they can milk the benefits directly. To conserve the park, local people are faced with severe restrictions on grazing and fuelwood collection, but no benefits. It is not surprising that villagers living near the park feel it is for foreigners only. Their alienation and desperation makes for annual 'battles' between desperate graziers with slingshots and helmet wearing park officials. A bollywood story, with a tragic or happy ending?
So, instead of achieving what it was meant to -- sustainable development for all -- park tourism can easily become a nightmare. The story is the same in Nagarhole. There is a long-standing conflict between the tribals, who are being forced to move out of their homes, and the managers of the nature reserve. So when the Karnataka government went ahead and sanctioned an ecotourism hotel project in the forest, a legal battle followed. The Karnataka high court declared in April 1997, "the assignment of a portion of forest land by the state government to the Taj group was in violation of the wildlife protection Act, which prohibits acquisition of land within the national park". Tourism failed. But nothing gained for the tribals as well.
The Bhutias around the Nanda Devi Biosphere reserve in Uttaranchal also feel similarly cheated of a livelihood option. Dhan Singh Rana, head of the gram sabha of Lata village on the border of the reserve, explains, "Our people know each pass, each herb and each turn in the rivulets around here. The tourists came and plundered the area. We paid the price for it. We were thrown out of our own lands when the national park was formed."
The village wants to be involved in the tourism initiative. Rana explains, "Why should outsiders and middlemen run our trade. The villagers can do it themselves. Nearly all families here have two houses, one at the lower reaches of the hills for winters and the others on higher reaches where we shift to during summers. We can easily use the lower houses as hotels with traditional architecture to accommodate tourists." Sunil Kainthola of Janaadhar, a non-governmental organisation based in Dehradun and closely associated with the plans says, "Give the wherewithal and the village will prosper. If anyone can run the ecotourism on an equitable and sustainable basis, it is the people themselves."
In contrast to convention, managers of the Periyar National Park in the Western Ghats of southern India are doing some remarkable and bold experiments by creating tourism products that they hope will not only benefit the local communities but also help the short staffed and poorly funded forest department to achieve their conservation goals. With funding from the Global Environment Facility's (gef) ecodevelopment project launched in 1996, park authorities created committees to work with villagers on creating alternative livelihood options and enhanced agricultural productivity.
Members of one such ecodevelopment committee have set up the Periyar Tiger Trail project, which includes 23 former poachers, who previously made a living by trading forest goods illegally. This ecotourism project is a joint collaboration between the Kerala forest department and the ex-vanaya-bark collectors ecodevelopment committee. The former ex-cinnamon bark poachers turned tourist guides' intimate knowledge about plants and animals, and their survival instincts make them ideal guides for ecotourism activities. Besides taking small groups of tourists on foot into the forest, they also assist forest guards in patrolling. The intelligence network of the park authorities has improved tremendously. Poachers have been caught redhanded. One ecodevelopment committee got a whole colony of Uralis (a tribal group) brewing illicit liquor to shut down. A fast regeneration of cinnamon trees is seen in Periyar forests. An unprecedented 89 cases of sandalwood poaching were reported since the scheme was launched.
"People are poor. They will poach," points out Amit Mallick, deputy director of Project Tiger, who had a tough time convincing his own seniors about the viability of the project. "We had to convince our own staff. They asked me 'how can we sit with criminals who we were chasing just yesterday?' Trust had to be built on both sides."
The returns are coming in. TourIndia -- a private enterprise run by Babu Vargese of the boathouses and tree house fame -- has bid a contract in which he takes on the development of the tourist trade to the Periyar Tiger Trail and pays the ecodevelopment committee a fixed amount of Rs 18 lakh a year. This private-community enterprise is a model worth learning from. The guides earn a salary and in addition, they also collect from tourists a guide fee. These poachers-turned-guides contribute their earnings, which could go up to Rs 6500 per month from tourists, to a corpus for long-term sustainability, after the gef money dries up. By early 2002, they had Rs 26 lakh in their kitty. Their fortunes are changing and so is the respect in local society. One member of the ecodevelopment committee is now the elected panchayat leader. But tensions are also growing as more and more people want to join this guide tourism trade.
Forest officials want to create a Periyar Foundation. Eco-development officer Pramod Krishnan says, "a bankrupt state exchequer has meant that we must channelise private funding into conservation and development. We visualise the foundation as playing an important role in providing a sustainable platform for scientists and technical experts to work in tandem with local residents. The foundation shall also be autonomous and a financially viable entity. It shall be jointly owned by locals, private industry and government." Like Ranthambore, here also officials are in favour of levying an eco-tax on hoteliers and tourists as a conservation fee. "It is high time we had a surcharge on hoteliers and individual visitors," says Krishnan.
The idea of ecotourism is still at a nascent stage in the country. We are beginning to see the first steps towards any guideline or policies. "Tourism is already happening in all protected areas," acknowledges Rajiv Bhartari of Wildlife Institute of India. "But what we need is meaningful ecotourism which links and integrates all stakeholders." Bhartari, a former park director, is now formulating an ecotourism framework for the Corbett Binsar and Nainital region in Uttaranchal.