'Give communities a say in tourism'

RAJIV BHARTARI, a LEAD (Leadership for Environment and Development)fellow, is building a framework for ecotourism in Uttaranchal. He tells NITIN SETHI how ecotourism could reconcile the demands of development and conservation

Published: Saturday 30 November 2002

You are working on the Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR)...
Not really. I am working on the Corbett Binsar Nainital Ecotourism Initiative. We are trying to develop a framework in conservation and ecotourism. We are working in the area rimmed by ctr, Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary and Nainital.

What is the project about?
People who are connected with conservation regard tourism as a threat. Those who are involved in tourism look upon conservation as an impediment to development. No one is looking at the interface between tourism and conservation. As a result, the opportunity to use ecotourism as a tool to enhance conservation is lost. Worse still, detrimental tourism flourishes. The project is trying to address these issues.

The idea is that development shouldn't take place only in ctr, Binsar and Nainital. These three places should become important nodes around which tourism and conservation can develop. Once the framework for this is complete, it will be available to anyone who wishes to use it as a tool for developing ecotourism-related projects.

The project talks of a balance between nature and culture-based tourism...
Tourists demand a first-hand experience with people and culture. On the other hand, we have to conserve cultural resources to save natural resources. Ecotourism is the perfect tool for this. Also, people could earn more from cultural tourism.

Why do you say that?
Well, much of the best natural wealth is under the government, whereas the cultural resources belong to the people. At times, the people themselves are the cultural resources. So they control it, and can earn money from it.

But this money could actually subvert 'culture' -- the one saleable commodity that communities have.
That's why we want a vision for running ecotourism. When there is no vision, people are not aware of the implications of tourism. Communities do not determine most of the development that occurs. On the other hand, in a planned effort, the community can have a vision; including an opportunity to say 'no' to tourism.

Really, do you know of any place where this has happened -- a community that has rejected lucrative tourism?
Yes, take the case of village Kyari, district Nainital, Uttaranchal. It has camp accommodation on a land leased by a villager to a private tourism company. Basically, a resident had invited an external party, who set about constructing roads and buildings. Villagers collectively decided it would change the character of tourism in the village. They forced the outsiders to abandon all plans. You can still see the incomplete buildings standing in the village.

Doesn't promoting eco-cultural tourism lead to conflicts aboutownership of natural resources?
In the four villages that we work with, we avoided issues of ownership by talking of cultural resources, which would get them greater benefits. Anyway, tourists are not looking for a location, but an 'experience', like walking or bird watching. A person doesn't need to go into the heart of the national park to enjoy that. The community can provide such an experience outside these reserves as well.

But localised management requires supervision and inputs, right? Or can communities manage independently?
Ecotourism should be centred on people using their internal resources and skills. Besides, it should remain an additional, not the main, source of income.

Can communities negotiate as equals when dealing with larger interests?
They could look to turn opportunities into benefits. During consultations in one village on the periphery of ctr, a resident told us to use the local festival phool sakrant as a product to sell. Children get together during this spring festival, collect flowers and go around sprinkling flowers in houses. In return, they receive gifts. Another villager revealed that the large number of fruit trees in the village forest attracts rare birds to the area. This could be sold as a bird watchers' paradise.

The challenges ahead then?
Marketing, for one. People come looking for an 'experience'. Only communities can sell this. We must devise ways of reaching the potential tourist. Two, build focus on domestic tourists. They are far more crucial for conservation than foreign tourists. Three, look at small cities that are not yet developed, but can be prepared to handle tourism.

You are talking of a host of agencies getting involved now. Is it practicable?
We are only coordinating action.

So will the government earn?
It surely can. In Australia, this is done by selling meticulous business-oriented research and data. Ecotourism is much more heavily inclined to learning and evolving than usual businesses.

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