by Neelambry Phalkey and Seema Purushothaman, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, Bengaluru
The holiday season is just over. Many of us would have encountered advertisements with words like “eco hotel” and “eco tours” to lure us to experience “nature’s lap” or “wilderness”. You might think such businesses are nature friendly. But they could turn out to be quite the contrary.
It would be wise to keep in mind that such endeavours could put pressure on natural and civic resources. Your tourism experience might not impart awareness on the threats to natural and cultural heritage. The local community might regard your pleasure trip as an intrusion.
If the buzz words in travel ads mean something, then they need to be defined, discussed and monitored by tourism, cultural and environmental policies, and not be another camouflage for a business aiming at a high-value niche market. Few states in the country have attempted to look at the thin line between conventional and eco-tourism. Like several well-intended policies that turn counter-productive, eco-tourism is failing to accomplish its purpose. To add to the concept-practice mismatch, there is no universally accepted definition of eco-tourism.
So how do we club environmental and societal benefits with tourism business? Is the fate of old-time favourites like Ooty and Darjeeling inevitable for all destinations?
The idea of “community-based eco- tourism” is a promising road ahead for more responsible and sustainable tourism enterprises built on the age-old home-stay style accommodation near pilgrim centres. Doubts on its viability abound, but rural areas could still be attractive for community-based eco-tourism. Take the rural outskirts of Bengaluru for example. Many people have lost farmland to industry. But as an info-tech hub, Bengaluru gets visitors from all over the world. Non-profits ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment) and Samvada recently focused on community-based eco-tourism in this area. They selected three sites—Kokrebellur, Ramanagaram and Panchgiri.
The study, jointly conducted by the youth of these not-so-remote areas, aimed to identify potential products of tourism in the chosen sites, prepare sample package tours around these products, estimate existing demand for such packages and estimate the costs and the local benefits of such an initiative. Two packages were designed and were tested for feasibility among a cross-section of Bengalureans travelling to popular tourist spots.
A simple day package included a visit to the community-run interpretation centre at a village house followed by a guided birding trip and a coracle ride in the lake nearby concluded with lunch at a village household in the afternoon. Respondents were ready to pay Rs 450 to Rs 1,050 per head for this day-package. This covered all operational costs and assured a reasonable income to a few. A two-day, one-night package includes a bit more: fishing (seasonal), bullock cart ride and a night’s stay in the village, either in tents near the lake or over the rock formations. The second day included a trek and cultural shows. For this, tourists were ready to pay Rs 1,000 to Rs 2,500. This package may need refurbishing a couple of houses if venture capital can be found.
The packages are slightly costlier than the usual sightseeing packages, but cheaper than many nature camps around Bengaluru. Nearly 79 per cent respondents felt environmental and local community benefits are essential ingredients of tourism and 65 were willing to pay more for the added social value to their vacations. Samvada is training the youth here, building their capacities for business skills.
Local communities can monitor such ventures. But tapping this enterprise needs small investments in human resource and infrastructure. To attract this capital, regional policies across departments (tourism, environment and culture) are needed. This would also address the issue of community rights over natural and cultural heritage. CSE/Down To Earth Feature Service