By promoting ecotourism, the Orissa government hopes to give a much-needed fillip to the State's tourism industry.
LYING on the eastern coast of the country, Orissa is also called the Soul of India. Rich in minerals and human resource, the State is a treasure trove of nature's bounty. Still it has not achieved enough growth in the tourism sector. Of late, things however have begun to change for the better. While continuing with the work to promote mass tourism, the authorities have now embarked upon a plan to promote ecotourism by showcasing the gifts of nature.
The State government's Tourism Department has coined a new slogan to promote ecotourism "Orissa: A sanctuary for ecotourism". The Tourism and Forest Departments of the State have joined hands to make the slogan a reality. A joint task force comprising senior officials of the two departments has been formed to promote eco-tourism in a planned manner.
As the forests, lakes, hills, and the wildlife await ecotourists, the authorities are working overtime to make the new package attractive to travellers. They are looking forward to receiving tourists who are keen to understand nature and feel its richness.
"Ecotourism is not all about seeing, but understanding, caring and feeling," says R. Balakrishnan, Secretary, State Tourism Department. He says that as ecotourism is a fast-growing segment of the travel trade and is gaining popularity in many parts of the country, Orissa cannot afford to remain far behind.
The sites that are being developed as major ecotourism destinations are the Chilika lake, the Bhitarkanika Marine Sanctuary, the Similipal National Park, the Chandaka-Damapara Sanctuary and the hills of the tribal-dominated Koraput.
Balakrishnan says that ecotourism can also help alleviate poverty. He says that the community that has preserved the natural habitat will benefit from it in various ways when tourists buy the craft materials produced by the local people. As the key to success in conservation lies with the local people, the guides who would take the tourist around an ecotourism destination are selected from that particular area. Balakrishnan said: "There cannot be ecotourism without the involvement of the local community."
The authorities are also taking steps to ensure that there is no deleterious effect on the ecology of any ecotourism destination. Sustainability of the area would be kept in mind while promoting various spots as ecotourism destinations.
Chilka, the largest brackish water lagoon in Asia that sprawls along the State's coast, could be the hot spot of ecotourism activities. Rich in biodiversity, it has a unique floral composition and is home to some rare, vulnerable and endangered species of animals. Besides, there are about 225 fish species and 800 species of fauna in and around Chilka. The lake is also home to a large number of bird species and Irrawaddy dolphins. At present, there are least 50-odd Irrawaddy dolphins in the lake.
When the lake's ecosystem came under threat for various reasons, the Chilika Development Authority (CDA) did a commendable job in trying for its conservation. The CDA is being given the prestigous Ramsar Award in recognition of the exemplary restoration work it carried out with the active involvement of all stakeholders.
Although Chilika is already a major attraction for tourists from within the country and abroad and the lake is open for mass tourism at several points, as per the plans to promote ecotourism, the authorities have decided to find new sites for ecotourists where they can interact with the local people.
Small groups of ecotourists will be taken to places like Satapada, from where they would leave for spots that have remained unexplored by outsiders till date. To observe nature in its various moods, night stay at such places will also be arranged for tourists.
The Chandaka-Dampara Wildlife Sanctuary, situated close to Bhubaneswar, has been developed as a suitable ecotourist destination. In the recent past, two trial runs were conducted to the sanctuary. Now it is ready to receive ecotourists on a commercial basis.
With a population of 60-odd wild elephants and several panthers spread over 139.39 sq km of sprawling hills and undulating highlands of the Khurda and Cuttack districts, Chandaka has 300 plant species, including many medicinal plants. Besides, it has 30 species of mammals, 27 species of reptiles and 118 species of birds.
The other spots for ecotourism are the Similipal National park, the Bhitarkanika Marine Sanctuary and the hills of Koraput. Similipal has 99 tigers, 5,000 barking deer, 10,000 wild boars and hundreds of leopards. The Bhitarkanika, situated close to the mass nesting site of the Olive Ridley sea turtles at Gahirmata, has the largest concentration of mangrove species. Of the 73 mangrove species found in the world, no less than 63 are found in Bhitarkanika.
However, some sections advise a cautious approach to the new concept. "As ecotourism can only happen in ecologically sensitive areas, the authorities should be extra careful while allowing tourists to such places," says Biswajit Mohanty of the Wildlife Society of Orissa. Mohanty says that though the authorities have formulated the dos and don'ts for ecotourists, there has to be sufficient insfratructure to see that nobody violates the rules.
Mohanty said: "Ecotourism is a double-edged sword and the government should use it with caution. If it clicks, it would not only contribute to the State exchequer but also add to the economic development of the local community. But if not conducted properly it may end up destroying the local environment and driving some endangered species of animals and plants into extinction."
However, he supports the idea of Forest Department officials that if managed properly, ecotourism can help raise mass awareness and public support for the preservation of the ecosystem of a particular site.
Orissa has remained economically backward all these years and it is hoped that things will start looking up if the tourism industry grows faster in the State. One can only hope that the right balance will be struck and ecotourism will bring better luck to the State.