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Towards responsible tourism

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

A conference on ecotourism in South Asia discusses ways towards a balanced tourism policy that will help protect biodiversity and distribute the benefits equitably for the overall development of the region.

SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY in Gangtok

THE year 2002 has been declared the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE) by the United Nations. The year was formally launched in New York on January 28 by the World Tourism Organisations and the United nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The IYE, which will include a range of activities, including a World Ecotourism Summit to be held from May 19 to 22 in Quebec, Canada, has been met with enthusiasm by many official tourism bodies and tour operators, but with scepticism and concern by many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), particularly those in Third World countries. The concern involves the complex debate about how to make tourism a more sustainable activity than it is today. It is felt, for example, that the sudden growth in ecotourism may not necessarily work in the interests of both local and indigenous people in destinations in the countries of the South.

For instance, Tourism Concern, an educational NGO based in the United Kingdom, while supporting sustainable and responsible tourism, points out that the problems of unsustainable tourism development cannot be solved by promoting ecotourism, which is a small niche market and also, by its very nature, necessitates the development of tourism infrastructure and facilities in environmentally fragile and sensitive areas. This could be fraught with difficulties if demand for ecotourism grows significantly.

IT is in such a context that the South Asian Regional Conference on Ecotourism (SARCE) was held in Gangtok, Sikkim, from January 21 to 24. One of the main thrust areas of the conference related to involving local communities in the conservation of biodiversity and enabling them to benefit economically and socially from ecotourism. Organised by the Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Sikkim (ECOSS) in partnership with The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) and the Mountain Institute, the conference saw over 80 delegates, from Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India, discuss a variety of issues related to the planning, development, regulation and monitoring of ecotourism in South Asia. It was one of the six such events being held around the world as part of the IYE.

Inaugurating the conference, Union Minister for Tourism Jagmohan stressed the need for the equitable distribution of resources, which would not only conserve the environment but also improve the quality of life for the local people, to whom the benefits of ecotourism hardly reach. Jagmohan described the lack of equity in the world as the "mother of all problems". Giving a brief overview of India's tourism policy, he promised that the issues raised at the conference would be taken into account in formulating the new tourism policy, which would be announced on March 31.

Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Chamling spoke of ecotourism as a means to develop the rural economy of the State. He stressed the importance of involving local communities, which would be the ultimate beneficiaries, for the the all-round development of ecotourism.

The global tourism scene has undergone a major transformation over the past 30 years. According to experts, it was the "sea sand and the beach" that attracted tourists in the 1970s. However, by the 1980s the focus shifted to "cultural tourism", which involves visits to historical sites and cultural spots. Then the interest shifted to nature. "It is the uniqueness of an experience that discerning travellers are looking for these days. It does not matter to them how plush a hotel is. They can get that experience anywhere. What they are looking for is something that is very different," Jose Dominic of the Casino group of hotels told Frontline.

Citing the case of Kerala, which, according to the National Geographic, is one of the top 50 destinations of the world recommended for tourists, Dominic said: "People now come for the inherent attraction of a particular region. The environment of the region has to be protected, and the local communities have to be drawn in, for it is they who provide the traveller a unique experience by being a part of it." This is completely in line with TIES' definition of ecotourism, first adopted by its founding board of directors in 1991: "Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that conserve the environment and sustain the well-being of the local people."

Megan Epler Wood, president of TIES, told Frontline: "Tourism has a tendency to become something like a steamroller wherever it goes. It can completely destroy natural places. Ecotourism is about trying to stop that." Rahula Perera, council member of the Ecotourism Society of Sri Lanka, said that current tourism policy in the region concentrated more on "high volume and low impact". "Ecotourism is not about 100 people coming and paying $10 each. It is more like 10 people paying $200 each for an experience that is worth it," Perera added. According to him, even though the tourism scenario in Sri Lanka is bad, partly because of the internal turmoil and partly because of the shifting interests of the tourist, there is a conscious effort to remedy the latter cause. An example for this effort is the case of Ranweli, which was earlier a popular beach holiday spot. It has been turned into a nature-based resort with a strong local flavour. "We are trying to see what we can offer as an experience that is unique to the region," said Perera.

Another successful experiment involving the local community is the Sirubari Village Tourism Project in Nepal. Tony Parr, consultant, Nepal Village Resorts, said in his presentation: "The basic concept used at Sirubari is one of home-stay packages, where guests live largely as part of an individual family." Each household that participates in the project is a signatory of the rules and regulations set down by the village. This way the tourist gets a first-hand experience of village life and at the same time, the community benefits financially.

India, despite its enormous size and potential for ecotourism, hosts on an average only about 1.6 million foreign tourists a year. The situation, according to Dominic, will change if the country positions itself as a destination for the discerning traveller. "To do this the government should play a role in promoting the country as a destination for ecotourism and in the conservation of natural areas rather than seeing itself as an entrepreneur," Dominic said.

Fergus Tyler Maclaren, Director, IYE, said that the political situation, precipitated by the border tensions between India and Pakistan was one of the major reasons why foreign tourists felt unsafe to travel in the region. "Besides, a lot of foreign tourists have a problem with the poverty in the country. It is not something they are used to and many cannot deal with it," Maclaren told Frontline. He also said that greater emphasis need to be given to domestic tourism. "India has so much to offer. One does not have really to leave India to experience something unique and different," he said. But better market research is essential to develop products that guarantee consumer satisfaction and ensure profits that will facilitate conservation and benefit the host communities, according to him.

The participants recognised the need for proper regulation and monitoring in ecotourism. The general view was that though it was primarily the government's task to enforce regulations meant for the conservation and protection of sensitive natural areas and the safety of tourists, the local people should have an important role in framing the regulations. "They are the ones who know their region best and are better aware of what is important for it,'' it was argued at a workshop on planning and regulation. "Before working out the regulations, it is important to study some key issues relating to the region, such as how many tourists frequent it, what kind of effect tourism has on the local community, and, most important, whether the local community wants tourism in the region at all," said Megan Epler Wood.

The participants agreed on the need to establish and enforce standards for ecotourism facilities and activities that would not be incongruous with regional conditions. Such standards, it was felt, should be enforced by multi-stakeholder bodies that represented the government, the private sector, non-governmental organisations and local communities.

Another concern was the need for the certification of quality services. "There are two kinds of certification - performance-based and quality-based. It is the latter that we are looking at for promoting ecotourism," said Wood. However, there was much debate on who should be the certifying authority. Although many participants felt that the government was ideally suited for the task, the majority was of the opinion that that job should be left to an independent body that may or may not be funded by the government.

Another opinion that was highlighted was that the various regions in South Asia had to work together not just to promote ecotourism in the region as a whole, but to tackle issues relating to it at multilateral and bilateral levels. "Sadly, there is a lack of regional cooperation. It is important that we all work together for the promotion of ecotourism in the region as a whole and let the fighting be left to the politicians," said Rahula Perera.

A key issue discussed at SARCE was the need for financial support to promote ecotourism, both at the national and international levels. It was agreed that at the national level, the government should provide incentives and financial assistance to small and medium enterprises that promoted ecotourism. It should also ensure the flow of revenue to local communities. It was also felt that international funding bodies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund should come into the picture in a bigger way.

The conference ended with Chamling officially declaring the year 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism. "Man must change and understand that we are deeply connected and utterly dependent on our biodiversity... This is to be understood first even before we embark on any development agenda," he said at the concluding session. He added that merely holding meetings and conferences would hardly serve the purpose. "What is needed, indeed, is a follow-up of all decisions made and resolutions adopted."

One of the primary achievements of the meeting was that it was an eye-opener for a lot of people. "Earlier there was not much knowledge of what was going on in the field of ecotourism in the different countries in the region. But now, with so much discussions and exchange of information, there is a greater awareness of one another's activities. Apart from putting India on the global map as a destination for ecotourists, the summit also enabled us to establish greater contact with our neighbouring states," P.D. Rai, chairman, ECOSS, said. Throughout the discussions and deliberations at the conference, the final objective of ecotourism was never lost sight of - how to balance conservation with tourism and how to maintain the equitable distribution of profits for the overall development of the region.

The three countries in South Asia that were conspicuous by their absence at SARCE were Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Maldives. The Maldives pleaded to be excused as it was preparing for its own tourism conference. But Pakistan and Bangladesh, sources said on condition of anonymity, could not make it as their representatives were not issued visas by the Indian government.