SUBJECT :Ecological tourism or ecotourism has been a very popular catch phrase around the globe among ecologically sensitive travelers and tourists. 

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By Saikat Kumar Basu

January 30, 2018: Ecological tourism or ecotourism has been a very popular catch phrase around the globe among ecologically sensitive travelers and tourists. People who are highly respectful towards ecosystem and environment; but, at the same time wish to travel and explore new exotic habitats and ecosystems within a country or overseas; are hugely supportive of the ecological tourism or ecotourism concept. The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), in 1990 defined ecotourism as “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Ecotourism is about bringing the triad of conservation, communities and sustainable tourism on a common platform.

According to TIES, ecotourism activities should follow some specific guidelines, such as: 

1. reduced impact on the local ecosystems and environment that are being explored or visited. 

2. building eco-environmental as well as socio-cultural awareness and mutual respect during ecotourism in the host nation, ecosystem or habitat. 

3. develop positive relationship, cooperation and coordination between the host and the visitors. 

4. assist directly in supporting local conservation and ecological restoration efforts. 

5. economically help local communities, making them self-reliant, independent, sustainable and both ecologically and economically empowered.

6. sensitize the socio-political and eco-environmental awareness level of the visiting country to the best of one’s ability.

Modern ecotourism is changing rapidly both in its form and dynamics. A paradigm shift has been noticed across the globe with respect to ecotourism; and it has demonstrated both long term positive as well as negative impacts on local ecosystems and in conservation efforts. Often the environmentally and ecologically sensitive nature and sustainable philosophy have been compromised in several host countries, and in the process of ecosystems and habitats restoration and conservation efforts. The money received through ecotourism has gone into infrastructural developments, in paying staff salaries, wasted through useless conference and workshops or siphoned into secret and untraceable coffers.

The ecological costs have been quite detrimental too. The basic concept behind ecotourism has been that the money generated through ecological tourism was to be directed towards conservation of sensitive ecosystems in the host country (mostly biodiverse developing and under developed nations). A part of the profit generated through ecotourism was to be allocated for the socio-economic development of neglected, poor, local rural communities leaving in close proximity of the forests, forest fringe residents and forest dependent communities to reduce their dependence on local forests for sustainability; and to provide them with alternate livelihood. 

The coherent idea was that as forest dependent communities will realize the benefits of the unique forest ecosystems and wildlife due to ecotourism and thereby help in protecting and conserving the local ecosystems and forest resources. Although the model did work and has helped in supporting conservation effort in some parts of the world; but at the same time, it did backfire in other places, suggesting that same model will not work at each and every host country promoted under ecotourism initiatives.

Over exposure of sensitive ecosystems and habitats to insensitive, so called ecotourists have damaged and degraded fragile ecosystems and disturbed sensitive forest environment and local wildlife. Indiscriminate tourist footprints due to overcrowding and lack of proper monitoring, irresponsible waste disposal, sound pollution, transportation pressures, infringement into sensitive forests to accommodate tourists have gone against the conservation and ecological restoration of the same habits that was in urgent need of protective measures. Constant flow of tourists has disturbed wildlife and premier nesting, breeding, foraging and hunting habitats of several endangered species. Furthermore, fire hazards and brining pets as well as pests into sensitive wildlife habitats have negatively impacted local flora and fauna.

India representing a modern global democracy, an ancient civilization with divergent ethnic cultures as well as being a megabiodiverse nation with different agro-climatic regions attracts millions of foreign tourists every year. A small chunk of them do visit India as ecotourists; but the ecological tourism industry in India is still at infancy compared to many other countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America. India will need substantial investment to promote and develop sensitive areas of the country into ecotourist hub; but this will take some time. However, while the industry takes shape over next few years; India still has some simpler and viable options to develop soft ecotourism sectors within the nation rapidly.

India is a megabiodiverse nation with huge resident, indigenous avian (bird) population; and is an important transit point for several migratory bird species from Europe, Africa, Central Asia, Siberia and SE Asia during the winter months. Thus India has the capability to develop into a premier avitourism (bird tourism) destination allowing enthusiastic ecotourists to catch glimpses of divergent avian species in different selected habitats throughout the country spread across different states. Each state could develop their own bird watching ecotourism centers through comprehensive planning, investments and developing necessary eco-friendly infrastructure around such spots that will attract tourist and help in conservation as well proving socio-economic benefits to the poor, local resident communities.

Another viable option could be integrating recreational fishery with ecotourism with some broad long term environment friendly commercialization plan. Recreational fishery is still at its infancy in India; although this is a huge industry in western nations. Although allowing fishing in sensitive wild aquatic habitats in India will be a catastrophe and is not advisable. However, developing well stocked commercial ponds with commercial, edible species of fishes; and opening them for recreational fishery for both indigenous and overseas as well as ecotourists can easily help initiating another potential revenue generating opportunity. Both options, namely avitourism and recreational fishing tourism can be looked upon as advanced form of ecotourism with modifications that can help generating funds for conservation efforts as well as provide some seed money for the socio-economic benefits and development of the local indigenous and rural communities.

Source: Sikkim Express