Let’s go down the ecotourism path

RANA KAPOOR | Updated on March 08, 2018

Lovely, dark and deep We can keep it that way KK MUSTAFAH

Sustainable tourism is not just essential for survival, it is also an effective driver of growth

Worldwide, ‘natural capital’ has emerged as an important topic of action and debate.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report reiterates that natural resources depletion and changing climate patterns can put a question mark on the survival of the human race, if natural resources are consumed at the current rate. Therefore, maintaining and preserving natural capital is essential for humanity’s survival.

The report also points out that the impact of climate change will be most visible in Asia and South-East Asia, of which India is the centrepiece.

At the same time, developing countries such as India need to maximise economic outcomes from natural resources to lift its population out of poverty. Creating a balance between these two conflicting goals is, however, a challenge for most policymakers and economists.

The tourism sector has a significant direct impact on our natural resources and environmentally sustainable tourism, or ecotourism, could be a pertinent tool in achieving a fine balance between creating economic growth and preserving natural capital.

Optimising resources

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) has defined ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”. The key goal of ecotourism is to maximise economic outcomes while maintaining, if not enhancing, the natural resources of the area. However, a closer analysis reveals that achieving this balance is not without its share of challenges.

One of the key challenges is putting an accurate value on natural resources. Traditional economics values an industry on the economic value generated by its operations. For example, a forest is valued for the resources that it can potentially provide to the paper and timber industry. However, for sustainable development, we need to go beyond conventional economics.

Taking the example of the same forest, apart from timber, it does provide indirect services like soil sequestration, clean air, climate regulation and maintenance of bio-diversity among others, apart from the aesthetic value. The value of these indirect services is not ‘captured’ in commercial markets and is often ignored in policy decisions. One of the ways in which the aesthetic value of forests can be viewed is through the appeal that national parks and wildlife sanctuaries have for tourists. The revenue generated from such tourism could be seen as the value of the natural capital and can be further used by agencies to develop models of natural capital valuation.

Another key challenge in achieving the balance between preserving natural capital and maximising human output is involving the local population in the process. Experience has shown that no effort to preserve natural capital can be successful without the participation of the local community. Ecotourism leads to direct interactions between the hosts, that is, local communities, and tourists, that is, guests.

A commendable initiative on village tourism, the GOI-UNDP Endogenous Tourism project, was launched in 2003 and has since led to many success stories. For example, at Hodka in the Rann of Kutch, tourists who are drawn to the haunting landscapes of the endless Rann and the bounty of its local handicrafts, get a chance to experience village life in the desert firsthand at the Hodka Village Resort. The resort is run by local community members and offers an authentic yet incredible experience of local culture, crafts and heritage.

How to infuse values

Such interactions can infuse new ideas and values in the local communities and help not only in augmenting economic growth, but also social progress.

By involving the local community, ecotourism ventures can ensure that the common pool of resources and peripheral infrastructure such as roads and electricity cater to the needs of the local population along with the needs of tourists. It also empowers the indigenous community as guardians of local natural capital which in itself can lay effective control on the consumption patterns, ensuring long-term sustainability of the area.

The benefits of ecotourism are essentially two-fold — on the one hand it provides a notional value to the unrecognised natural capital, while on the other it provides an effective way of utilising the same resources in a more sustainable manner with the involvement of local communities.

Tourism development is one of the five major priorities of the Centre . The challenge before policymakers and financial experts is to facilitate its growth, albeit in a manner that is mutually advantageous for the local population, tourists and the environment. The Sustainable Tourism Criteria for India (STCI) launched by the Ministry of Tourism provides the right direction for the accommodation, tour operators and beaches, backwaters, lakes and rivers sectors to drive towards sustainable tourism.

This is a step in the direction in keeping with the Prime Minister’s vision of cleanliness and resource conservation for the economic development and propagation of tourism. To this end, ecotourism provides a sustainable solution wherein long-term valuation of natural and social capital provides the impetus for responsible resource consumption by both tourists and communities.

The writer is the MD and CEO of Yes Bank

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Published on November 25, 2014
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