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It's responsible tourism

India, with its range of natural wealth and rich culture, has potential for sustainable ecotourism, says P.J. SANJEEVA RAJ.

P.J. SANJEEVA RAJ

Smooth sailing ... if basic eco-ethics are observed.

THE International Ecotourism Society (TIES), founded in 1991, with its headquarters at Burlington, Vermont, U.S., and with global network of about 1,600 members in 110 countries, defines ecotourism as "responsible travel to natural areas that conserve the environment and sustain the well-being of local people". The term "ecotourism" was coined in 1983 by the Mexican architect-environmentalist Hertor Caballos Lascurain, who today is an international consultant on the subject. Ecotourism and its ethics (eco-ethics) are environment and culture-specific.

Traditional or conventional tourism of the past had more of a negative impact, ignoring the sanctity of local environment, biodiversity and indigenous people. For instance, in some Indian wildlife sanctuaries, tourists, often travel in overloaded and rickety vans, that belch thick exhaust while the passengers play loud music. At the sight of wildlife like elephants, they even burst crackers! Film-shooting camps in such sanctuaries are, unfortunately, permitted for days together. Picniking, cooking in the open and disposing of refuse along with polythene bags, and even throwing away unextinguished cigarette butts may kindle forest fires. Some even paint their names on rocks or etch/carve them on tree trunks. Students collect plant or insect specimens for their records. Disorderly and drunken behaviour, nudism and photographing indigenous people without their consent, particularly when they are naked or semi-naked are totally unethical tourist activities that are indulged in.

Responsible tourism observes basic eco-ethical tenets. Fundamental rights like the right to exist or to live in peace, right to pure air and pure water are basic rights even for wildlife, indigenous people as well as for nature as a whole. We must tread on nature softly with reverential silence. Every stone turned over, every log rolled off and leaf-litter swept away, treading on vegetation and trampling in water disturbs habitats and species. Ecotourists should remind themselves of what an American Indian chief wrote in 1854, "We are part of the earth and it is part of us,... . This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors,... The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father,... . In fact, ecotourism is literally a pilgrimage to nature to adore God's creation and gifts to mankind.

Nature tourism and wildlife tourism are top priority for most tourists, but in the Indian context, all picnics, nature walks, nature camps, trekking, hiking, safaris, jungle trails, mountaineering, cultural tours, pilgrimages (yatras), beaching, water sports, canoeing, boating and game-fishing should all observe eco-ethics. One step forward in ecotourism is to get involved in eco-restoration, biodiversity restoration and eco-development of local people in any degraded tourist ecosystem.

India, with her kaleidoscopic ecosystems and a wealth of cultural heritages of great antiquity, has immense scope for ecotourism. Constant research to identify newer areas and spots for ecotourism, preparing brochures on them and on the eco-ethics relevant to each, organising environmental trails and training knowledgeable guides, preferably using the services of local people, are the obligations of the tourism department.

The Government should liberalise several infrastructural constraints facing foreign ecotourists to India. Managers of tourist areas and spots should provide basic services to ecotourists through educational centres on the spot, supplying information brochures and selling eco-friendly souvenirs. The sale of local plant and animal products should be strictly banned and conscientious ecotourists will not buy them. Eco-friendly handicraft items made by indigenous people could be purchased as gestures to encourage their welfare. The lack of even adequate rest areas with clean rest rooms (toilet facilities) is a serious lacuna in Indian tourism. "Ecolodges", with food, drinking water, telephone and e-mail facilities and shopping centres for essentials would be added tourist amenities.

Admitting ecotourists upto the "carrying capacity" of the area and maintaining security to check on violations are advisable. Collection of much needed data in India from ecotourists will help to improve the management a lot. Charging a suitable entrance fee to all ecotourist areas and spots to meet the costs of services and conservation is not out of the way.

This novel concept of ecotourism is so visionary that in the long run, it would be much more viable economically, sustainable ecologically, acceptable socially and ideal philosophically than traditional tourism.

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