Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Tuesday, Apr 27, 2004
Ecotourism: A win-win strategy
The tourism sector generates about 11 per cent of the world's Gross Domestic Product and 5.5 million new jobs every year. These numbers themselves are adequate to show that tourism is global economy's largest and fastest growing sector.
Beyond these numbers which indicate the brighter side of tourism, the other side is nonetheless significant. Conventional tourism activities lead to the dangers of dependency with non-local ownership, enormous pressure on utility and infrastructure supply, surge in price of commodities, degradation or commodification of local art and culture, rise in crime rate, prostitution, gambling, spread of such diseases as AIDS among the local communities, environmental pollution/degradation, and so on.
There are many examples to show that these dangers affect the local economy and society, leading to the tourism industry's decay in the long run.
To minimise the impact several countries are adopting the ecotourism model paradigm. Ecotourism is defined as "nature-based tourism that involves education and interpretation of the natural environment and is designed to be ecologically sustainable". It recognises that "natural environment" includes cultural components, and the "ecologically sustainable" involves an appropriate return to the local community and long-term conservation of the resources. The underlying principles of ecotourism are:
In short, ecotourism is a win-win development strategy for underdeveloped areas with a goal of generating economic benefits (to all stakeholders) and conservation of the environment that includes local culture too. For this reason, ecotourism is the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry, grossing nearly $400 billion a year.
Given the tourism sector's employment potential, it is not surprising that tourism has a special emphasis in Indian policy dialogue. The Indian tourism policy, by and large, focusses on promotion of conventional tourism activities. It does not address the issues related to the quality of tourism which are considered as the prime theme in many other countries such as Australia, Costa Rica, Kenya, Maldives and so on.
Nature, culture and human capital are the key factors in making a tourist destination desirable. An ill-considered expansion of the tourist industry can lead to a series of negative impacts and can destroy the destination's unique character.
This results in a negative spiral with unwelcome consequences for the local people, the tourists, the environment, the entire economy of the region and, finally, the tourism sector. Keeping this in mind, the policy initiatives towards promoting ecotourism will prove to be much more beneficial for the country's development goals. The ecotourism policy must act as a catalyst that brings out the best of the tourism market and conservation of environment, both natural and cultural, along with the goal of reaching the benefits to the local community. A symbiotic relationship between tourism activities, environmental conservation and local community development should form the basis of the Indian tourism policy. This requires a systematic co-ordination across agencies stretching over both the public and private sectors. Ecotourism can play an important role through creation of jobs and income in remote regions that historically have benefited less from economic development programmes compared to the densely-populated areas.
A fewer number of jobs may be significant in communities where population is low and alternatives are few. This economic impact can also increase the political and financial support for the environment's conservation where the benefits are more intangible in nature.
However, the positive tangible economic impacts (income, jobs and others) of ecotourism lead to rising support for conservation of environment from all quarters, including the local communities. Though, of late, a few States have taken initiatives to promote ecotourism, the implementation has no link with the original ecotourism concepts. At present, it is almost synonymous with adventure tourism in India.
A careful and objective planning based on a systematic and disaggregated information about the tourism market potential and local resources is required to develop a successful ecotourism strategy in India.
The focus of the approach should range from understanding the carrying capacity of the area, habits and preferences of the tourists to the potential ecotourism market dynamics.
The management of quality ecotourism requires active and balanced partnership between all the stakeholders. The Government, industry and the community should participate equally to prepare sustainable ecotourism plans.
Such a plan will result in tourism that is economically viable with greater benefits to local people, socially and culturally responsible, ecologically sound and producing a high quality end product capable of satisfying visitors. This is missing in the present tourism policy framework in India.
(The author is Principal Economist, National Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi.)
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