As more of us are smitten by ‘ecotourism’, the latest trend that is inspiring holidays this summer, tour operators, hotels, and even government agencies, are jumping on to the bandwagon to promote ‘environmentally conscious’ travel. But we, at Gobar Times, believe that this ‘feel-good’ experience can be truly meaningful, only if it contributes to the local economy, involving local communities and promoting their wellbeing and livelihoods. While ensuring safety and comfort to tourists. So, if you are wondering how you can reduce your carbon footprint on your next holiday, and also reduce chances of getting hoodwinked by advertisements that promise an eco-friendly trip but promote unsustainable practices, read on!
Tread lightly on your holiday
Eco-tourism shuns generic, mass-produced tours and asks you to travel with local, independent operators. They not only give you exclusive insights into a region, like the corner shop with the best food and the best views for photography, but ensure that you support local business while doing so. In recent years, a host of ecologically-conscious hotels and resorts have also sprung up around the globe that offer not just pleasant retreats but sustainable ‘eco’ experiences. These feature solar-powered bungalows, natural springs, organic gardens, and composting toilets. And ecoadventures like jeep safaris, bird-watching…the list is endless. But the driving force behind many of these, as Nikhil Devasar of Enchanted India vouches, is not to have you forget your holiday when you head back home. Also, the berry juice you are offered as your welcome drink is probably meant as much as a thirst-quencher as an incentive to support the livelihoods of local women engaged in producing it. Close attention is paid to educating you about the surrounding natural and cultural environment. So sip, and leave a generous tip!
At the same time, beware of hotels that claim eco-credentials on their website but have no real eco-policy. Sometimes, tours arranged by hotels herd tourists to sites pitched as heritage destinations, but there is no harm reading up on these destinations before you go. Many tourist sites are today recognised for their heritage value by conservation bodies likeUnited Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) or local government archaeology departments. But for an earthy, rustic experience, you might opt to visit sites that are locally managed and conserved, so that the proceeds of your tour go directly to local beneficiaries. Here are some helpful tips:
Art gallery with a difference
Once home to quaint mud houses decorated with ornate wall murals, a vibrant tribal tradition that is fast disappearing in the region, Jharkhand’s Bhilwara village is seeing a revival of its rich heritage, thanks to eco-tourism. The mural art, called Sohrai, is associated with the Sohrai harvest festival, where the cattle deity is worshipped and natural pigments are mixed with mud and cowdung to create fascinating shapes on tribal homes. In recent years, however, the art, which took inspiration from the state’s pristine landscape, forests and animals, faced extinction with political strife and indiscriminate mining in the region.
Justin Imam, an active member of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), took on the challenge of restoring the tribal way of life, despite pressures from large mining corporations, and put it as a heritage destination on the state tourist map. Today, visitors can tour the village; interact with the women who traditionally, and exclusively, make Sohrai paintings and get familiar with a tradition that is seen to be linked to the millennia-old rock art found in Jharkhand.
Another upcoming vista of eco-tourism is rural tourism, that promotes arts and craft, fairs, festivals and cuisines of areas like Raghurajpur in Orissa , Lachen in North District Sikkim , Samode (Jaipur), Aranmula (Kerala), Pranpur (Madhya Pradesh) that the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, is also gung-ho about. The focus behind all of these is encouraging responsible choices and contributing to local conservation efforts.
So tourism can benefit humans but what about other species? Tigers in India are no strangers to poaching, revenge killings, Chinese medicine, pelt sales or deforestation and livestock pressure. But Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh (MP) boasts a remarkably high tiger density. Tourism has played a significant role in this, says Julian Matthews, Chairperson of Travel Operators for Tigers, an international campaign advocating and supporting responsible tourism to save tigers. Besides the enforcement of legislations, one the most significant initiatives in Bandhavgarh has been involving local communities as stakeholders in forest management; providing alternative livelihoods to farming, livestock and timber extraction. However, one of the mainstays of the new avatar of tourism – the system of using radio telemetry systems to track tigers to ‘show’ to tourists – remains hotly debated in conservation circles. It is easy enough to please tourists with such shows but where, as C R Bijoy writes in his article, ‘The Great Indian Tiger Show’, does this actually leave the tiger if not “utterly unsettled” in its own home? For your part, you can ensure wildlife conservation by keeping away from buying souvenirs made from endangered species or disrupting wildlife in national parks. And make sure no endangered species features on your menu without your knowledge!