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Worldwide, tourism accounts for nearly 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The sector is not just a contributor to climate change, but also a victim to its impacts.
According to research by UNWTO/ITF, global emissions from tourism are forecasted to rise by 25% by 2030 from 2016 levels. Transforming tourism for climate action requires not just a newer way of thinking, but also embracing a low carbon pathway.
India has the world’s fourth-largest carbon footprint from tourism, with just the USA, China and Germany preceding it.
As per the study, emissions produced to support tourism within India (destination-based accounting or DBA) was 268 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent while tourism emissions made by citizens of India (described as residence-based accounting or RBA) stood at 240 tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent.
As India moves towards easing restrictions imposed due to the pandemic and getting its economy back on track, the tourism sector is picking up again. However, as domestic travel increases, so is the need to do it sustainably. Enter: Eco-tourism.
Ecotourism is responsible for travel to natural areas which conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the locals, and involves interpretation and education (TIES, 2015). Areas that offer low-impact opportunities are considered to be ideal for ecotourism. Most importantly, it makes knowledge, awareness, and education an integral part of one’s travel.
This type of tourism is now globally recognised as a powerful tool for the conservation of forests, biodiversity/wildlife and scenic landscapes. It does so by creating sustainable alternative livelihoods for forest-dependent communities and by generating conservation awareness among the masses and decision-makers.
Ecotourism is a win-win strategy that has proven to be rewarding for not just travellers, but also local communities and the protected area authorities. For example, the ecotourism offering area, Corbett National Park, is famous for tiger safaris for those who visit.
Due to the high density of tourists, the locals residing in and around the Park have been involved in activities that offer them social and financial support while assisting the tourists in a welcoming stay. Locals have set up homestays and utilise their skills in a manner that they are able to participate in processes that offer tourism.
Through ecotourism, local communities are able to sustain their livelihoods by reducing their dependency on the forests and being a part of alternatives. Moreover, ecotourism maintains a flux between the rural and urban areas as the two communities interact and learn. Adding to the economic benefit, it prevents urban migration by offering opportunities in the local areas themselves.
To be an ecotourist means to seek quality experience along with the local communities and their diverse culture. It is beyond mere sightseeing and capturing pictures. Ecotourism involves immersing oneself in the local ‘way of life’ and environment-friendly opportunities.
This active approach for travel includes activities like hiking, trekking, bird watching, wildlife safaris, etc. Additionally, ecotourists do not expect a high-end fashion of living but limit themselves to enjoying basic amenities. In other words, they consume ethically without posing a threat and pressure on the environment.
Local involvement is the bedrock of ecotourism. The local ecosystems and forests are protected as the local populations are no more dependent on these resources for their livelihood. Alongside protecting nature and their culture, communities earn a living.
In order to strengthen community control and management of the forests, it is important to generate a sustainable flow of non-extractive financial benefits of forests for the communities, to ensure that the communities take interest in the conservation of forests and wildlife.
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Bhandary highlights the benefits that locals receive from ecotourism practices, “When locals are involved in ecotourism, they are generally trained depending upon the skills they possess. This becomes their source of income that makes them feel secure and more aware.” Drawing attention to culture and tourism, she adds, “When culture and sustainability are merged, eco-friendly tourism is said to be efficient. Locals know the history, depth, and roots of any area – they are indeed a crucial part.”
A local lifestyle is a pure form of living with immense knowledge and understanding. Gupta highlights the Pardhi tribe from Central India, “People from the Pardhi community walk barefoot in the forests, which helps them connect on a much deeper level, is more sustainable, and harms no animal.”
“An effective ecotourism model is the one which gives the locals an ability to use their own skills and abilities. Knowledge from online platforms is nowhere near the traditional knowledge that the locals possess,” says Karekar. He adds, “People’s real value must be recognised and utilised. Training and providing experience to locals and empowering them to take up jobs like nature interpreters, educators, guides, and activities’ managers is important for sustainability. This is a long-term strategy. This is also a method of income generation.”
Aniket Gupta, the founder of a wilderness-based experiential learning initiative, claims ‘the joy of discovery, exploration of the habitat, people, culture, cuisines, biodiversity’ to be the driving factors that attract him towards a place.
According to him, “Ecotourists travel with no checklist. They go with an open slate. They know what possibilities can work out but they don’t have a fixed itinerary. It means to live like a local.”
He further adds, “Ecotourists do their research and ask questions about the destination. They try to understand what they’re looking to gain from the experience and the consequences of each action when in the landscape. If travelling to a green village, I need to make lifestyle and travel changes so that my actions align with the goal of the area. Defining why they wish to travel to that place is the most important aspect.”
Anurag Karekar, the Director and Co-Founder at Naturalist Foundation, as well as an ecotourist himself, believes that “nature educators act as a role model and help make a tourist a good ecotourist. One must possess good values for nature and living beings. To be an ecotourist means to learn, inculcate, and become a spokesperson for the environment.” As tourists, our interest to understand better is crucial.
He highlights the importance of why’s saying, “Greenwashing is not the only necessary habit. Why’s are extremely important to know and answer. Tiger is important, yes. But why is it important? Knowing that is the key to ecotourism.”
While one must engage in sustainable travel, tourists must be aware of the footprint they leave on the natural place. “Conservation and harmonious coexistence are a must when travelling. Like a guest at somebody’s place who tidies up before leaving, when we visit a landscape, we should leave it as it is or in a better shape. Not the worst one,” says Gupta.
According to Prasamsha Bhandary, a nature educator, “Shift from anthro-centric to an eco-centric approach is crucial. Small changes like waste disposal, reusing and recycling materials, and plastic replacement with bamboo or steel can create a massive impact. Being conscious of a place’s threshold and capacity is something that sets one apart.” She further suggests natural and sustainable alternatives for tourists like “plates made of banana leaves and Areca leaves, straws made of coconut leaves, bamboo, or paper.”
Ecotourism does not just benefit one but all stakeholders involved. While the government and forest authorities set the goal, it is the locals’ and tourists’ responsibility to implement it.
India, however, does not have a good track record with respect to sustainable travel practices including eco-tourism. And while the country has improved its rank in World Travel and Tourism Competitiveness, it ranks dismally when it comes to Environment Sustainability securing 139, 134 and 128 ranks in 2015, 2017 and 2019 respectively.
The global market of ecotourism was approximately 181 billion in 2019, which is projected to reach 338.7 billion by 2027 with a CAGR of 14.3% during 2020-2027. Some of the best ecotourism destinations in the world are Costa Rica, Norway, Kenya, Palau, Galapagos and Antarctica.
The involvement of all stakeholders is vital for the effective promotion and facilitation of ecotourism. Researchers, forest officials, locals, and travellers are an equal part of ecotourism. Government and forest authorities plan out and decide on tourist destinations, perform the capacity building of locals and service providers, and provide numerous options of tourism, which may be based on themes like nature, culture, religion, etc. Road connectivity, use of technology, and inculcating better waste management practices can tweak ecotourism in an area.
To travel sustainably also means to accept accommodations that the locals have to offer – be it in locally owned guesthouses, camps, lodges, or homestays. This prevents any harm to the environment, reduces pollution, conserves energy, and maintains the aesthetic value of places. Respecting local culture and lifestyle is expected of tourists when indulging in such practices.
Locals are often engaged in the production of local items including handicrafts, food products, etc. The formation of women’s self-help and youth groups for offering services through their skills has proven to be effective. States like Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, and Kerala have succeeded in getting women and youth involved in ecotourism practices. This supplements socio-economic benefits for such communities.
The COVID-19 crisis is a watershed moment to align the efforts of sustaining livelihoods dependent on tourism to the Sustainable Development GoalsSDGs) and ensuring a more resilient, inclusive, carbon-neutral and resource-efficient future. Eco-tourism could help take a step in that direction.