Monday, May 6, 2013

Responsible Adventure Tourism - Can we make it a reality?

Aditi Singh & Ragini Letitia Singh

The rush of adrenaline when you’re paragliding off a cliff, or making your way through the choppy grade 4 rapids, hoping your raft wont tip over (or secretly hoping it does), or plunging, against your better judgment, down a cliff, with nothing but bungee equipment attached to your ankles; there are few experiences which put you physically and emotionally so out of your comfort zone. This is the appeal of adventure tourism- a raw, dangerous and intimate engagement with nature.

The most important word in that sentence: nature. Where would we kayak, canoe or raft if not for the water flowing down from our mountains, where would we trek if not for the towering giants around us? Where would we dive if not for inviting oceans and colourful corals underneath? The point being that adventure tourism cannot be sustained if we cannot sustain the environment and ecosystem, which it thrives on.

People are greater consumers on holidays. The impacts of such behaviour are widespread, ranging from environmental, social, cultural and economic resulting in a loss of environmental health, traditional culture and local economic benefits. This was one of the aspects that were discussed at a recent round table conference on adventure tourism organized by CII.

Besides discussing topics like product development and effective marketing, the conference laid emphasis on the responsibility of the adventure tourism industry to safeguard the natural ecosystems where it functions, a subject that is increasingly gaining eminence. It was stated that adventure tourism is a more responsible form of tourism compared to others. Most adventure tourists love the outdoors, and would be relatively more conscious of and sensitized to good and bad practices while travelling. Even in the past, these tourists have been involved in initiatives such as tree plantations and solid waste management in collaboration with the local communities – a healthy example of the union of adventure and community-based tourism. This can be seen as a positive start!

The need of the hour is planned tourism, which takes into account the environmental vulnerability of the region before planning activities and other tourist attractions. It is also important to understand that some regions may be more ecologically delicate than others, for example Himalayan high altitude regions where environmental damage takes much longer to reverse. Therefore, before promoting tourism in any area, the challenges that come with such an influx needs to be addressed.
Interestingly, a panelist representing Uttarakhand Tourism spoke about the state as being a “trekker’s delight”, which it most certainly is. She advertised events such as Raid De Himalaya - a car rally (read ‘battle’) from Shimla to Srinagar on Asia’s highest motorable pass, the Nanda Devi Raj Ghat trek - a 280km trek involving thousands of pilgrims and the half marathon in Rishikesh. “You must come and attend these events we are organizing,” she proudly said.

But when pointed questions like “Has an environmental impact assessment been carried out before planning these events?” or “Do you have a solid waste management plan in place to take care of the massive amount of waste that will be generated?” were asked, she said, inconclusively “We have hired consultants.

It makes one stop and think, and feel a little disturbed at the blatant lack of environmental accountability and concern in tourism in India.

Another panelist for the “Responsible Tourism session” representing Taj Safaris showed us breathtaking photographs of their eco huts, all built with locally available material. On the verge of falling for it, we stopped and asked a question. “What in the world was a bath tub doing there?” A bathtub usually has a water capacity of about 100 litres leading to wastage and added pressure on water resources and the issue of treatment of waste water. Her answer, “We really can’t do away with certain ‘necessities’. And anyway, we have bathtubs only in areas where there is no water scarcity.” Why are we not convinced?

She also suggested limiting tigers in the forests around their eco resorts to an area of 50-100 sq km. To that came the response, “Tigers in the wild are meant to be free and roam where they like. You might as well fence them in and start a zoo.” Lady’s response – “We only want to do this so we don’t lose our tigers. We never know where they go.” Well, we aren’t supposed to, right?

It is seemingly little things like these that make one worry. Is responsible tourism always going to be a myth, propagated by an outnumbered few? How long can the mask of “ecotourism” be used to market tourism products? Or perhaps things are changing for the better. Perhaps efforts are being made, not perfectly, but only in need of a push in the right direction. Ecotourism in particular is one of those sensitive areas of intervention, where conservation and industrial profit are motives that walk hand-in-hand. We just need to ensure that whatever happens, happens for the right reasons.

Opening up an area is the easiest thing to do but managing it responsibly, is where the real difficulty lies. Can India manage it?

1) River rafting - Himraj Soin
2) Gaur in Periyar - Ragini Letitia Singh
3) Kanasar Lake in Uttarakhand - Emmanuel Theophilus
4) Tiger in Ranthambhore - Ragini Letitia Singh
5) Elephant safari in Corbett - Ragini Letitia Singh

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