Tourism is one of the largest economic sectors world over, with a direct contribution of 3.1% to GDP and generating USD 7.6 trillion and 300 million jobs. Tourism related revenues from entry fee alone in 10 national parks in India ranged between USD 7000 to USD 300,000 in 2007-08. In 2012, the erstwhile Planning Commission identified tourism as the second largest provider of employment to low and semi skilled labour with a contribution of 6% to the country’s GDP. The annual growth rate for tourism industry in India is predicted to be 8.8% between 2011 and 2021 by the World Travel and Tourism Council. Given the earning potential, the state, the centre and private entities have promoted various forms of nature based tourism around protected areas. However current approaches to nature based tourism (also referred to as ecotourism hereinafter) have offered limited benefits to conservation, protected areas and local communities. The Guidelines for Tourism in and around Protected Areas issued by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) continue to remain on paper.
Further, while increase in ecotourism based enterprises in India has seen concurrent increase in associated conceptual and applied research with the potential to inform policy towards a sustainable ecotourism model, it currently lacks evaluation. Mahi Puri, Krithi K Karanth and Brijesh Thapa undertake this evaluation of tourism centric research in India in their study published in the Journal of Ecotourism on May 21, 2018.
Objectives of the Study
- Classification of broad themes under which studies have been conducted to understand scope of ecotourism research;
- Categorization of prominent reasons for adopting ecotourism;
- Evaluation of whether principles of ecotourism are incorporated in their assessments of practices; and
- Identification of gaps in ecotourism research to facilitate long term planning and monitoring of ecotourism initiatives.
The methodology consisted of qualitative and quantitative analysis of peer reviewed articles published since 2005 through a literature search conducted via Google Scholar and Web of Science search engines using key words. Articles post 2005 were emphasized as the Tiger Task Force published its report recognizing non compliance of environmental standards in tourism and providing policy recommendations on the same in this year. Accordingly, 30 studies on various aspects of ecotourism were identified and reviewed.
- For classifying studies under broad themes, the following 3 research themes were identified through a thematic analysis and iterative process viz., (a) Potential for Ecotourism (i.e., site specific assessments on potential as ecotourism destination in future), (b) Impact assessment of nature based tourism (i.e., studies on tourism around protected areas but without categorically identifying prevailing tourism practices as ecotourism) and (c) Evaluation of an ecotourism based initiative (i.e., studies specific to established ecotourism projects such as the World Bank funded India Eco-Development project).
- To identify motivations behind established/existing ecotourism projects, the historical context for adoption was examined.
- To evaluate incorporation of ecotourism principles in assessments, various principles described in several studies were combined into 4 core principles viz., (a) environmental protection / wildlife and nature conservation, (b) community participation, (c) socio-economic development, and (d) education and awareness.
Key Research Findings
- Most of the studies did not comprehensively address all the principles of ecotourism.
- With regard to the principle of environmental protection/wildlife and nature conservation, there was a large disparity in the studies referring to or recommending the need for conservation on the one hand, and the research that quantified this aspect in their evaluation on the other.
- Almost all studies referred to biodiversity conservation as a motivation for initiating or transitioning to ecotourism, or recommended measures to monitor wildlife populations, quantify impacts of human disturbance and tourism on conservation. But less than half provided quantitative estimates or qualitative assessments on biodiversity.
- There are very limited studies that test direct benefits of ecotourism to wildlife.
- Few studies that assessed impact of ecotourism on environment were limited to measuring change in land use patterns.
- Participation of local communities in ecotourism planning and decision making fosters a sense of pride, better land management practices and increased conservation awareness. However, community participation and awareness among stakeholders is quantified the least among the studies.
- While many studies recommend establishment of institutional mechanisms to promote community participation, their implementation or evaluation is lacking.
- Education and awareness among stakeholders has not been given importance by most studies and further, has been confined mostly to tourists. Very few studies measured conservation awareness among local communities and other stakeholders such as park authorities, and private tourism enterprises.
- Studies find evidence of “pseudo-ecotourism” i.e., across many protected areas, most principles of ecotourism are not imbibed; instead, there is ‘greenwashing’, misuse of eco-labels and a superficial image of environmental consciousness. Many luxury resorts established adjacent to reserve boundaries promote themselves as ‘eco-lodges’ by adopting recycling or rainwater harvesting only to maximize profits.
- There are limited examples where revenues from ecotourism are channeled back towards conservation or betterment of local communities whether through support of grass root initiatives, forest department or private initiatives.
- Lack of a stringent certification policy or a code of conduct to monitor compliance and grade practices in tourism facilities around protected areas, and the disconnect between consumer’s travel choices and conservation realities are two important reasons leading to the proliferation of green marketing tactics, questioning the long term sustainability of the current ecotourism model.
- Negative impacts of tourism ultimately result in environmental degradation and in turn, loss of aesthetic and recreational value affecting financial returns on investment in tourism. There is an urgent need for an institutional and policy-level impetus towards ecotourism, in terms of a formalized framework, skills development, and monetary support.
- Apart from instituting regulations on standards for private businesses, education of visitors on sustainable travel choices, there is a need for more comprehensive and multi-criteria research. This would also stimulate a rigorous discourse on sustainability practices as well as encourage policy interventions.
The following research gaps were highlighted by the study, which require urgent attention:
- Monitoring of changes in wildlife habitat use and distribution, populations and behavior due to increased pressure from tourism. Evaluation of existing biodiversity or state of the environment prior to an ecotourism project can provide baseline information for future monitoring. Behavioral studies can help isolate negative impacts of tourism on species. Data on wildlife populations can be used to assess costs and benefits associated with implementation of ecotourism.
- Quantification of changes to land use patterns, habitat degradation, habitat connectivity, and resource-use. These could help ensure tourism doesn’t become extractive and instead, supports conservation.
- Governmental mechanisms and alternative strategies that would be required to address and mitigate any increase in human wildlife conflict due to decreased dependence of local communities on the forest.
- Equitable distribution of benefits and revenues without perpetuating inequalities inherent in local or social structures.
- Quantification of a potential site’s ecological and social carrying capacity in assessing its feasibility for ecotourism.
- Assessment of attitudes and perceptions of local communities towards role of tourism, conservation and park management in established tourism destinations.
- Implementational issues such as increased land prices, land acquisition by non locals, human migration towards protected areas etc.
- Potential for ecotourism around lesser known fauna and wildlife sanctuaries and reserves and means to transition from tiger centric tourism to ecotourism.
- Public private partnerships or incentivizing private funding for ecotourism.
- Certification and auditing of ecotourism practices.
India has the potential to become a competitive ecotourism destination due to its abundant natural wealth. There is also a great potential to develop ecotourism in India that ensures socio-economic development of local communities while also conserving its biodiversity. However, limited scientific and management focus to develop ecotourism as a viable approach is a key reason why ecotourism has not been successful in India. Additional scientific research that can assist in the formulation of appropriate legislative policies, consumer awareness, and financial investments are essential in this regard. Further, evaluations such as the current study can help determine factors contributing towards success or failure of the projects.