Despite the huge growth in Ecotourism in recent years, there seems to be little agreement to what it actually is! On the most-part the 'eco' has simply become a pre-fix, or a marketing strategy to promote tourism in areas of unspoilt natural beauty. And in such cases, without careful management, tourism can have many negative effects on the society and environment.
Our own understanding of ecotourism is that it should contribute towards the sustainable management of ecological resources, and should be managed with sensitive consideration of its effects on the local community. We believe that it can only be termed as 'sustainable' if it is used as a resource to help the local community become more self-reliant, i.e. by contributing towards ecological restoration, education programmes, income-generating activities etc. In other words, it should help the local community develop alternatives to becoming dependent on the tourism industry for their livelihood.
Therefore the focus of our ecotourism project is our voluntary work programme, so that guests have an opportunity to participate in the project, to give something back to the host community and to distribute the benefit of their stay to as widely as possible.
Ecotourism Development in Kullu Valley
Tourism is now the world’s biggest industry and it is expected to grow much larger. Tourists are always looking for new places to visit and the governments of lesser-developed countries continue to pursue foreign exchange, investment, employment and economic growth.
On the surface, tourism may seem like a beneficial trade; the tourists enjoy their holidays and the host countries enjoy ‘economic growth’, but the ground reality is more complex. There are many knock-on effects, both positive and negative, which largely depend on the attitudes and approaches taken by those who participate in and control the industry.
A general lack of knowledge about the negative consequences of tourism has geared the industry making short-term profits over ensuring long-term sustainability. This has created many problems that are especially evident in under-developed countries where large numbers of Western tourists can put a great strain on the hosts’ limited resources and can cause significant changes to the hosts’ culture.
The essential prerequisite for sustainability is “to be able to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Many host communities in under-developed countries are attempting to meet the needs of a growing number of Western tourists as well as their own, something that often cannot be done without jeopardising the resources of future generations. As a result, host populations and tourist enterprises are in danger of unwittingly destroying the very things that attract tourists in the first place, not just the hosts’ natural environment, but also their way of life and culture.
The Kullu Valley has undergone enormous changes during the last few decades. Like most of India it has experienced a huge growth in population, yet it has also experienced a period of rapid and unregulated economic growth, fuelled in the most part by the mass tourism industry in Manali. These rapid changes have placed enormous pressure on the land and caused rapid depletion of natural resources.
The majority of the valley’s population are farmers who live in remote villages, often at high altitudes inaccessible by road. Very few of the benefits of the economic activities of recent decades have reached the villages; the profits instead have mostly found their way into the pockets of hotel owners and businessmen from cities outside the valley. The villagers however, have had to live with the consequences of such development, which include deforestation, increasing pollution levels, a growing waste problem and escalating living costs.
Combined with the inevitable fate of having to divide their land between the siblings of each successive generation, farmers are now finding it increasingly difficult to meet their daily needs from their fields, and there is a growing need for cash income.
The income of most farmers in the Kullu Valley comes from apples, a growing monoculture that has replaced large areas of forest, paddy fields and indigenous grains – the villagers’ traditional source of subsistence. Introduced into the valley only halfway through the last century, apples are not entirely suited to the area and are therefore heavily sprayed with harmful pesticides, fungicides and fertilisers.
Those farmers who do not have apple orchards often turn to other natural resources that have a high economic value, such as medicinal herbs and timber. As a result the forests are being degraded at an unsustainable rate and many valuable medicinal plant species are seriously threatened by over-harvesting. The growing need for forest resources such as animal fodder and fuel wood is further degrading the forests, and unrestricted grazing of livestock is preventing natural regeneration of tree seedlings. Many villagers are becoming increasingly dependent on the illicit cultivation of cannabis (bhang) as a means of generating income, which causes plenty of social problems and corruption. If these problems are not dealt with the situation is likely to deteriorate, causing further depletion of natural and social resources, at a great cost to future generations. There are a number of government schemes aimed at tackling these problems; however, they are often difficult to implement due to the remote locations of these villages, the lack of community participation and insufficient expertise at the grassroots level. The aim of Ananda is to work at the grassroots level in order to involve the local community in various projects that will help them conserve and regenerate their valuable natural resources, to generate alternative and sustainable sources of income and meet their needs from the land in a sustainable manner. Ecotourism can serve as a tool for conservation of the natural resources and economical development of the local communities.
Eco-development projects are aimed at bringing together the three stakeholders, namely, the forest department, the local communities, and the ecotourism initiative. The Tourism Department and local tour operators are interested parties whose cooperation can help such projects take off more smoothly.
The proposed State Policy on Ecotourism provides the background policy framework for working out components of such projects.
The nature of public investments in ecotourism projects can be identified to fall under the following four broad categories:
1. Development of facilities for tourists inside and around the valley.
2. Building capacity of local communities for meaningful participation in the activities of ecotourism as providers and managers of services. Community capacity building is also required for enabling local communities as stakeholders interested in ensuring long term conservation of the nature and natural resources so as to ensure sustainable livelihood opportunities for them.
3. Development of publicity material and marketing of the products and services to the larger tourist clientele.
4. Building partnerships, with the forest department as facilitator of ecotourism activities, with the Department of Tourism, the private tour operators, NGOs, and the local institutions such as panchayats, etc.