Ecotourism as a term first emerged during the late 1980s with growing global concern for sustainable practices with regard to ecologies extending towards minimizing the degenerative results of tourism on the environment. Ecotourism thus essentially has come to imply responsible travel practices when exploring natural conditions such that travel practices are conducted with a view towards environmental conservation, environmental sustainability and the welfare of local communities. This involves generating practices that aim towards better interpretation of tourism practices and education regarding the above.
Ecotourism thus imbibes mainly education and interpretation of responsible tourism practices that in practice ensure environmental conservation, is sustainable tourism and looks after the welfare and concerns of local communities. According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), adopting certain principles is necessary for those who are involved in managing ecotourism activities such that these goals are fulfilled. In this education of nature and natural phenomena are foremost as an ecotourism practice that can achieve the aims of environmental conservation and sustainability. There are however, certain other practices that form a compact of the total practice that ensures responsible ecotourism.
For example, TIES posits that managing ecotourism activities should aim to minimize the harmful psychological, behavioural, social and environmental impacts of tourism, build awareness, provide good experiences for tourists and raise their sensitivity to local issues, create financial benefits out of environmental conservation for both local people and the tourism industry, design and construct facilities whose harmful impacts on the environment are low, create partnerships with local communities by recognizing certain rights that could assist in achieving sustainable ecotourism, etc (TIES, 2017).
The Problem of Data
Tourism as a whole is a rapidly growing industry the world over, and within this nature tourism is among the most prominent and fastest growing segments. According to Filion et al. (1994), approximately 32 per cent of tourists to Australia and New Zealand are interested in natural elements such as scenery, and native plants and animals. In Africa the proportion of tourists preferring natural elements was significantly higher at 80 per cent. This figure was between 69 to 88 per cent in terms of European tourists to North America and between 50 to 79 per cent of tourists to Latin America. Over 100 million Americans are said to be interested in exploring wildlife.
According to statistics from the World Trade Organization (WTO) (2000), the total number of tourists globally is expected to reach 1.6 billion by 2020. The tourism industry is the largest employer in the world, creating directly and indirectly almost 200 million jobs, which is about 10 per cent of total global employment (Honey and Rome, 2000). However, in the case of ecotourism, given the definitions of ecotourism and the meanings associated with it, these as yet do not serve as functional definitions whereby statistics on ecotourism can be gathered. As yet no global institution exists with a mandate to gather data on ecotourism, and studies rely on data provided in other studies.
The Centre for Responsible Travel (CREST), a non-profit research institute based in Washington D.C. in the US, reported that global tourism grew by about 4.4 per cent in 2015. The total number of global tourists was 1,184 million in 2015 with CREST expecting growth in numbers to continue in the foreseeable future. They report that out of the 25 million people travelling from the US in 2014, those participating in sightseeing comprised 82 per cent, those travelling to small towns or the countryside comprised 46 per cent, cultural tourists comprised 33 per cent, while only 8 per cent comprised of people participating in ecotourism (CREST, 2016). This data cannot be called conclusive, as although ecotourism is a key component of the economic system in countries all over the world, data on ecotourism remains without institutions mandated to present data on ecotourism and much is relied also upon organizations that monitor ecotourism.
K.S. Bricker of the United Nations (UN) goes a step further, in saying that while sustainable ecotourism is an important segment in tourism that is a growing segment, what is lacking is primary research that can quantify the market globally. There is thus a lack of consistent data that can conclusively verify claims and action on ecotourism (Bricker, 2013). International bodies can seek data from organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) in terms of market and visitor data. A mandated statistical research framework is found wanting thus in the case of global ecotourism which can impact ecotourism as a sustainable economic activity.
A Policy Approach to Ecotourism in India
Ecotourism can provide formidable economic benefits which at the same instance require environmental conservation and the co-operation of local communities. As an essential part of economic development, it then assumes importance as a conservation strategy that requires overall sustainable development and forms a component of it at the same time.
Many developing countries all over the world are now adopting sustainable ecotourism as a prerogative and are now including it in their environmental conservation and economic development strategies. Although partially implemented in practice, the basic argument is similar to the lines of if heritage monuments can be protected such that tourists continue to marvel at their grandeur, why cannot ecotourism destinations be protected in a similar manner as well? Ecotourism practices further impose as a statute the operation of responsible tourism practices as well. Sustainable ecotourism in this sense deals primarily with learning about and experiencing nature and natural phenomena along with the participation and with knowing about the economic and social development of local communities as well.
Sustainable ecotourism thus involves evolving a symbiotic relationship between tourists and the natural environment. This symbiosis can conserve the natural objects of study such that greater knowledge and intimacy could result in greater possibilities for conservation. However, although the science for this sort of pedagogical approach is present, what might be developing is the integration of this pedagogical approach in the case of policy. This sort of pedagogical approach for now exists largely as philosophical founding and a cohesive policy approach is still very nascent. Sustainable ecotourism needs to feature as a total social and economic activity that also brings forth the participation of local communities.
Many ecotourism hotspots exist in India such as in the Himalayan region, Kerala, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and many more. Thenmala in Kerala is India’s first planned and certified ecotourism destination. Other than this there are many national parks and sanctuaries in India that act to cater to tourism and work towards environmental conservation at the same time (Eco India, 2008).
After witnessing the devastating effects of mass tourism in India on the natural environment, since the 1990s, efforts were made to make tourism more benevolent. Tourism was fronted under many heads such as ethnic tourism and adventure tourism to design tourism policies that could be more sustainable. Ecotourism in India came under one such type of niche tourism. The problem in India however, beyond national parks and sanctuaries, is whether ecotourism could open up undisturbed locations to economic exploitation (Kumar, 2015).
Ecotourism was introduced in India after the World Tourism Organization announced 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism coming under the United National Environmental Program. In its conjunction of environmental conservation co-operating with the market mechanism, it became a very popular ideology within India’s policy establishment. However, according to Kumar (2015), although India has flourishing entrepreneurship in its tourism industry, sustainable ecotourism as learning and intimacy with nature practically seems non-existent in India. The consciousness of nature in terms of sustainability and conservation seems to be largely insufficient among tourists in India to form a practice of ecotourism within India’s policy infrastructure.
Although India has immense natural wonders and institutional knowledge is sufficient to provide the basic prompt for overlaying a policy for ecotourism, promoting it is difficult for it to figure in policy. Although in philosophy many international guidelines exist for guiding ecotourism principles in India, such as the UNWTO guidelines for the development of National Parks and protected areas, the PATA code for environmentally responsible tourism, the guidelines of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the Himalayan Tourism Advisory Board’s Himalayan code of conduct and the guidelines of TIES, implementation of such guidelines in practice has not yet been witnessed in a widespread manner in India.
There are immense obstacles to developing a practice of ecotourism in India. Some of them include the denial of the fundamental rights of local communities and their widespread displacement for tourism projects, changes in indigenous practices, waste produced as a by-product of tourism activities even if these activities were ecotourism activities such as vehicular waste, changes in wildlife behaviour due to human interference, a lack of partnerships between public & private entities and people, the lack of scientific knowledge among tourists that cannot for example guide their carbon footprint in pristine habitats, etc.
Ecotourism that is not properly implemented in a learned manner can thus fall prey to commercialization, and more often than not commercial interests can overrun the pedagogy of policy on the ground level. Ecotourism that is commercially intended also runs the risk of imposing human intervention in regions that were previously pristine natural habitats. However, if pedagogy is correctly installed purely as a learning experience for tourists, much can be gained in terms of awareness and agency for environmental conservation and sustainability. Without a proper pedagogical infrastructure in place, ecotourism can easily fall prey to commercial exploitation that may claim to protect the environment but can have extensive knock-on effects to the detriment of environmental conservation. Sustainable ecotourism thus requires that a proper pedagogy in policy can be correctly installed.