A Tryst with Nature

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According to a study conducted by UNWTO, ecotourism is the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry, expanding globally between 20 per cent and 34 per cent per year. India with her geographical diversity has been endowed with a wealth of eco – systems comprising biosphere reserves, mangroves, coral and coral reefs, deserts, mountains, forests, flora and fauna. As the UN has declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, we take a look at some of India’s ecotourism hotspots

Ecotourism Hotspots of India – North

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The Northern region, blessed with natural beauty and the grandeur of the Himalayas boasts of some famous eco tourist hotspots like The Great Himalayan National Park, the entire Himalayan Mountain Range, Tsomoriri Wetland Conservation Reserve in Ladakh, Nandadevi Biosphere Reserve in Uttarakhand among other untapped regions. As the whole country grows to be a prime attraction for ecotourism, there are special itineraries created by tour operators who constantly overcome challenges to promote responsible tourism.

Seema Bhatt, an independent consultant (based in India) has been working on issues related to ecotourism, biodiversity and climate change across the Asia region. She has worked on various projects in Sikkim, Ladakh, Nepal and Bhutan in order to raise awareness about the environment. Expressing her opinion on the state of responsible tourism in the country, she opines, “The concept of eco tourism has been around for 10 years and we have also seen some initiatives but the work is only restricted to certain areas. Due to lack of of knowledge among people and a standard policy by the government it is yet to become a widespread phenomenon. Nothing has been adopted across the board that can benefit the tourism sector.”

Talking about the ecotourism initiatives, she mentions about a recent homestay project undertaken by the Snow Leopard Conservancy, a non government organisation dedicated to preserve the Ladakhi wildlife in Leh Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir. In the past, snow leopards used to kill many of the domestic animals, and since the people were dependent on these domestic animals, they tried to kill the snow leopard to preserve their livestock. To counter this, a system was set up in order to generate income for the villagers in Hemis National Park, famous for its wildlife.

The project has benefitted the local villagers who are able to earn a livelihood from tourism. Women have become active workers by setting up tea tents near the villages along the trekking routes, selling tea, local food and handicrafts. A fully women owned Ladakhi travel company offers numerous treks and tours in the region, all functioning as eco tourist spots. The region has been able to reduce the strain on the ecosystem as villagers were taught about how to maintain a tourist friendly home and prepare hygienic food. The project also contributes 10 per cent of the income to development of the region.

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India Rides, a travel company based in Jaipur was started by Narendra Singh and Shakti Singh in 2008. The company currently operates around 40 tours across Ladakh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and southern India. The team has adopted responsible tourism practices through all  their tours to associate with the local people. Narendra Singh, CEO and founder, India Rides, informs, “We have links with the regional people and homestays who provide us with the accommodation during our tours. This not only gives the travellers a local experience but helps to uplift the economy of these small areas.” The company travels trough Chandelao, a small village situated about 40 kms from Jodhpur. Apart from homestays, tourists also visit the local crafts centre to buy regional products made by the women of the village, informs Singh.

However, the local operators face several challenges to continue travelling to these small areas. Singh opines, “Due to the lack of knowledge of the local authorities, we have faced problems during our tours. Our teams have been questioned during late hours despite having proper permissions by the government. Since the local authorities are not well informed, it poses a direct threat to the safety of our travellers. This restricts us from going to these small areas and promote tourism in the country.”

Running on the same lines, Viktorianz.com, a Gurgaon based adventure travel company specialises in bike tours to Ladakh, Sikkim and Bhutan. The company travels with necessary gear to maintain sustainable standards and has also associated with unique locations to highlight the local experience. Sharing a similar thought, Manoj Keshwar, founder, Vicktorianz, opines, “The lack of awareness among people about the environment has been a huge problem. We have made sure to do our bit as tour operators and see that the tourists follow rules. Our bikes are accompanied by back up trucks who clean the area we travel to like at Nubra Valley in Ladakh where the troop picks up plastic bottles left behind.”

Ecotourism Hotspots of India – East and North East

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The East and North East regions of India are becoming focus points of ecotourism in the country. The natural beauty of the West Bengal with its snow-clad mountains, green forests, tea gardens, agricultural fields in North Bengal, the red lateritic tracts and the pure sal forests in the South West Bengal, and the world’s largest mangrove delta in Sundarban make the state a potential paradise for ecotourism. Nature lovers can explore the unexplored places of Bengal, which are specifically promoted as eco tourism destinations.

Community development is an integral part of ecotourism. There are many homestay facilities in the region. The visit helps the economy, buying local products, buying art materials and using local villagers as guide or help. Homestay is arranged and run by villagers and it includes staying in tea gardens or tea estate or villages. It is also a part of responsible tourism and ecotourism with activities like bird watching, angling, river rafting, clay modelling, etc, are part of the stay. Some of the offbeat village life and eco-tourism locations in the plains of West Bengal include Baranti, Basanti, Jhargram, Bakkhali, Gadiara, Raichak; while the hills have destinations like Delo, Gajoldoba, Lamhatta, Rishyap, Kurseong, Kalimpong, Buxa Duar and Jayanti.

The Odisha Government has approved an action plan to develop 30 places in the state as ecotourism destinations. The action plan was approved in the recent ecotourism board meeting held under the chairmanship of chief secretary A P Padhi, who has directed the department of forest and environment to plan the projects on self-sustaining mode. Padhi also asked the department to create more employment opportunities for local youths through these projects. These 30 places include Mangalajodi and Berhampura under Chilika Wildlife Division, Barakhandia and Dhodrokusum under Hirakud Wildlife Division, Kumari and Jamuani under Baripada Wildlife Division.

Exploring the North East

For the ecologically sensitive North Eastern states, sustainable tourism is an imperative, not an option. In Meghalaya promotion of rural tourism and ecotourism are among the key focus areas. In an earlier interaction with Express TravelWorld, Dr Mukul Sangma, chief minister of Meghalaya had said that the government had been investing substantial money to build the kind of infrastructure to promote ecotourism with communities and it has been an immense success story with more communities willing to come forward and participate. The state government has a programme supporting homestays and eco resorts. Dr Sangma acknowledged that his government is looking at engaging potential stakeholders who are willing to participate in the tourism agenda. He added that for a small state like Meghalaya, with a population that is not too huge, they are looking at not too heavy footfall but high-end visitors.

Recently Sikkim hosted a conclave on Innovation and Progress of Ecotourism in Gangtok. The conclave was organised as a follow up of the familiarisation tour undertaken by both local and visiting tour operators to four ecotourism zones, namely, Lingdok – Pangthang, Okharey, Kitam and East Pendam. Attended by over hundred participants representing local tourism stakeholders, tour operators from Sikkim and a team of twelve tour operators from other states such as Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat and West Sikkim, the conclave gave an excellent opportunity to the participants to come under one roof with an idea to converge, deliberate, share and learn about different facets of tourism and ecotourism in Sikkim’s context. Tourism minister Ugen T Gyatso Bhutia said that sustainable tourism is the primary focus of all other developments in the state. He said that amidst numerous infrastructure developments in Sikkim, focus is being given to boost the rural economy through promotion of sustainable ecotourism practices.

Greener Pastures is an eco-tourism company in the North East, which focuses on helping the region and its communities by promoting and implementing responsible tourism. One of the important segments for the Dibrugarh (Assam) headquartered organisation is tribal tours in the North East, in particular the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Though primarily an inbound segment, the company has witnessed an increasing interest from domestic travellers over the years. According to Vaivhav Todi, director, Greener Pastures there is a new generation of conscious and offbeat Indian travellers who are keen to explore their country and learn about the various cultures that make up the rich diversity of India and not just go for the normal sightseeing tour. Ecotourism Society of North East is focused on creating awareness about developing sustainable tourism in the north eastern states. The society has brought together many local NGOs who are working in the field of ecotourism, along with committed individuals in this field across the world. The society engages with the local communities and gives free training to people in the villages, along with promoting individual local accommodation providers through its website.

Ecotourism Hotspots of India – West

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The Western region has been, over the years, emerging in terms of eco tourism offerings. With various destinations now adopting sustainable tourism as part of practice, ecotourism is getting a fillip in West India. The largest state in this region, Maharashtra, is being promoted for its natural assets. The state government’s tourism arm, Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) recently unveiled Koyana as a new destination in New Mahabaleshwar, alongside the existing eco tourism hotspots such as Lonavala, Mahabaleshwar and destinations in the Konkan region. The state offers rich floral and faunal diversity. From the forests of Western Ghats to Vidarbha, Maharashtra is blessed with natural beauty, which is often not tapped to its full potential.

Wildlife tourism is strongly associated with the eco tourism segment in Maharashtra, as the state is also known for its tiger reserves such as Tadoba, Melghat, Pench, Umred-Kharandla Sanctuary, Nawegaon-Nagzira Tiger Reserve and Bor Wildlife Sanctuary. Morever, in efforts to promote the diverse ecotourism offerings, Maharashtra Tour Operators Association (MTOA) has been actively drawing attention of the travel and tourism industry to Maharashtra’s natural jewels. The association recently organised an experiential trip for industry partners to the North Konkan region, led by the MTOA president Sudhir Patil, supported by the president of North Konkan Chamber of Commerce and Agricultural Foundation (NKCCA), Dr Rajeev Churi. The delegates were introduced to this untapped area for tourism development. One of the interesting highlights of this region is the Chikoo Festival – not known to many.

India’s most popular beach destination, Goa is beyond beaches and nightlife. The ecotourism facet of Goa can be affirmed through various offerings such as wildlife and bird sanctuaries, lakes, falls, springs, herbs and spice plantations and more. Destinations such as Panjim, Margao, Calangute, Saligao and Charao also organise nature walks for tourists. For instance, Chorao offers boat tours through the backwaters for birdwatching or crocodile spotting. The Kesarval Spring, located near the village of Cortalim just off the Verna plateau, is renowned for its medicinal properties. The water is purported to heal ailments of the body and to have rejuvenating properties. The minerals in the water come from the hard rock face that it pounds through. The spring is considered as a natural spa. Other similar attractions include Dudhsagar Falls, Cumbarjua Canal, Boca De Vaca, Pomburpa Spring, Carambolim Lake, Netravali Lake, Mayem Lake and Arvalem falls.

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At Sai Herbarium, herbs, medicinal and aromatic plants are cultivated using organic farming methods. Visitors can also enjoy Goan as well as Indian cuisine. Tourists can have the opportunity to witness how spices, coconuts, betel nuts and fruit grow at Savoi Plantations. The plantation also offers guided tours and a Goan meal served on a banana leaf. The Pascoal Spice Village, bounded by a tributary of the Mandovi River, also sees a variety of spice plants and cash crops. Tropical Spice Plantation, Rustic Plantation, Sahakar Spice Farm and Parvati Madav Park Plantation are some of the other places offering similar experiences.

Goa has more than 50 species of animals and numerous bird species which can be found at sanctuaries such as Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary, Bhagwan Mahavir Sanctuary, Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary, Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary, Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary and Morjim beach where Olive Ridley turtles can be found nesting off the coast once a year.

The state of Gujarat, apart from its historical and cultural significance, offers tourists an extensive range of ecotourism experiences – from campsites, trekking, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, waterfalls, gardens and parks to lakes. Dhanpari is a forest ecotourism site situated inside the Jambughoda Wildlife Sanctuary in Central Gujarat. The campsite is surrounded by a forest which is home to a variety of flora and fauna and two water reservoirs. Another famous hotspot is the Satpura Hills, located in a thick forest cover and lush with flowers and scenic views. Some of the other attractions include Vadhvana Wetland and Eco Campsite, Kevdi Eco Campsite, Barda Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, Gir National Park, Ranmal Lake, Gopi Talav, Waghai Botanical Gardens and many more.

Ecotourism Hotspots of India – South

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South India is a thriving region in eco tourism with all the states boasting unique experiences for tourists. ‘God’s Own Country’ Kerala is home to Thenmala, which is said to be India’s first planned
ecotourism destination. Thenmala is garnering tourist interest due to its unique vistas, bio-diversity and functioning. Situated about 72 kms from Thiruvananthapuram, in Kollam district, Thenmala shares its resources with the famous Shenduruney Wildlife Sanctuary at the foothills of the Western Ghats. Biji Eapen, national president, IATA Agents Association of India (IAAI) shares, “Thenmala is majestically set in the midst of evergreen forests in the lap of the Western Ghats and hosts a wide range of adventure and leisure activities for all kinds of travellers.”

Situated at an elevation of about 1,700 metres, Munnar features an extensive layer of forests and tea orchards. Munnar is filled with several exotic fauna including the rare Neelakurinji flower. Gavi Eco-Tourism, in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, is a project of the Kerala Forest Development Corporation, which has attracted the attention of tourists, mostly from European countries. The project is exclusive in many respects and the majority who visit are nature lovers and adventure tourists. Situated close to Thiruvananthapuram, Mankayam was recently launched as a zone for ecotourism, managed by the State Forest Department. The Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary in Idukki district  possesses unique thorny scrub forests with xerophyte species. Chinnar is also the habitat for the endangered Giant Grizzled Squirrel of India.

Andhra Pradesh is endowed with a rich and varied bio-diversity distributed over the Eastern Ghats, Deccan Plateau region and coastal mangroves. With varied topography, right from the hills of Nallamala and the Eastern Ghats to the shores of Bay of Bengal, Andhra Pradesh supports diverse ecosystems, which in turn, support a rich variety of wildlife spread across places such as Indira Gandhi Zoological Park, Kolleru Lake Bird Sanctuary, Pulicat Sanctuary and Sri Venkateswara Zoological Park.

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Eapen opines that South India’s ecotourism facet is not yet fully utilised. “Still we have a lot of untapped tourist attractions to be unearthed. While the known tourist spots attract huge crowds, ecotourism spots are those which are natural and which largely remain untouched. For ecotourists, visits to such places involve studying and learning about the place and causing no harm to the environment. Forest departments should be involved in identifying possible ecotourism destinations. Viable ecotourism spots have to be places which were mostly unexplored and unfamiliar, but the local community should be taken into consideration,” he explains. The Tamil Nadu government has identified 25 sites for development into ecotourism spots and, soon, the Amirthi forest range would find a spot on the ecotourism map in the state. Udhagamandalam, popularly called as Ooty, is known for its coffee and tea plantations and trees like conifers, eucalyptus, pine and more. Kodaikanal, whose economy predominantly depends on tourism, is blessed with meadows, long stretch of forests, woody slopes, mighty rocks, bowers, and creeks. Kodaikanal is famous for the Kurinji flowers that blossom once in 12 years.

“Karnataka’s geography has created some alluring ecotourism places like Madikeri, Agumbe and Coorg, Chikmagalur, Nandi Hills, Hebe Falls and more. The Department of Forest and Wildlife Protection in Puducherry has started an ecotourism project with plans to introduce kayaking in Ousteri Lake and cycling on the bumpy roads of Manapet forest area. The township of Auroville stands as a successful demonstration of long term afforestation efforts,” says Eapen while adding that ecotourism in South India should be promoted through a single corridor branded as the South Indian Circuit. Many of the ecotourism sports are seasonal and entry of visitors should be permitted in proportion to their carrying capacity.

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