Towards sustainable tourism
Assessing the need for eco-tourism in India using the relatable tourist activity of picnics
Recently my school friends requested me to participate in a picnic to be organised by them and I agreed upon fondly remembering my enjoyment for such events during childhood about 55 years back. Picnic or Pousalu in Bengali, was a big part of my childhood, particularly during the winters.
Generally, we used to prepare the food (rice, cabbage, potatoes, chutney and mutton curry) using home bought utensils at the picnic spot on the bank of rivulet 2 km away from my house. For breakfast, my sister and I used to fill our rucksacks made of cotton with fried puffed rice (muri in Bengali), vegetable pakoras, tomatoes, roasted brinjals and onions from home. The water for cooking and drinking used to be collected from the clean rivulet after sand filtration.
After having a heavy lunch, all the utensils used to clean with the help of sandy mud collected from the river. After that, we used to burn paddy straw, praying to the almighty to keep us well and energetic. Walking and helping in the preparation of food were good exercises to increase our appetite. While returning, the remaining foodstuff was consumed by the crows and dogs. The bricks used for preparing the chullah and ash were taken by the local people. Practically nothing was left as evidence of this picnic. It was, more or less, a bio-friendly picnic.
Though I agreed to the plan on the chance of reliving my childhood memories, it was a two-day picnic program, set in the Ayodha hills in Purulia, West Bengal that was about 80 km away from my native village. Then I came to know that a renowned caterer would supply all sorts of foods, tea and beverages as per our choice to the picnic spot during day time and the hotel during the night. We would travel by AC bus during winter just to avoid dust. I realised that this picnic would likely be more akin to the annual function that was held at my office. However, we started our journey at 9 and reached the hotel by 4 pm, halting twice to have breakfast and lunch.
In the early morning, we started to make way to the picnic spot and immediately realised that this type of recreation in the name of picnics had caused massive degradation of the environment. A large number of vehicles were parked here and there, signalling rampant use of the transportation system and causing air pollution in this virgin area. As informed by the locals, in many places during summer, buses or other vehicles leave their motors running to ensure that tourists return to comfortable air-conditioned vehicles. Such practices further pollute the air. Around 8, vehicles entering and leaving this area, coupled with loud music being played had started to create a lot of noise. Such noise is a source of distress for the wildlife.
Also, rampant construction of hotels, shops, restaurants as well as hydro-power plant in this area without the proper arrangement for safe disposal of wastewater has already led to the eutrophication of water bodies during summer and the loss of balance in aquatic ecosystems. Due to the construction of the hydro-power plant, the mainstream habitats has failed to meet the needs of fish to complete their life history. The contamination of water bodies has led to the wiping out large populations of aquatic flora and fauna. The entire area was polluted with food items, plates, cups, spoons, forks, straws, bottles, etc. In this area, plastics account for about 80 per cent of the total waste, posing a major threat to aquatic and terrestrial life. Even activities like nature walks are also harmful to the environment if tourists trample on local vegetation during their walk.
Every ecosystem, whether it is marine or forest or water or soil or air or mountain, works on a delicate natural balance. Every species in the ecosystem has a specific role to play in the system. Tourism in an unsustainable manner as observed in this area often disturbs this delicate balance and creates a great disaster in the ecosystem. Nowadays, owners of facilities in tourist spots work to recklessly maximize their profits. Above all, tourists never think of paying any heed to the needs of nature over their own enjoyment. Otherwise, hotels and resorts would not be built illegally close to the beach or inside the core areas of forests or pristine mountain areas. These unsustainable practices have already led to deforestation, soil erosion, loss of species, changes in sea currents and coastlines, destruction of habitats, increasing use of resources, soil trampling and compacting, vegetation removal, animal disturbance, littering, water pollution, noise-making, introduction of alien species, damage to geological features, cultural sites, vegetation or public-use infrastructure, increased fire risk, air pollution from transportation, animal road kills and changes in wildlife behavioural patterns due to human habitation. For example, tourists breaking off corals during snorkelling or scuba diving activities can also contribute to ecosystem degradation. Commercial harvesting of corals for sale to tourists also causes harm to coral reefs. Even the anchorage of cruise ships to coral reefs can degrade large sections of the reef. As reported by the researchers, tourists who feed wild monkeys in Morocco are risking the health of an endangered species by making them larger, more susceptible to disease and more stressed.
Tourism is usually regarded as a boon to a region's economy and brings prosperity to the region and provides employment to the locals of the region. The governments, both at Centre and states, are keen to develop tourism to become richer and to improve the quality of life for their people but ill-advised decisions to encourage tourism in an unsustainable manner must be prevented and environmentalists and NGOs must compel decision-makers to introduce eco-tourism, a form of sustainable tourism involving visiting fragile, pristine, and relatively undisturbed natural areas of human influence. In India, eco-tourism must be implemented because nature and climate of the country give huge scope for eco-tourism from deserts to mountains to glaciers and much more. An integral part of eco-tourism is the promotion of recycling, energy efficiency, water conservation and creation of economic opportunities for local communities.
Eco-tourism can be successfully implemented if there is a political will to educate the traveller, to provide funds for ecological conservation, to directly benefit the economic development and political empowerment of local communities or to foster respect for different cultures and human rights.
The writer is a former Senior Scientist, Central Pollution Control Board. Views expressed are strictly personal