India’s rich variety needs dynamic management

Aline Dobbie

In spite of India’s growing population pressure, pioneering resort and hotel owners are determined to provide eco-sensitive facilities that do not impact on tribal people or the precious wildlife. Others are taking on the challenge of putting conservation at the heart of the country’s tourist industry.

Growing up in India imbued me with a sense of the great di­versity and antiquity of this wonderful subcontinent. From the traveller’s point of view, it might as well be a whole continent because of the choice of terrain, heritage, culture, lan­guage, wildlife, music and art, not to mention the ancient science, maths, early engineering, organic medicine and great religions that have originated there.

In the last 15 years, India’s tourism has progressed significantly with the rapid increase of its infrastructure modernisation and the move to build luxury and comfort hotels. Domestic air travel took off with the advent of low-cost airlines, and today Indian cities and towns are eas­ily reached. When I was a child, a journey could take days, with over­night stops at dak (post office) bungalows that owed their origins to the colonial administrators who had to make long tours around this great empire and needed somewhere safe to rest.

For decades, Delhi’s international airport was totally under­whelming, but since 2010, the newly built Indira Gandhi Airport at Terminal 3 and the domestic airport are excellent and comparable to other new airports in the world; India’s other big cities have also followed suit. Personally, I love arriving at a place like Jodhpur where the airport is excellent but ‘dinky’, and although there is lively civilian traffic, it also stands as a bastion of the Indian Air Force to protect the nation’s borders. Swooping in as the sun sets and looking down on the city with its great sand-coloured palace of Umaid Bhavan and the mighty Mehrangarh Fort on its rocky out­crop, with the desert glowing gold in the late rays of the sunshine, is truly memorable.

I am heartened that India has among its entrepreneurs a number of pioneering resort and hotel owners who are determined to build, restore or provide eco-sensitive facilities alongside tribal people and wildlife or, in the case of the vast cities, to avoid contributing significantly to the urban pollution. People like the Dominics and Ramapurams from Kerala run family-owned resorts that are totally committed to responsible tourism in southern India, and they do everything practicable to ensure their beautiful places coexist with local people and indeed encourage conservation. Butterfly gardens are a fine example of that aspiration. India has a host of the most marvellous butterflies and in southern India this is becoming a fea­ture of well-run establishments. Equally, there are conglomerates such as ITC, with luxury, business and heritage hotels, which may all be ambitious in their construction but at the same time are clear­ly seeking to be thoroughly eco-sensitive and responsible.

In Rajasthan, the various princely houses have converted palaces into heritage hotels or home stays, strive to make conservation part of their ethos and are succeeding admirably. The desert has its own challenges but I am never happier than waking up for the sunrise and hearing the peacock’s call, or indeed anywhere watching the sun set over a holy river like the Ganga (Ganges) or the Narmada. With just the sounds of village life or a pilgrim’s tinkling bell and simple aarti offerings on the water, India casts her timeless spell. Small tourist organisations are becoming very popular with West­ern travellers. Village Ways – rewarded with a Responsible Tour­ism Award at the World Travel Market in London – takes people trekking through the Kumaon and Garhwal regions of the Himala­yas and gives them hospitality in village homes.

The sheer size of the population inevitably threatens conserva­tion and responsible tourism. Only 3 percent of India is now in a jungle or forest form, whereas over a century ago India’s jun­gles and grasslands were vast. Currently, tiger conservation is the subject exercising the minds of India’s hospitality industry, with a recent Supreme Court ruling setting out to ban all tiger tourism in the core areas of India’s forests and wildlife parks.

India definitely needs better regulated wildlife tourism but, per­sonally, I think that a ban would be a disaster and an open invita­tion for poachers to operate in the tiger reserves. Tourism should be doing a lot more for local communities, and it is also the local communities that will suffer most if this tourism is stopped. Their only other source of livelihood is a single annual crop and the for­est’s own produce. The fact that villagers and tribal people are al­lowed to enter the forests and take wood for fuel and also to graze their cattle encroaches on the prey species and, of course, ulti­mately the tiger. To restrict tourism to each park’s ‘buffer zone’ would not really work successfully as the big cats – leopards as well – inhabit the ‘core’ area of the forests or jungles, and even now tourists are never allowed in the majority of those core areas. The buffer zones are not short-term options for tourism and, in most cases, are not an option at all.

Tiger tourism keeps the tigers of India alive as an indirect source of income for hundreds of thousands of people in many rural areas, but if this ceases, following the Supreme Court ruling banning tour­ism in the core areas of the parks, the tiger may become a direct income source for those left without a choice. For the poor, destitute and uneducated, the poachers’ money is welcome as they as yet have no perception of being custodians of the tiger and other wildlife – their aspiration is just to survive. Sadly, the demand for tiger skins and tiger parts in the Chinese and Vietnamese markets remains high, despite calls from signatories of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) for the governments of those countries to clamp down on this dreadful trade. The Vietnamese government seems to take pride in farming ti­gers, and the Chinese have refused to stop the farming of tigers, from which they obtain the highly prized ‘tiger wine’. The attention now will also focus on leopards and lions, because without vigilance they too will diminish in great numbers and be threatened with extinction, be it in India or Africa. The over-hunted rhino is already endangered.

There are well-run parks such as Gir Forest in Gujarat, the last bastion of the Asiatic lion in India, and I was fortunate to see lions earlier this year when I visited Gujarat for the first time. In the Little Rann of Kutch wildlife sanctuary in Gujarat, we also walked close to thousands of demoiselle cranes that migrate from the Siberian steppes and fly over the Himalayas to Rajasthan and Gujarat, and we saw the endangered Asiatic wild ass – a shy and beautifully marked creature. Such experiences are highly memorable and rewarding.

I am, however, dismayed by what seems to me to be a lethargy over tourism in the union government and among politicians who seem to be unaware that it is the world’s largest industry and that the whole country would benefit enormously if there were a truly methodical approach to the promotion of India. It is a job for those who are committed, enthusiastic and determined.

For a country as large as India with all its diversity, the current level of tourism cannot be considered impressive. Politicians should not confuse the return of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) with tourists. A few years ago, when a flight had been cancelled at Delhi airport and a huge delay was the alternative, I found myself among a planeload of NRIs who were returning home to their relatives and who had very little experience of actual tourism in the land of their origin. In trying to salvage a bad situation, on the coach journey from the airport to a luxury hotel that was to put us up for the night, I acted as tour guide. They were amazed, impressed and enchanted, as they would other­wise have been heading straight for their ancestral village or small town. After a suitable curry buffet lunch, I suggested they spend their afternoon visiting some of Delhi’s great heritage sites. The next day they thanked me and said they would return, as tourists.

Be it mountains, countryside, great holy rivers, beaches, jungles, soaring Hindu temples, magnificent Islamic mosques, Buddhist stupas, deserted great relics of Hindu empires and Mughal cities, the wonderful Taj Mahal, the Bishnoi people welcoming you to their modest village or the wetlands providing winter homes for millions of migratory birdlife, India has the capacity to enter your heart. Somehow, someone somewhere will provide you with a spe­cial experience that will remain with you forever.

About the author:

Aline Dobbie is a travel writer specialising in India, and author of Quicklook at India


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