Julian Matthews

The Wild Nature Of Nature Tourism

The morning sun was beating down hard as we made our way back to the Kisli park gate, but it had been a few hours well spent. The four of us had had a quiet but delightful drive through the meadows and malevolent sal forests of the Surhi range of Kanha, where statuesque barasingha abounded and the sal heartwood borer beetle oplocerambyx spinicornis, was doing its best to kill whole groves of trees. The trip had been a revelation. Seldom can I remember a drive with such a sense of ‘wildness’ seemingly all to myself, free of the usual camera-laden tourists like me. We had stopped, we had watched, we had listened – often for half an hour at a time – all our senses concentrated on the infinite sights and sounds of the jungle. Yes, the driver had become a little fidgety, the guide a bit bored, but I was elated.

That morning I had what I wanted as a tourist and customer. Isn’t customer satisfaction the ultimate objective of a quality safari drive? Here was a responsive, customer–focused, informative driver and polite park guide, succeeding within well thought out and applied vehicle routings – even with 1,33,660 other visits last year.

Let’s remind ourselves where and why parks were originally created – for conservation and recreation. It was right here in India after all that the first park was created in Bori Sanctuary in 1865, in what is now the Satpura Tiger reserve. This was seven years before any were declared in the Unites States – too often credited as the original forerunners.

Yet for decades the agencies constituted in the two countries to oversee these precious landscapes have run them in completely different ways. In the United States they encourage you to visit, design clever ways to help you enjoy their natural rhythms, allow you time to reconnect with nature away from modern contraptions, through camping, hiking, biking and nature trails, kayaking and rafting, clever signposting, mapping and even refuge huts. They make sure that you are prepared and able to have an amazing time, and ideally fall in love with a place, so you come back again, spending your dollars to help the park authorities to preserve them – ad infinitum.

In India it’s been exactly the opposite. Close off the most fabled landscapes, restrict you to small areas, make you as inconvenienced and often as uncomfortable as possible travelling around, staying inside or doing anything of great interest within them. Furthermore, ensure there are no facilities or services, you can’t go with experts, get no guide books or maps and finally send you away feeling you should be grateful for what you did or didn’t see.

The CEO of The National Wildlife Refuge Association, which oversees 6,00,000 sq. km. of wilderness across America and its 53 million visitors per annum – summed it up. “If it wasn’t for tourism here in the U.S. there would be no consensus for conserving these areas. The two are inseparable and interdependent. You just have to plan it carefully.”

The Numbers Game

In 2005, I looked a decade ahead and saw the then nascent nature tourism industry expanding hugely, as more and more people were expressing interest in wildernesses, had the financial reach and improved transportation that was putting once remote wilderness destinations within easy reach. The need then was to spread this new enthusiasm further and thinner across landscapes, ensure its sustainability and its support for wildlife and local communities.

Now let’s think 30 years forward. Not to the three million visitors across 10 popular tiger reserves as we have today, but to 50 million visitors across over 500 reserves and sanctuaries, something akin to what the US Refuge Association deals with year and year out. There are 48 tiger reserves – many get only a few visitors, while some like Periyar  (see page25) get nearly a million ‘look-but-don’t touch’ visits per year. If, as I see it, wildlife seems to be doing very well in parks that have tourism (even some with elements of appallingly poor tourism), and re searchers agree that tigers are not feeling any ill effects from present tourism capacity, it would suggest that more zones and more gates should be used to spread eager visitors further but thinner across more landscapes, inside and outside parks ensuring both better  experiences for visitors, adding hugely to park and government revenues, opening new opportunities for marginalised communities and ensuring that far more people gain the infinite tangible and intangible benefits of quality nature experiences. How else can we expect people to fight for these wildernesses unless they can visit and fall in love with them in the first place?

The Mind Game

The default mentality for the vast majority of forest officers is “Tourism? As little as possible, please.” Not wholly surprising for most senior officers whose early careers had been spent managing collapsing forests without prying eyes, politicians’ visits or media hounds. This was their forest and nobody else was going to see it.

This institutionalised blind spot has meant, in reality, exactly what these foresters least wanted, uncontrolled and uncontrollable tourism, has happened in some places. And now Field Directors prefer to stick up their hands and say, “I told you so. Tourism is a problem.”

The MOEF has to take tourism seriously, not simply by adding an extra paragraph on it into its five year planning cycle. Accept, as every other country does today, that nature tourism is a critical component in conserving parks and alleviating poverty, and make plans to ensure that only the best formats of wilderness tourism can thrive. The Ministry of Tourism needs to do likewise. Make sustainable tourism measures mandatory for providers – encouraging the kind of monitoring tools like TOFTigers PUG mark to highlight the best accommodation for visitors to choose. Only then can we be serious about using this industry as one of India’s five key economic drivers – without killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

The Planning Game

Long-term planning – or a complete lack of it – and the consequences for this oversight affects all aspects of safari goer’s visit. No industry, least of all tourism, is self–regulating. It won’t deliver revenues to parks and wealth to its neighbours in the way it is presently set up and looked on; it’s a competitive business, not a social enterprise after all.

However, it still could do a whole lot better with far more visionary long range landscape planning by state governments, and greater partnerships and consensus, decision making between providers, parks and communities. It also needs to rid itself of an indulgent menace, VIP tourism.

There are a cadre of visionary field officers and forest bureaucrats who are making great strides, finding novel ways to work together with excellent safari operators and accommodation providers, seeking consensus and making things happen against a seemingly immovable and apathetic force. Go on a trekking trail in Satpura, drive through the restored Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary in Ranthambhore or Pench in Maharashtra or enjoy the new activities being pioneered in Tadoba. See for yourself.

So while India has learnt how to protect – even expand – its tiger numbers, it still need s to recognise the very best way to keep them, and how to use the world’s love for the striped cat to ensure that its progeny – that I saw lying at ease on a dirt road on a sunny November last year – will still be there in 2115.

Julian Matthews

Director of the nature tourism action charity TOFTigers.


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