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Promote ecotourism, but with required safeguards

This is critical to preserve natural areas, conserve the environment and improve the well-being of local people

analysis Updated: Oct 09, 2018 13:59 IST
Debris from a landslide sits in a river that runs near tea estates near Munnar, Idukki, Kerala, August 25, 2018. My recent travel to the highlands of Kerala for a geophysical survey of the landslide-affected regions in the outskirts of Munnar alerted me of the impending dangers of overtourism(Bloomberg)

My recent travel to the highlands of Kerala for a geophysical survey of the landslide-affected regions in the outskirts of Munnar alerted me of the impending dangers of overtourism. The winding roads appeared busy as always, notwithstanding their bad condition following the landslides. Flex boards with images of the seamless hills carpeted by the purplish-blue Neelakurinji, welcomed the visitors to the festival of blooms, a spectacle that happens only once in twelve years. A Nilgiri Tahr perched on rocky escarpment looked like a symbol of precarious survival. Our trip ended at Anachal, about 15 km south of Munnar, and we were to map the surface and subsurface structures that were critical to triggering the slide. Work took us to the inner, steep, winding and narrow roads often flanked by cardamom, coffee, cocoa, rubber or mixed planations, most of which were generally disturbed by land slides.

This place was different a few decades back. A second generation farmer we met recalled how his father in the 1930s and 1940s worked in the wilderness and how they spent their night in their tree-top houses for fear of animals that would stray into their settlements. The image of a treetop house, with a small kerosene-lit lamp flickering in the wind, the chill air and the occasional roar of an elephant sounded romantic and haunting. The towering concrete buildings, too imposing and ruthlessly breaking the serenity of the woods looked uninviting. Driving through the much altered hills I thought of ecotourism. Author of the famous book, Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet: Environmental, Business and Policy Solutions, Megan Epler Wood, describes ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”. Whether it is the natural settings like that of Munnar or Darjeeling or man made wonders like the Taj Mahal, there is a grave danger in the uncontrolled growth of tourism. Jonathan Tourtellot, an expert in sustainable tourism, wrote in his 2017 National Geographic blog that “overtourism plagues great destinations”. I think it is true for many of our tourist destinations.

Regulating tourism-related activities requires safeguards and law enforcement and perhaps we are moving in that direction. Thus, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has restricted the duration of visitors to the Taj Mahal to three hours. The ASI’s vision for the future includes curbing the number of visitors each day, to about 40,000 per day as against 70,000 now, newspapers have reported. Jeffrey Bartholet wrote in the Smithsonian Magazine in 2011 that “the main human impact on the monument probably occurs inside the tomb, where the moist breath of thousands of daily visitors — and their oily hands rubbing the walls — has discoloured the marble.”

The local population in the hills told me that people from the cities were buying prime land for future development, as hotels and other tourist related activities. After the 2018 landslides and severe destruction to properties on the hill slopes, now they seem undecided. Perhaps this is the window of opportunity for promoting ecotourism. I met visitors walking through the cardamom planations, excited at the newfound knowledge that these seeds actually grow near the root of a plant belonging to the ginger family, and not on a tree. A family that we made friends with during our work served us black coffee, made from seeds processed at their home. They showed us how the process the cocoa fruits that later make to the nearby chocolate factory. When I brought the local chocolates back to Bangalore, my friends were surprised that such excellent chocolates were made in these hills. Many of them did not know that these hills grew cocoa. One should go to the hills, to enjoy how men live alongside nature. To explore the wilderness, one should skip the five star facilities. Don’t we have enough of them in the cities?

Kusala Rajendran is professor at the Centre for Earth Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, India

The view expressed are personal

First Published: Oct 09, 2018 13:58 IST