Community driven mindful natural tourism

[ Ranjit Barthakur ]
The Eastern Himalayas are endowed with rich biodiversity and natural assets, in danger of disappearing. With communities as the stewards of these assets, natural tourism could turn these declining assets into strong, earning assets.
The Eastern Himalayas are one of the few unique places in the world containing more than one biodiversity hotspots: Three out of 34 global biodiversity hotspots fall within its purview and new species are being discovered every year within the region. Iconic charismatic species such as the Asian elephant, one-horned rhino and the red panda all find their home in the region. Culturally, the region is home to over 200 distinct ethnic communities, who speak over 220 distinct dialects and languages – a rich tourism potential that is still poorly tapped.
Tourism, along with agriculture and connectivity, is one of the pillars of the Northeast’s future growth. Tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors in the region and is projected to grow at 18 percent in this financial year. With careful investment and support, this growth rate could expand even further, with great opportunities for diversifying incomes and creating income resiliency among communities in the Eastern Himalayas.
However, along with this boom come vulnerabilities for communities and landscapes. Both face the spectre of environmental degradation through the overburdening of natural resources. Economic exploitation through economic leakage is yet another concern, with fears that the value generated through tourism in the region may exit local economies via non-local tour operators.

Mindful Natural Tourism
Across the border, Bhutan has dealt with these issues by putting into place strict regulations governing tourism in the country. Bhutan carefully regulates entry into the country, through daily tariffs, travel restrictions and constraints on tour operators in the region, ensuring they abide by certain standards and operating procedures.
In doing so, the Bhutanese government has successfully mitigated the strain on travel infrastructure, as well as negative impact on the environment by limiting the damage that can be caused by an exploding tourist population rapidly entering the country.
Elsewhere in the Galapagos Islands, environmental agencies such as the IGTOA have been proactive in creating certified lists of tourist operators who meet a rigorous set of standards to ensure their activities do not disrupt or strain the local habitats in any way. Devised in response to exploding ecotourism opportunities and unfortunate green-washed tourism initiatives that ended up threatening wildlife in the area, tour operators are now forced to comply with these new standards. As a result, the local ecology and wildlife faces minimal disruption and damage.
Mindful natural tourism has the potential to help conserve threatened species. Income from national parks and other protected areas, for example, have been instrumental in restoring hoolock gibbon species across the Eastern Himalayas.
Investments in mindful natural tourism could provide similar support for endangered Asian Elephant species, particularly in districts with high human-elephant conflict such as Sonitpur and Udalguri in Assam. Adjusted for inflation, careful investment could unlock over 2.36 lakhs/ hectare in value for ecotourism in the region, providing a much-needed margin for funding conservation activity in the region.
The role of communities
Mindful natural tourism based initiatives provide a source of income for local communities that does not rely on ecological destruction. While agricultural incomes depend heavily on market forces to govern the value generated by a particular crop, incomes generated from mindful natural tourism have a greater level of stability, inoculating communities against the external economic pressures that often drive them to destroy natural capital to enrich their incomes.
As the primary stakeholders of natural capital in these areas, local communities have rich traditional knowledge and cultural practices that are closely interwoven with their ecological context. Their traditional knowledge serves as rich guides to the region, delving into histories and traditions that uniquely contextualize the region.
Mindful tourism offers a route towards enriching, preserving and developing these practices to curate unique biocultural experiences -removing the economic pressures that drive communities to destroy the region’s abundant natural capital.
Through our work and conversations with community stakeholders, the Balipara Foundation has found communities are keen to leverage the region’s rich natural capital value through mindful tourism – but lack the investments and infrastructure to do so in a way that is ecologically viable.
With over 10.2 million tourists entering the region annually, the potential for driving sustainable growth in the region is immense. Developing community-owned tourism enterprises would lock-in the value generated through these activities, circulating it through local economies by establishing a strong support ecosystem – organic agroforestry for produce, skilling in the hospitality sector for employment, handicrafts for memorabilia, etc.

Investing in the future
In its earliest days, ecotourism was born out of the growing tourist demand for sustainable vacations that also offered unique experiences.
The Eastern Himalayas offer myriad opportunities for pushing the global standard on sustainable tourism with uniquely curated experiences. With over 200 communities across the region, homestays could become a thriving sub-industry – exposing travelers to unique cultures, while experiencing sustainability traditional style. Strong investments in homestays, along with cultural festivals such as Bihu or Nyokum, could revitalize local cultures and contribute to much needed linguistic conservation action, to preserve the unique cultural diversity of this region.
There are opportunities, as well, in agritourism – already being curated in states like Sikkim, where organic farming has surpassed industrial, ecologically destructive farming. In 2017, agri tourism in Sikkim brought in 14.25 lakh tourists. This is expected to expand to 20 lakh in FY19, with tourism contributing to around 8% of the state’s GDP. Offering tourists the opportunity to participate or observe in traditional farming and homesteading practices could potentially grow tourism across the other states even further.
Investments must be targeted at developing local capabilities and in strengthening community ownership of enterprises, to develop local economies. Particularly where this intersection occurs in developing conservation-focused tourism, this will empower local communities to become stakeholders in conservation activity, while raising sustainable revenue streams for preserving vital habitats and wildlife across the region. Where their land is used to create homestays or resorts, it is crucial they retain land ownership and that the economic value generated is channelled back into local economies.
Mindful natural tourism may not be able to save the world, but it can change minds, uplift communities and protect at-risk species – but only if we get it right. (The contributor is the president and founder of the Balipara Foundation)