The Initiative for Green Habitats represents a long term commitment towards providing solutions for the creation of Sustainable Built Environments. This blog attempts to provide an insight to our views, commentaries on our work, ideas that we are working on, and provoke thought where there are more questions than answers.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ecotourism: A Tale of Two Bandipurs

A familiar sight at Bandipur, Karnataka.
Talk to anyone in Bangalore about Bandipur (or Nagarhole) and they immediately think of a quick weekend getaway close to home. These biospheres which are home to wild elephants, tigers, and a host of other animals have been a major tourist draw over the years. There are organizations who offer accommodation, jungle safaris, and packaged tours to vacationers under the banner of Ecotourism. However, as explained in my previous blog on this subject, Ecotourism is not merely ‘a walk-in-the-park’ and a plain old-fashioned holiday in a nature preserve does not qualify as one. The term has been manipulated to such an extent that even the media refers to this category as Ecotourism, and government bodies that have been mandated to study and put in place meaningful Ecotourism programmes are merely developing resorts and pandering to the interests of businesses that are in the fray only for the moolah. As a refresher, here is how Ecotourism is defined: ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people’ (The International Ecotourism Society, 1990).
Though there is much talk in Karnataka about serious Ecotourism initiatives the track record is too thin to ascribe any measure of success to them. The local community needs to be an equal partner in the venture so that there is economic growth and social upliftment: but locals are normally handed out paltry sums as sustenance monies instead of structured programs that will benefit them in the long run. The tourists too need to be educated on ‘responsible tourism’ and their role is to aid and abet the program. However, tourists frequently and unknowingly do the obverse- take the case Tiger-centric Tourism: While looking for tiger sightings from elephant mounts or jeeps, visitors often tip the mahouts or jeep drivers if an actual sighting is made. This encourages ‘tiger-chases’ which is exactly the opposite of what is warranted! It is rare to find tourists who absorb what nature has to offer in ‘passive’ ways: enjoying peaceful forests walks, listening to the forest sounds, and taking in the sightings as and when they come.

Now let’s talk about another Bandipur- a tiny Nepali (Magar) village. While this is not exactly a similar comparison of likes, this town is a better example of how a proper Ecotourism initiative should evolve; wherein while driving an ecologically sensitive programme it also promotes responsible tourism and integrates livelihoods of the local community.
Bandipur village in Nepal faced a situation when the highway linking these Kathmandu and Pokhra was built it lost its importance and many of the village-folk moved away to the towns in search of better opportunities. This highway was built in the Marsyangdi Valley, leaving Bandipur isolated on the higher reaches of the mountain. The tradesmen were also forced to move to a town called Dumre; some even to the Terai region, leaving Bandipur a semi ‘ghost-town’. There was public unrest in the area during Nepal’s date with Democracy and many of the buildings (Newari style of Architecture) were damaged. The remaining residents were concerned that something needed to be done fast to save the village from veritable oblivion.

Check Bandipur, Tanahun, Nepal on fecebook.
There were two things going for the village: its elevated location with spectacular views of the Himalayas (Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Manaslu, Ganesh, Langtang Himal), and the multi-ethnicity of the village-folk - Bahuns, Chettris, Newars, Damais, Kamis, Sarkis, Kasais, Magars and Gurungs were all part of the village’s long history. These people were skilled in handicrafts, art, pottery etc. which were unique and could be used to attract tourists. The Himalayan vistas were surely alluring but the dusty village did not have any infrastructure that would welcome the world traveller. An Ecotourism programme was set up – as a first step vehicles were banned entry into the village so that pollution would be controlled and the mountain-air would remain crisp and refreshing, and therefore, more attractive to visitors. Initially, this idea seemed ludicrous, but a few years hence the idea is an unmitigated success. Now Bandipur is a tourists ‘insider tip’ and no one, neither the inhabitants nor the tourists, want the vehicles back in town! Sale of handicrafts and other products is ensuring lucrative commerce; and the houses that were damaged are being restored to their original glory- which in turn is serving to protect the Nepali heritage. Success leads to betterment: Oranges are being grown in the countryside by a plucky few, and a silk farm has come up on the outskirts of Bandipur!
I could not but help observing the contrasts in the initiatives taken up in two towns that share the same name. Juliet said: "What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet." I beg to differ with Juliet, and Shakespeare, on this one! Here places (Bandipur) and programmes (Ecotourism) with the same name do not smell as sweet.

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