Should tourism be promoted in wildlife protected areas? This question is at the centre of an old debate between conservationists and tourism industry.While wildlife authorities, researchers and activists want the protected areas to be left inviolate, India’s rich natural and wildlife resources are a major source of attraction for tourists. Now, contrary to long-held belief, a new study has documented that tourism can be beneficial for conservation of wildlife provided it is regulated and well-managed.

“The wildlife tourism industry has been unfairly criticised just because of a few unfortunate examples,” said Raghu Chundawat, a tiger scientist who looked at the impact of tourism in and around four tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh. Conservation through tourism is a model that should be considered running parallel to several models, Chundawat said. Right now only exclusionary model is in place, where people are completely kept out, he added, noting that this was successful only in some areas.

Local benefit

The report, “The Value of Wildlife Tourism for Conservation and Communities”, followed a survey that found that the contribution to the local economy from wildlife tourism in and around tiger reserves is significant. A comparison between villages that benefited from tourism and those that did not showed a very stark difference in the economic development, said Chundawat. For the study, four tiger reserves of Madhya Pradeshwere chosen, two major ones ~ Kanha and Bandhavgarh ~ and two lesser frequented ones ~ Pench and Panna.

The survey covered 144 hotels and lodgeslocated around the reserves. In addition, the survey teams also visited the villages in the vicinity of the hotels as well as those with little or no tourism activities. “Many of the criticisms leveled at the tourism community are not correct when examined closely,” said Zimbabwe-based Julian Matthews, founder of the nature stewardship charity, TOFTigers, which commissioned the study. “For instance, 80 per cent of the jobs are held by the locals, 45 per cent of all the direct revenue goes to the local economy and 90 per cent of available accommodation caters to the budget, not luxury, traveller.”

Speaking along the same vein, Chundawat elaborated, “One of the criticisms of wildlife tourism has been that no benefit goes to the people. However, our study showed that tourism has been able to plough back into the local economy around Rs 75 crore, or almost 45 per cent of their total revenue.” The local communities benefited mainly through increased employment opportunity. Besides direct employment in the park, guides and safari vehicle owners are from the local community.

Moreover, they comprise 80 per cent of the lodge employees. Other benefits include significant upliftment in the areas of education, health and opportunity for small businesses and local markets. Another interesting finding, said Chundawat, was that the advent of wildlife tourism created a “tigerfriendly” perception within the involved communities bordering the park.

“Despite events like crop damage, people in tourism-benefited villages embrace wildlife as against the non-tourism villages. It is possible to build tigerfriendly communities. That is the most significant contribution that tourism can do.”

Tourism potential

One of the surprise findings was that the whole industry was catering mostly to budget travellers, who comprise 85 per cent of the visitors. In the early 1980s and 90s, wildlife tourism was almost nonexistent, the study showed. It picked up pace in 2003-04, reaching a peak in 2011-12 before falling sharply again. In fact, one could say wildlife tourism closely followed India’s economic growth chart. However, international visitors have seen a steady decline, for a number of reasons ~ poor infrastructure and difficulty in making bookings being the major ones.

Revenue earner

The total revenue earned from wildlife tourism in the tiger reserves is calculated at Rs 166 crore. Interestingly, the total revenue from entry fee alone was found to be higher than the Budgetary allocation of the state government and very close to that of the Central government.

Environment impact

An area of concern flagged by the study is the poor environmental practices by the lodges. This includes disposal of non-biodegradable and plastic waste. Wastage of water and energy was another issue. “Some lodges have high halogen lamps, which is not good,” said Chundawat.

“These issues need to be addressed.” In conclusion, the study said wildlife tourism in Madhya Pradesh is already proving to be an important tool in funding parks, in nature awareness, in rural poverty reduction and rural upliftment. But some key actions are needed to realize its greater potential for sustainable development and wildlife protection.