Despite being a poor country, Nepal is ecologically rich. The country boasts a wide variety of flora and fauna. Such fascinating natural and ecological features as rivers, lakes, waterfalls, hills, verdant valleys, mountains and forests have made ecotourism a rewarding proposition for the country. Tourism has now changed in its forms and manifestations. Conventional tourism is giving in to new forms of tourism. Tourists have changed their preferences. Perhaps fed up with conventional tourism, they are going for new forms of tourism, ecotourism being of one of them. It is a form of sustainable tourism. It is a matter of pride that Nepal has been able to establish itself as one of the renowned ecotourism destinations in the world.
Environmentalists have considered ecotourism as one of the tools for environmental conservation since the 1980s. Ecotourism puts tourists in direct interaction with flora, fauna and natural surroundings. Such interaction enthrals them; they spontaneously go into rhapsodies over such biotic and natural features. Ecotourism is a guide for making tourists aware of the importance of conserving nature and biodiversity. Ecotourism inculcates in them the need for conducting socially responsible and ecologically sustainable travel. Through the observation of biota and natural heritages, tourists can be sensitised to the impacts of anthropogenic activities on the environment. This way the feeling of affection for nature and the environment can be aroused in them.
Ecotourism provides social, economic and ecological benefits for local communities. On one hand, some locals can get a job through ecotourism activities, while on the other they are encouraged to make efforts at conserving nature, the environment and habitats of wildlife. Thus, ecotourism encourages local communities to protect the natural environment. They may also be motivated to restore the modified environments. The funds generated from ecotourism activities may be used in managing, developing and expanding protected areas and national parks. Tourists themselves may play a role in maintaining and protecting natural environs and surroundings.
Ecotourism can change the perception of both tourists and locals about the environment. A sense of the need to conserve nature and the environment may be developed in both of them. They may develop sound ecological attitudes and behaviour. Such attitudes and behaviour are a must to save the environment from deteriorating. Today, lack of such attitudes and behaviour, among others, is held responsible for ecocide, which has been a worldwide problem. Besides, ecotourism helps in maintaining the cultural integrity of local communities. It also helps in promoting stability in local communities. It also provides spiritual benefits for both tourists and local communities. Natural and ecological settings generate a feeling of spiritual bliss, freeing people from stress, tension and other adverse feelings, making them inwardly relaxed and relieved.
However, tourists may play havoc with natural settings such as protected areas and national parks, thus roiling the environmental integrity of such areas. Friction may arise between tourists and local communities because their attitudes and behaviour towards natural and environmental settings may differ. Well-to-do people may take advantage of ecotourism activities at the cost of marginalised communities. The benefits of ecotourism should trickle down to marginal communities so that they strive to contribute as best as they can to sustaining ecotourism activities in their region.
However, ecotourism is not free from negative aspects. There are health risks associated with ecotourism. Tourists may bring disease with them to environmentally sensitive areas. They may infect not only locals but also wildlife. Tourists may also get infected in new environs because of various factors. In this regard, it would be pertinent to mention that the Sentinelese have been living in the Sentinel Islands for centuries. They are prone to disease generated from outside as their immune system is very weak. At the same time, they are a dangerous tribe. They tend to kill outsiders visiting their area. The Government of India has, therefore, banned people from visiting the Sentinel Islands lest they give disease to the Sentinelese and lest they be killed by the tribesmen.
Nepal is a cash-strapped country. Tourism is one of the priority sectors of the government. Ecotourism has multiple benefits. On the one hand, it can generate revenue to sustain the economy and improve the lot of marginalised communities, while on the other it can contribute to conserving nature and the environment. Tourism can be considered successful when it generates revenue and empowers local communities.
As such, to sustain ecotourism, the government and tourism entrepreneurs should work in tandem. The seven best ecotourism hotspots in Nepal are Kathmandu Valley, Chitwan, Pokhara, Ilam, Taplejung, Solukhumbu and Mustang. The government should explore as many destinations as possible. At the same time, the government should pay heed to developing infrastructures. Transport, healthcare facilities, an environment for building hotels and resorts and other facilities like sanitation are a prerequisite for the development of ecotourism.
Further, there should be proper polices and planning relating to ecotourism. The suggestions of local communities need to be incorporated in such policies and planning. They have indigenous knowledge and practices, which can be brought into practice for the sustainable development of ecotourism. As stated above, ecotourism has negative aspects, too. Such negative aspects can, however, be addressed by formulating appropriate regulations and the code of conduct. After all, tourism is a business that generates touro-dollars with minimum investments. As the country has abundant ecological resources for the development of ecotourism, we should utilise such resources for its development so that it can contribute substantially to the economy of the country.
(Maharjan has been regularly writing on contemporary issues for this daily since 2000.)