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Developing Eco-tourism as a Livelihood for Rural Communities

By P. Satish, Chief General Manager, NABARD

Tourism helps create employment at local level and gives a boost to local economies. While traditional circuits of historical cities, heritage sites, nature and wildlife have quite a big share of tourism business in India, the sectors of eco-tourism and agri-tourism are developing as niche areas. These two sub-sectors still do not have big volumes, but the units which have developed till date have been generating good business and are attracting newer entrants. In India, the tourism sector contributed to 6.5 per cent of GDP in 2011-12. India had 478 million domestic tourists and 4.43 international tourists. The foreign exchange earnings through tourism were Rs. 28 billion. The tourism industry created 43.5 million direct and indirect jobs.

When tourism develops in ecologically sensitive areas, the influx of tourists leads to pollution and environmental damage, harming the ecology and the protected species of animal life, water life or tree life. However the declaration of these areas as protected sanctuaries, keeping the local populations out, robs the people of their livelihoods. Eco-tourism is a via-media which protects the ecology and at the same time provides livelihoods to local populations (Bramwell, 1994).

The apex bank for agriculture and rural development  – the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) has a mandate for facilitating credit flow for promotion and development of agriculture and non-agricultural rural based activities. Thus the role of NABARD in overall development of  the country  in general and rural and agriculture sectors in specific is pivotal. As a part of its focus towards rural service sector, through its programmes supports the setting up of eco-tourism and agri-tourism units in the country. Through the assistance of Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation, NABARD set up Rural Innovation Fund (RIF) to support innovative, risk friendly, unconventional experiments in sectors that would have the potential to promote livelihood opportunities and employment in rural areas. Under the RIF one of the areas which NABARD has taken up for its innovative financing approach are in the tourism sector within that the focus has been on the areas of eco-tourism and agri-tourism as these are sub sectors of tourism industry which  fit into the overall mandate of NABARD (NABARD, 2011)

Eco-tourism is a relatively new concept and it is still misunderstood and sometimes misused. Many have utilised this term wrongly to attract the conservation conscious travellers to what in reality are simple nature tourism programmes which may be causing negative environmental and social impact.  While the term was first used in the 1980s, the first broadly accepted definition, and one which continues to be a valid one was established by the International Eco-tourism Society in 1990 “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the wellbeing of the local people”. As awareness and experience of the activity has grown so as our need for more comprehensive and detailed definition.  Evidently, ecotourism is a broad term, open to complex interpretation. Ecotourism has eluded firm definition because it ambitiously attempts to describe an activity, set forth a philosophy and espouse a model of development. Nature tourism is grounded in the behaviour and motivation of the individual tourist whereas ecotourism is a more comprehensive concept which is based on a planned approach by a host country or region designed to achieve societal objectives beyond those of the individual. The concept of ecotourism establishes tough standards for a program or destination to qualify for ecotourism. The needs of conservation and development however are inherently complex and successful approaches will need to be multi-faceted. (Ziffer,1989). Most recently, Martha Honey proposed excellent and more detailed version "Eco-tourism is travel to pristine, fragile and usually protected areas that strive to be low impact and (usually) small scale. It helps to educate the traveller, provides funds for conservation, directly benefits the economic development and political empowerment of local communities and fosters respect for different cultures and for human rights” (Honey,1999). However consensus exists among organisations involved with eco-tourism (including The Nature Conservancy) around the definition adopted in 1996 by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) which describes eco-tourism as “Environmentally responsible partner and visitation to natural areas, in order to enjoy appreciate nature that promote conservation, have low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active, socio-economic involvement of local peoples”

Eco-Tourism Project in Odisha
Eco-tourism project supported by NABARD in the Chilika Lake region in the Eastern Sea board of India in the state of Odisha had the following goals of ensuring livelihood which was unthinkable by fishermen community in the sense that they never imagined that the idle fishing boats can be public carriers for sightseeing and lake rafting.  It was an effort to demonstrate and establish source of gainful employment and for maximum utilisation of available local resources.

In these regions the marine life was being disturbed for physical gains and the lagoon was fast degenerating.  Ironically, the man who is endowed with maximum facilities to enjoy the environment is causing its wholesale destruction. Unfortunately, the common man is ignorant of varieties of animals, birds and plants in the lagoon which are important for preserving the ecology.  Thousands of people have been living in and around Chilika for generations in perfect harmony with it.  There is no reason why proper development of the lake cannot take place while preserving its essential and most valued qualities and without depriving the people of the area of their livelihood.  It was realised that the lagoon eco system could be saved and promoted with community participation.  As in the first stage of any project type of activity, the general awareness creation programmes were taken up and side by side the base line data collection through a survey was also taken up.  With the data collection and the awareness campaign, it was noted that the availability boats and other basic amenities in the area were quite poor. The poor maintenance of the boats, gives rise to them being damaged and not being used in the fishing activities. The resultant is loss of livelihood and increase in migration, as the only other economic activity is rain fed paddy cultivation.

Implementing agency organised a group of 193 members from the 4 project villages and established the eco-tourism centres in strategic locations.  The NGO also organises meetings in the project area and also in the nearby areas on topics like eco-tourism, guiding visitors, giving them safety tips and ensuring that their visit to the lake is with safety equipment.  The campaign also tries to focus that the visitors do not miss some of the important spots like dolphins, new sea mouth, mangroves, swampy wetlands, red crabs, temple-island, etc.  The NGO also prepared simple literature explaining risk s of developments in the area and the impacts on the economy and the people.  The literature is prepared in the regional languages in the form of booklets, posters, hand bills and fliers and use the local idiom and example to explain the concepts like eco-tourism, dos and don’ts, safety measures while travelling in boat, emergency rescue tips and first aid.

The major activity of the people in the area is fishing.  However, this activity has seen a decreasing trend, due to less availability of fish and more time taken for fishing. This has also dwindled their income drastically resulting in migration and search for cheap and other economic activities.  At this juncture, the NGO came up with an idea that we can organise and use the boats for activities like ferrying tourists and sightseeing trips in the various parts of the lake.  The specific cause of the dwindling fish catch was the natural opening of the sea-mouth of the lake which has led to migration of the lake’s fish into the Bay of Bengal.  To overcome the fact that wooden fishing boats were getting damaged in short periods of time, project envisaged for replacing them with fibre glass boats.  A total of 100 fibre glass boats were introduced in place of damaged wooden boats.
Apart from this the rest shed used by the fisherman was developed into community centre cum tourist recreation thereby creating an alternate livelihood avenue for the local community.  The NGO has trained 92 borrowers in this project for first aid.  The objective of this programme was to reduce the risk of operating boats in the lagoon.  With this programme the fishermen were equipped with the knowledge of skill in risk reduction.  Another set of people were trained in the search and rescue operations.  This is an important area as there are always hazards of boat capsizing and risk in operating tourist activities. Focus group training was given, following which, it would always require that the tour operators are also equipped to search and rescue.  Another set of people mainly the local youth were trained in two batches of 20 each as eco guides so that the tourists are provided with authentic and valid guidance  of the area as also correct information. 

As all tourists centres require catering facilities, as such another set of youth were trained in catering so that they can establish outdoor catering units to take care of the food requirement of the eco tourists.  With all such wide range of rigorous training, the NGO were able to build up the local human capital to cater to the eco-tourism activities in the area which at the same time provided livelihoods to the local people.  The NGO has also taken up other initiatives like provision of safety equipment in the area covered by the eco-tourism centre so that both the tourist as well as the local peoples’ safety is ensured in case of any other accident as well as manmade or natural disasters.  The project succeeded in creating community based rural eco-tourism activity which has resulted in gainful employment for the local community.  The major activity of the project was recycling of fishing boats for tourism purpose as ferry crafts in a sustainable manner.  The sensitisation, awareness, and capacity building of the local communities have resulted in a wide range of livelihood activities for the local people at their own location.  The project also succeeded in minimising polybags and plastics and encouraged use of paper and cotton bags as an alternative.  The women members of the community were formed into SHGs which carried out the activities of fish drying, curing, selling etc.  The eco-tourism centre was also successful in establishing linkages with local and district administration so that support for this establishment would be available whenever problems are encountered during the eco-tourism activity.

With the support of the apex bank for agriculture and rural development, NABARD an alternative livelihood for local communities was established without their migration to a different area, this livelihood while enhancing the income for the local people has also reduced the unemployment and migration.  At the same time, it has created a sustainable eco-tourism activity in the Chilika Lake of Odisha State which added one more important tourist destination in the state and has succeeded in increasing the tourist inflow to the state.  It is therefore, necessary that this project has to serve as an example to similar other units so that the country as a whole can increase tourism revenues, support livelihood of the local communities and at the same time preserve and protect fragile ecological landscape. The total project cost was Rs 3.05 million and grant support form NABARD was to the tune of Rs.  1.94 million, the balance being met through community contribution. (NABARD, 2012)

The positive outcomes of this Eco-tourism project are as follows:
  • Lives of farmers and fishermen has changed drastically with this destination venture
  • Fishermen and farmers have developed themselves into entrepreneurs
  • They have honed their soft skills to handle customer service and to market their products
  • The eco-tourism venture has raised the self-esteem among the farmers and fishermen.
  • The sensitisation and awareness levels of communities have increased due to implementation of this project
  • The capacity building of local community in the frame of institutional and organisation level has a major positive effect.
  • The venture had a positive effect among the communities from a drought prone area and a coastal area.
  • The project has also resulted in effective utilisation of existing natural resources.

The eco-tourism project affirms to the fact that community participation in eco-tourism projects is a sine qua non for their success. The case study indicate to the fact that in local areas we can generate employment for local communities based on such tourism projects (Murphy, 1985). As an apex bank NABARD has shown the way for financing such projects. Now it is an opportunity for mainstream commercial banks to take up financing such projects.

Bramwell, B (1994) Rural Tourism and Sustainable Rural Tourism, Journal of Sustainable Tourism 2 (1-2)
Honey, Martha (1999) Ecotourism and Sustainable Development, Island Press, Washington DC.
Murphy, P.E. (1985) Tourism - A Community Approach
NABARD (2011) Annual Report for 2010-11, National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, Mumbai
NABARD (2012) Community based rural eco-tourism-Project completion report, NABARD, Odisha Regional Office, Bhubaneswar
Ziffer, K. (1989) ‘Ecotourism: The Uneasy Alliance’, Conservation International and Ernst & Young, Washington DC.

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