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October - November 2005


Responsible Tourism and Development in 21st Century India

by Aline Dobbie

We all need to see ourselves in whichever country we live as ‘Custodians of the Land and its Resources’. India has the continuing challenge of huge population pressures – BUT despite this successfully has its wild and wonderful places; thankfully still with reasonably healthy numbers of its various wildlife, apart from the scarcity of Tiger, of which we are painfully aware. That is an ongoing blight on India’s reputation as a responsible nation; even the current Prime Minister has appeared shocked at the negligence and corruption that has been exposed within the last four months pertaining to the crisis in Tiger numbers. What he has instigated maybe shutting the stable door after the horse is dead, but if Indians want to save the Tiger numbers and behave responsibly they can, it is a question of having the determination, integrity and commitment to achieve this – not making the usual fulsome empty promises and exaggerated claims that is intrinsic to Indian politicians and their respective administrations.

Now that there is a reignited interest in India and her tourism generally and involving her wildlife in particular, everyone must ensure that the various parks and sanctuaries are not exploited for greed and private profit. It behoves the various famous well known hotel groups not to jump on a ‘conservation and wildlife bandwagon’.

The Indian Government and the respective state tourism departments must be rigorous about their planning and enforcement of their rulings. Venality is the polite word for corruption, which is a word well recognised within India and one that will diminish her as a nation in the eyes of the world. In an age when the materially advantaged traveller can indulge his/her ideas of hedonism all over the world it seems to me almost obscene that people should even contemplate going to Ranthambhore to wallow in their own private Jacuzzi, when India’s wonderful, precious wildlife is possibly (as had been the case for three long years till the monsoon of 2003) gasping for water. Tourists who pay up to £400 a night to watch Indian tigers from luxurious eco-lodge hotels are contributing almost nothing to the animals’ well-being or their parks, according to a recently published conservation report.

Its findings will astonish British tourists who visit parks such as Ranthambhore in Rajasthan and leave convinced that, with their patronage, they are helping to save the species. Joining the Dots a hard-hitting report for India’s government that was commissioned to investigate its dwindling tiger population paints a greedy picture. It calculates that on the fringes of Ranthambhore there are 21 ‘elite’ hotels with an estimated turnover of almost 220 million rupees (£2.8 million). At the Aman-i-Khas resort, luxury tents costs 30,000 rupees (£400) per night, while only slightly less expensive is Oberoi’s Vanyas Villas property, charging 16,500 rupees (£220). Such substantial revenues – Rs30,000 is more than a year’s income for many millions of rural Indians – the authors argue, should be invested back into the park and its people. Sadly this is precisely what does not happen. The park does not even get the gate receipts according to the report. …’ the local people also do not benefit’.

Sunita Narain, the director of India’s Centre for Science and Environment, who chaired the report team said: ‘To put it into perspective, the 220 million rupees yearly turnover is the equivalent of the entire public funds spent on Ranthambhore over the last 30 years. We aren’t saying there should not be eco-tourism. It is a valuable part of the local economy, but it must benefit all the people.’ The report’s findings have provoked great controversy among conservationists as to the best way to save the tigers.

Naturally the hotel chains accused of exploiting the parks without contributing to their upkeep have fiercely contested the report, which also proposes taking 30 per cent of their turnover in taxes. The various spokespersons for the hotel chains such as Oberoi Hotels and Aman-i-Khas said that it was a ‘political matter’ as to the poverty of the local villagers and therefore not their responsibility. Now is that not an Indian attitude? Where is a sense of ‘Giving Back’ or just pure and simple GIVING? By the rich to the poor. Truly Altruism and a sense of collective responsibility must become the watchwords for the new burgeoning 21st century India.

Indian hotel chains and entrepreneurs and those outsiders who operate within India, must realise that the world will judge them harshly and negatively if they exploit conservation and the wild places for their own ends. If they start to contribute to the local conservation initiatives demonstrably that will be a very good thing, but that does not give them a licence to make expedient developments. The analogy for me would be if we in the UK were to allow the Highlands of Scotland, or the Lake District of England to be totally exploited until they became just ‘Theme Parks’.

In 2002 Graham and I went and had a truly marvellous experience in a very charming establishment on the edge of the park, beautifully situated in the buffer zone. They had emptied their swimming pool quite understandably and one was asked to be responsible about usage of water. We went all the way to Ranthambhore to see Tiger and other animals, and given a simple comfortable cottage with good beds, air-conditioning (for the hot months, we did not require it in November), plus an adequate en suite shower room with w.c. and hot water, plus a veranda on which to sit, we had a very good time. Reasonable food completed an excellent experience.
We are ALL in our way, as I said initially, custodians of our great remaining wild and wonderful places, throughout the world, and of the PRECIOUS ANIMALS therein.

We have to save our diversity to save ourselves. Over 200 species of plants have vanished in south India alone in the last 30 years. At least four species of birds have become extinct since 1870. Twenty-three species of animals have followed suit.

The solution has to be: Turn and return to the local person – his and her understanding, awareness and ownership of the responsibility are the only way out. Illegal trafficking in animals is probably the ugliest and biggest problem, but stringent laws are not enough – education and through education a feeling of pride and responsibility in one’s collective heritage and determination to ensure that species not only survive but prosper once again. India can do this.

Following on from that may I say that recently I read with repugnance that once again greedy, self adoring Fashionistas are adorning themselves with fur and skins?

Farmed mink, rabbit and fox is a side of the fur trade that I do not like but concede that many northern countries feel is permissible. If you were to read how they breed and kill these animals I think you too would be repulsed. In these modern times when we have 21 century technology to ensure warmth and fashion I can’t go along with it personally. As for using EXOTIC Endangered animals – the wonderful skins of Tiger, Leopard and Silver Fox and other rare creatures, it is a private crime that the wearer commits every time they wear such a garment; truly the most obscene form of attention seeking.

Interestingly, in the Telegraph Magazine supplement in which I read these depressing details of this return to wearing fur, one of the important interviewees was fearful of giving her name and remained anonymous. What price one upmanship that cannot look one in the eye and speak their own name when talking about what they wear and how they earn their living?

When any of us is faced with these huge problems it is so easy to say ‘What can I do to stop this or that, Save tigers and endangered species, help the vulnerable and the poor, feed the starving, help eradicate child labour, stop deforestation, end pollution. Whenever I feel downhearted about all these challenges I think of Gandhiji. He had so many wise worthwhile ideas, but two are pertinent.

1. All Creatures have an equal right to live on this Earth; and
2. If we each do a little then together we will ALL achieve a lot.
I commend both these beliefs to you all. India needs us all to do our utmost.

Aline Dobbie
Author of India: The Peacock’s Call and India: The Tiger’s Roar

Aline has been fascinated by that most magnificent and elusive of beasts, the tiger, since she was a child born and brought up in India. her father, Colonel Frank Rose, was an officer in the Indian Army and as he was posted to various parts of the country, Aline was lucky to experience everything from cities such as Delhi and Calcutta to the wild jungles of Northern India and the untouched, tranquil waterways of Kerala in the south.
Although Aline returned to her native Scotland at theage of 16 after India was granted her independence, her affection for theland of her birth has not diminished. Now married to Graham, a PDSA vet, with two grown-up sons - Hamish and Stewart - and two grandchildren, they have lived in various parts of the world such as South Africa, but have happily settled in Biggar in the Borders.
Yet Aline has frequently returned to the country of her birth and has written prolifically about the land, its wildlife and people, as well as giving talks about responsible tourism and conservation in India. Her latest book - India: The Tiger’s Roar (Melrose Press, £13.99 hbk) relates her recent experiences exploring India’s wildlife parks and tiger sanctuaries and underlines the importance of fighting to conserve these rare and beautiful wild animals in their natural habitat. Bridget McGrouther in ‘Scottish Field’
Says Aline: “It as a great privilege growing up in such a lovely country and as I am bilingual and speak Hindi/Urdu, it gives me a further undertanding of the nuances and sensitivities, allowing me the chance to have a rapport with various sides of society. I was brougt up to respect different cultures and had a whale of a time travelling extensively.

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