“For adventure tour operators, business succeeds if we protect the ecosystems around us”
Adventure tourism is fast gaining popularity in India. To support this niche sector, the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, is launching a new campaign, called “777 days of the Indian Himalayas”, on the World Tourism Day to promote the Himalayas both as a winter and summer destination to international and domestic travellers. However, there is concern that increase in adventure tourism will negatively impact the ecosystems of mountains and forests. Akshay Kumar, president of the ATOAI in conversation with Anindita Chattopadhyay negates such concerns, reveals how the association is helping in protecting tigers and ensuring safety, and talks about the roadblocks in promoting tourism.
Q. According to a HolidayIQ.com report adventure tourism is the new fad in India. Shed some light on the growth of this sector. What is the percentage of foreign tourists?
Akshay: It is true that India has never witnessed a higher response to adventure tourism as in the recent past. This enthusiasm is neither activity specific nor age/gender specific anymore. There has been a growing interest among youth, children as well as senior citizens for planning adventure trips. Inbound tourists into India normally are more hardcore focussing on activities like long treks, raft expeditions, mountain biking trips etc. There has also been a shift to luxury adventures like expedition cruising and lifestyle treks. Domestic market is mainly weekend and camp based trips that involve soft adventure activities like rafting days trips, camping, short hikes and experiencing ropes course and zip lines.
However, there are no figures on foreign tourists to go by as this is still an unorganised industry with no studies on actual figures available.
Q.. The report says though adventure holidays are gaining popularity, safety & security are a prime concern among travelers while planning. Your thought
Akshay: Risk is inherent in any and every adventure activity. What is important is that the adventure tour operator must be equipped with proper safety equipment and trained and experienced personnel to handle the uncertainties. Planning adventure holidays with Ministry of Tourism, Government of India approved ATOAI members is the best and safest way ahead. ATOAI is working hard to bring maximum operators under its fold by organising workshops and capacity building programs for operators.
Q. Ministry of Tourism came up with safety and security guidelines to be followed, but local tour operators often flout them. What is the ATOAI doing to make them fall in line? After all, a mishap can bring bad name to the industry and dampen interest in Indian tourism as reports of such incidents can go viral on the Net
Akshay: ATOAI has drafted and submitted activity-specific safety guidelines to the Union Ministry of Tourism. We have recommended that the Ministry must make them mandatory at the State level when issuing licence to local adventure operators. This will create the momentum for the basic minimum standard of safety. We are also organising local workshops on a regional level to enhance the safety quotient at the ground level. We are also educating local administration on how to monitor safety and handle post-accident scenarios.
Q. Supreme Court had banned tourism in core areas of all 41 tiger reserves in July 2012. It was later lifted after the Centre filed an affidavit stating permanent tourist facilities located inside the core areas of the reserve will be phased out. A) Will it negatively impact adventure tourism as wild life safari is quite an attraction among foreign and domestic tourists? B) What is the association’s suggestion in dealing with heavy footfalls?
Akshay: Yes, this has surely discouraged wildlife tourism to a great extent. We are in dialogue with the Government emphasizing the point that those parks where tourism is low have lost more tigers, while the tiger population have been more secure in those parks that experience more footfalls. However ATOAI also believes in protecting core areas and limiting footfalls to a controlled number.
I would like to point out that in the case of Ranthambhor, a few years back, when 15 tigers were killed within a short span of time, the whistle was not blown by the tour operators and not by any NGO or the forest department. Immediately, the culprits along with the skins of the tigers were caught in Sawai Madhopur. Tourism is in fact playing a very crucial role in protecting tigers with huge financial support being generated to support displaced people living in the peripheries of these national parks and also to support the Government anti-poaching activities.
Q. A common criticism is that unchecked, unplanned growth of tourism is negatively impacting the fragile hill ecosystems. A report said that Himalayan ecosystems have experienced faster rates of warming in the last 100 years and more than other mountain ranges of the world. A) What is your association doing to address this concern? B) Are you collaborating with other associations in the industry to have sustainable ecotourism?
Akshay: The damage to the fragile ecosystems was not caused by the adventure or eco tourist but by the uncontrolled pilgrim traffic that grew unchecked for decades. For adventure tour operators, business only succeeds if we protect the ecosystems around us. Our business cannot flourish in uncontrolled concrete jungles. We have been in dialogue with State Governments to define and implement eco tourism zones under a long-term plan and also to develop models to calculate carrying capacity in each tourism zone to limit the load on the ecosystem.
Q. N-E India offers great opportunity as it is still unexplored. What help are you getting from the state governments? How is political unrest affecting you?
Akshay: The Adventure Tour Operators Association of India is already working on the matter and we have recently organized a seminar on “Scope and Avenues of Adventures in West Bengal” where key representatives from the association went to meet the Department of Tourism, Govt. of West Bengal and the local trade to lay down a roadmap for promotion of the State as an adventure destination. Earlier, we had our 10th Annual Convention in Guwahati, Assam promoting the destination. The States Governments surely are taking a proactive and positive approach towards development of tourism in the region.
Political Unrest is surely a hindrance in the development and promotion of tourism in the region. However, we are hopeful that there will be political stability in the region.
Q. What are the roadblocks you are facing in promoting this niche tourism? Have you ever thought of having a brand ambassador? If given a choice, who would you pick?
Akshay: There are roadblocks galore.
Lack of Infrastructure and International Quality Equipments - In the Union Budget 2009-2010, a 100% waiver of customs duty was accepted on import of snow-skis, inflatable rafts, surf-boards, sail-boats and other water sports equipments vide Notification No. 77/2009-Customs dated July 7, 2009. However, the sub-headings provide exemption to only limited items under these broad categories and that too has been withdrawn as of now. There are no manufacturers / developers / consultants for international class adventure equipment and gear in the country. In order to ensure that adventure tourism is promoted and exercised safely in the country, the Ministry of Tourism approved Adventure Tour Operators are recommended to be allowed to import duty-free equipments each year which are related to the implementation of the activity as well as developing the infrastructure for the activity.
Inadequate land bank rules and regulations - The Land Bank Rules and Regulations are inadequate in the country. In order to change the land use, under existing policies, the option available for campsites is to turn to Luxury Hotels. There are no clear policies for creating capsites/lodges/resorts. There are concepts like Eco Lodges and Jungle Lodge Resorts which are gaining strength and should be looked at. There is a huge difference between a Hotel and an Eco-lodge. An eco-lodge refers to a structure and using process that is environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle: from locating the site to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition. This practice expands and complements the classical building design concerns of economy, utility, durability, and comfort. The time is ripe to look at a Hybrid model comprising of Camps and Eco-lodges instead of only Luxury hotels which can be set up by only big industrialists.
Identification and development of new adventure destinations - There is an urgent need for identification and development of new adventure destinations and creation of adventure zones Whenever a new adventure destination or zone is identified, we start constructing a concrete jungle around it like what we have done to majority of our destinations like Shimla and Manali. It is recommended to identify new adventure destinations. This does not mean only identifying a new adventure destination and developing hotels and accommodations at various places. What is recommended is the growth of mountain based adventure activities at these destinations. As a destination will gain publicity with the promotion of the activities, facilities like accommodation, etc. will automatically fall into place and complete the jigsaw. We do not want any more concrete jungles than we already have.
Accessibility to remote areas - A major problem is accessibility to remote areas. The areas like Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, Gouchar and Uttarkashi in Garhwal and Pitthorgarh in Kumaon are classic examples of areas which have one small air strip which can be connected with fixed winged full bodied aircrafts. This is the reason for the success of adventure tourism in Nepal because of connectivity of Lukla (serving as base camp for trek to Mount Everest) to the international fraternity.
Lack of Promotional Material - There is limited promotional material on adventure tourism. It is recommended that collaterals like brochures, banners, etc. need to be prepared for each adventure activity separately. Other promotional media like movies are also recommended to be prepared by professionals for reviving adventure tourism in the country.
Marketing of the existing adventure activities related guidelines and policies - There is an immediate need to market the existing adventure activities related guidelines and policies. In the present scenario, a couple of guidelines have been drafted, prepared and hosted online. However, most of the industry persons as well as government bodies are not even aware of the existence of these guidelines. Thus, it is recommended to organize workshops in every part of India to create awareness among the industry for adherence to these Guidelines. The system devised in these guidelines should aim at One Window Clearance system and not promote bureaucracy and red-tapism. The various adventure guidelines approved by Ministry of Tourism, Government of India need to be made mandatory at State level also in order to make the guidelines more effective as well as to curb the growth of fly-by-night operators.
Co – ordination with State Ministries - It is strongly recommended that the Ministry of Tourism should take the lead and work in co-ordination with State Ministries of Environment and Forests. This will ensure the wildlife experience to be more eco-friendly, educative and sustainable. The Ministry is recommended to invite experts from overseas to devise a strategy for better management of our National Parks and provide an outer prospective to our projects.
Co-ordination with Other Ministries - There is a need to promote Inter-Ministerial Synergy to boost up the adventure tourism. Though Ministry of Tourism is the mentor of the Adventure fraternity, yet the role of Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of External Affairs cannot be overlooked. The various policies framed by the Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Home Affairs play a vital role in bringing tourism into the country. In order to expedite the activities as well as promotion of India as an Adventure Destination, there needs to be synergy and co-ordination in the ministerial departments. The Ministry of Tourism is recommended to co-ordinate with Ministry of Education to offer adventure camps, journeys and trips and environment education as a subject at various levels of education framework. This results in character building and development of eco-friendliness in the individual. This will ensure that the country will have trained adventure tourism personnel to manage this niche but important tourism segment.
Regionalism - Adventure Tourism is a national activity as it boosts the national economy. However, in recent years, the segment has suffered setbacks on account of regionalism. Therefore, the time has come to dump the concept of regionalism in the light of the bigger goal – Adventure Tourism Beyond the Regional Borders – as it will help in bringing adventure tourism in the country.
There is no paucity of Brand Ambassadors for promotion of adventure tourism. Since adventure is not bound to any region, age or activity, we have innumerable Indians who have record adventure feats under their belt.
Q. Rate the State governments and the Centre in terms of being a proactive facilitator – the top 5.
Ministry of Tourism, Government of India
Jammu & Kashmir
(The writer was Senior Editor, Edit-Opinion desk, The Pioneer, former Bureau Chief, Indian Express Business Publication Div and is recipient of the LK Bakshi award)