The latest announcement made by Forest Minister Vishwajit Rane to open Goa’s hinterlands to tourists should have got the green light without reservation, but an amber light blinks furiously as the proposal brings both optimism and pessimism.
Optimism because now people in the hinterland will accrue the benefits of tourism which so far have been enjoyed by those in the coastal areas who run shacks and hotels. Pessimism because after seeing what coastal tourism and shacks have done to the beaches, there is the fear that the same may be repeated in the hinterland villages. The thought is not very encouraging.
Everyone loves to be amidst nature because of what it does to one’s health. Also, an eco-tourism vacation could come much cheaper than one in a five-star beach resort. Hinterland tourism will definitely benefit villagers, but the government will have to ensure that the way forward in this endeavour would be to work with nature and not destroy it to create something which in the long run will cause damage.
But before giving shape to this concept of eco-tourism, the government will have to blend the idea of conserving the environment so as to sustain village communities and the economy. Does the government have a roadmap?
Eco-tourism projects could be the answer to unemployment in the hinterland villages, but the government will have to ensure very strictly that locals get first preference when it comes to jobs. Eco-tourism is a good idea, but there has to be a clearly defined route to see how villagers could promote their traditional practices, food and crafts so as to build a cultural interface between tourists and locals.
The government will have to employ experts to formulate a clear-cut model infused with heightened cultural and environmental awareness as seen in countries like Bhutan, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Norway, to name a few.
The way forward would be an infusion of a percentage of the profits accrued from eco-tourism projects to take up conservation measures, and that’s how the industry will become sustainable and long-lasting.
The government will have to empower and educate locals to ensure that most of the activities are carried on by the latter because they have a better understanding and love for their surroundings.
The stakeholders and leaders in the area will have to ensure that in the name of eco-tourism, there is no unnecessary burden on local resources. Experts will have to work out the carrying capacity of each eco-tourism project. This is the only way the industry will have definite direction and collating data would be easy.
Projects that are set up will have to ensure that the eco-tourism spirit is retained at all costs and there is no overtourism at any point, especially of the kind we see on Goan beaches, given the fact that our hinterlands are eco-fragile in nature.
Countries like Africa have seen displacement of locals due to unnecessary eco-tourism expansions and the construction of hotels. Goa cannot afford to have developments in the villages in the name of eco-tourism. All that is to be built will have to be weaved around available natural surroundings.
In view of Goa’s fragile environment, the eco-tourism model will have to work on the concept of zero carbon footprint by ensuring the project remains non-motorised, which means no use of vehicles inside forested areas. Case in point, are the Dudhsagar waterfall jeep trails that are causing more harm than is currently visible.
Eco-tourism if not conducted in a sustainable manner could cause more harm than good. We have already seen the rot in our countryside in the form of hill-cutting and filling of low-lying fields. Do we want more degradation?
The hinterlands today are Goa’s soul and the government’s move to step into our eco-fragile habitats without a foolproof eco-tourism model will be like killing the hen that lays the golden eggs.
The government will have to ensure local and environmental interests are more supreme than profits, and the only way forward is to maintain a balance between social, environmental and economic interests.