Thursday, March 27, 2008

Responsible tourism: prospects and dangers

I grew up hearing the slogan ‘responsible government’. Those who raised it wanted princely regime to be replaced by one which will be responsible to the people. Today we elect our rulers. But the question whether they are responsible to the people is relevant. As the report presented at the Hyderabad congress of the Communist Party of India indicates, when star fund collectors are there it will be difficult to remain responsible to the people.

What prompted me to think of responsibility now is the slogan of ‘responsible tourism’ heard in Kochi. It is only 10 or 12 years old. The Responsible Tourism Conference held at Cape Town, South Africa, in 2002, which was attended by 280 delegates from 20 countries, marked the beginning of a global movement. We got the good fortune of hosting the second global meeting since the State government took keen interest in it. Like the Cape Town meet, the Kochi conference ended with a Responsible Tourism declaration.

Before looking at the declaration, we need to understand how it all originated. The United Nations called a meeting of governmental leaders and representatives of non-government organizations, business and other interests at Johannesburg in South Africa to discuss the challenges to sustainable development. This was in follow-up of the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro. NGOs were agitating in different parts of the world highlighting the ill-effects of tourism. It was evident that the issue would come at the Johannesburg meeting. The first Responsible Tourism conference was organized at Cape Town ahead of it, foreseeing this, with a view to cooling the sentiments of the agitators. The initiative was taken by those connected with the tourism industry. The UN World Tourism Organization backed it. They tried to bring in NGOs but did not succeed in attracting those who were active on the tourism front. Last year they made a beginning with a Responsible Tourism Day as well.

The Kochi declaration acknowledges that in the five and a half years since the Cape Town meet, Responsible Tourism has not achieved sufficient progress to make the contribution expected of it to sustainable development. It, therefore, exhorts everybody to work with redoubled vigour. The movement has become a bridge between the tourism industry and the official machinery in Kerala. It is, therefore, necessary to remind those concerned that the government’s primary responsibility is to the people.

It was while working in Kashmir more than 30 years ago that I realized Kerala’s immense potential as a tourist destination. Jammu and Kashmir was the State that attracted the most tourists at that time. Traditionally Indians travelled to visit holy places. Although the State had famous places of worship like the Amarnath cave temple and the Vaishnodevi shrine in Jammu, what attracted people in large numbers to the State was its natural beauty. I often regretted that the government and people of Kerala were not able to recognize and benefit from the State’s green splendour. Later I thought it was perhaps good that tourism had not developed. For neither the administration nor the people had sufficient environmental awareness to sustain the natural beauty. The extensive destruction of forests proves as much.

The Indian government had chosen Kovalam for development as a beach resort on the advice of an expert team which was called in to draw up a plan to attract foreign tourists. Now the Centre has withdrawn from the place. But private entrepreneurs’ presence is strong. Even as Kovalam started growing as a tourist spot, signs of its ill-effects also appeared and non-government organization came forward with opposition. In many countries, including India, organized opposition to the dangers posed by tourism industry has grown to the point of being against tourism itself. This happens mainly because the authorities do not intervene in time and dispel the people’s fears.

Now tourism is one of Kerala’s fast growing sectors. This has been made possible more by the entry of private entrepreneurs than by the campaign the government has been waging for years with the slogan “God’s own land”. The official establishment’s interests often lead to unnecessary projects. The latest example is the hotel project in Chennai, which was taken up as soon as the present Left Democratic Front government came to power. Since entrepreneurs are coming forward to invest in this sector, there is really no need for the fund-starved government to build hotels etc. in the State or outside. The government is an institution with a regulatory function. It must concentrate its efforts in the discharge of this function.

Most of the facilities that have come up in recent years cater to the needs of tourists with big spending capacity. Private investors naturally take great interest in such facilities. The government must encourage those who are ready to develop facilities for middle class tourists by offering concessions or exemptions. Tourists usually buy things to keep memories of places they visit. The government must be able to help those engaged in traditional handicrafts to benefit from this practice. Such activities will help to extend the benefits of tourism to the people at large.

The government’s primary duty is to make sure that development of tourism does not endanger Kerala’s precarious ecological balance. It must never be forgotten that what propels the private sector forward is the profit motive. If the authorities do not closely monitor and regulate their activities, the natural beauty that attracts tourists may be lost in no time.
Based on “Nerkkazhcha” column appearing in Kerala Kaumudi edition dated March 27, 2007

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