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Environmental concern is an integral part of human society which can be traced even in the practices of the old civilizations. In those civilizations it was deemed that the survival of mankind is inseparably linked with the grace of the surrounding environment. This made the traditional society worship environment as God. But industrial revolution gradually brought a change in this perception. Fortified with advanced technological knowledge, man started to think that he can modify the environment according to his sweet will and need. Now, need based development of the pre-industrial era has been replaced by greed based development which is marked by the rampant consumption of resources by the society. This resulted in nothing but a more stressed and degraded environment. This is a critical juncture of time where in one hand man is making rapid strides in technological advancement whereas in the other hand environment is left to degrade at an alarming rate. As a matter of fact the nature has been plundered at the cost of human progress, thereby putting the very existence of human society at stake. In this situation, forests have become the most vulnerable area on the earth’s surface because of unhindered human intervention in terms of unsustainable forest exploitation, clearing the forest for various types of crops, mining, industrial development, construction of dams etc.
The largest inter-tidal mangrove forest in the world and the abode of the majestic Royal Bengal tiger, Sundarban is also no exception from this unabated destruction. This region is criss-crossed by innumerable water channels or rivers. The call of the day is to conserve this fragile ecosystem of Sundarban. Conservation efforts put an end to forest exploitation but it creates another problem. The local community which depended solely on the forest is now in dire straits. Their existence will be at stake if conservation initiatives fail to create alternate livelihood options for the local community.
Ecotourism can be the perfect answer to take care of the conservation efforts of this delicate ecosystem as well as provide livelihood opportunity to the local people. Ecotourism has emerged as development tool, which aims to protect the natural environment and cultural diversity by attracting the ecotourist and generating a source of revenue for the local people without harming the nature. This has been supported by various global processes. These intend to resolve the crucial problems related to indigenous people or the local community, their ownership rights and conservation of natural resources by clearer understanding and recognition of the strong ethical dimensions and survival spirit of the local community in a changing world where Ecotourism can prove supportive as it works at local scale and incorporates land-scape and people-scape in particular. The present study critically analyses the ecotourism initiatives in Sundarban from Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats perspectives.
Key Words: Sundarban, Ecotourism, Conservation, Livelihood
Ecotourism has advanced over the past decade from novelty to near-mainstream status. The term "ecotourism" is now entering the lexicon of all travel professionals. As a formal concept, it has been around since the early 1900's when an astute environmentalist, while visiting a shooting range in Africa, had a pioneering realization - sometimes more economic value can be derived from leaving a place of natural beauty intact for all to enjoy, instead of using the land for agriculture, mining, or commercial development. One hundred years or so later, ecotourism has come to be known as an ecologically, morally and ethically preferred form of tourism that, if done correctly, optimizes cultural and ecological benefits, while providing the tourist with an inspiring experience and the ecotourism provider with more economic benefit as cited by Jen Boulden, Ramon Escudero, and Bradley Weiss (2003).
Ecotourism has six main characteristics. These are: a) ecotourism involves travel to relatively undisturbed natural areas and/or archeological sites, b) it focuses on learning and the quality of experience, c) it economically benefits the local communities, d) ecotourists seek to view rare species, spectacular landscapes and/or the unusual and exotic, e) ecotourists do not deplete resources but sustain the environment or help undo damage to the environment, and f) ecotourists appreciate and respect local culture, traditions, etc.
One important contribution in the ecotourism framework came from Community-based Ecotourism of Kersten (1997) who defined Community-based Ecotourism as a kind of nature tourism wherein the local community maintains full (or major) control over the management and the profits of the project. The emphasis of this strategy is community development and participation of the marginalized sector (including indigenous groups) rather than on regional or national development. It also has the following aims:
- to help preserve ecosystems and natural areas (usually already within protected areas) with a high tourism potential;
- to cultivate environmental consciousness among the local population by educating them about the dangers of overexploiting resources and unrestricted number of tourists;
- to promote new economic incentives, e.g. selling of local (environmentally safe) products, crafts, and cultivated medicinal plants thereby create some entrepreneurial skills;
- to ensure communal ownership and control, and that part of the profits flow into community development programs rather than into personal enrichment; and
- to foster a feeling of pride and community through a revival or preservation of "traditional" practices and cultural techniques.
So the objectives of ecotourism is to sensitize the tourists about conservation of nature and natural resources in addition to opening up avenues for employment opportunities and various other economic activities of income generation for the local community. This will benefit the local community by bringing about socio-economic development in the area with the guarantee of environmental security.
Sundarban is a tourists' paradise. Every year thousands of tourists flock to this mangrove tiger-land. The name ecotourism is already well known in Sundarban. This study analyses the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) of the existing tourism/ecotourism condition in Sundarban and how it can be improved in accordance to the National Ecotourism Policy and Guidelines (1998).
The study was conducted in the Indian part of Sundarban. The deltas of Sundarban and its mangrove forests manifest highest mangrove diversity. This is also the only mangrove tigerland of the planet. Unfortunately due to both natural and anthropogenic reasons the Indian Sundarban has shrunk a lot during last 200 years. The mangrove ecosystems of Indian Sundarban contribute immensely towards coastal fishery of eastern India, apart from its immense on-site value. Thus it has become expedient to understand this mangrove ecosystem under changed conditions and ascertain ways and means for sustainable use of this valuable resource.
Sundarban is spread across both South and North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. Sagar, Namkhana, Kakdwip, Patharpratima, Kultali, Mathurapuer-1 &2, Jaynagar- 1&2, Basanti & Gosaba blocks fall under South 24 Parganas district whereas Hingalgunj, Hasnabad, Haroa, Sandeshkhali- 1& 2, Minakhan block fall under North 24 Parganas.
The extent of mangrove reserve forest in Sundarban is around 4260 sq. km, out of which 55 % is under land vegetation cover & balance 45 % is under water body / inter tidal zone. Nearly 40 % of the reserve forest area has been brought under Protected Area networks (PA) as follows:
- Area of Sundarban National Park : 1330 sq.km.
- Area of Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary : 362 sq.km.
- Area of Lothian Wildlife Sanctuary : 38 sq.km
- Area of Haliday Wildlife Sanctuary : 6 sq.km.
Sundarban is endowed with a rich flora and fauna. This mangrove forest has about 64 plant species which has more than 90% of Indian mangrove species with about 60% of total Indian mangrove area which supports the maximum number of tigers in a single patch among the tiger reserves of the country. The amphibian tiger population, which is estimated to be over 260 in number here, has distinct behavioral patterns and this makes Sundarban Tiger Reserve special from the other tiger reserves of the country. The core area of Sundarban mangrove forest area is also conserved as "World Heritage Site" as designated by the IUCN in the year of 1989.
The main trees and big shrubs of the area are "Bain", "Keora", "Garan", "Garjan", "Genwa", "Khali", "Bakul", "Karkra", Dhundul", "Pasur", "Sundari", Hental", "Golpata" etc.
The Royal Bengal Tiger is the king of this forest and it occupies the pinnacle of both the terrestrial and aquatic web. There are also Cheetal, Wild Boar, Rhesus Macaque, Fishing Cat etc. The creeks of Sundarban form the home of estuarine crocodile, the only surviving member of the Jurassic time. The aquatic fauna includes Gangetic Dolphin, River Terrapin (Batagur Baska), Olive Ridley Turtle, Green Turtle, Hawk's turtle, and different species of crabs, prawns, lobsters and fish.
To add to colour and melody there are birds like Rose ringed Parakeet, Crow Pheasant, Pied Myna, Drongo, Bulbul, Tailor Bird, Magpie, Robin, Brahmini Kite, Spotted Dove, Adjutant Stork etc.
The methodology used for this study is questionnaire survey of tourists, tour operators, Forest Department officials and local people. Analysis also includes group discussions, secondary data collection from Forest Department, hotels and lodges as well as by direct observation.
Results and Discussions:
The basic requirement for any tourism destination is proper infrastructure. The questionnaire survey as well as observation revealed that hotels, guest houses or tourists lodges are present in good numbers. Records from the hotels, lodges and guest houses revealed that even during the peak season the occupancy rate is slightly more than 80%. That means the basic infrastructure for lodging is adequate in Sundarban. Apart from these, there are tour packages where the stay is entirely on the boats or launches where no stay in hotels or lodges is involved.
Only a few tourists responded that the toilet facilities need improvement in a few of the hotels and lodges in terms of bathing water.
Tourists flock to Sundarban to witness the beauty of nature as well as the wilderness in serenity. So, in order to make this destination a sought after destination for the tourists, maintenance of healthy ecosystem for Sundarban is of paramount importance. The ecosystem of Sundarban is very delicate. Rise in the sea level has taken its toll on this delicate ecosystem, causing a rise in salinity. As a result the low salinity tolerant mangrove species have gradually dwindled in number. Only the high salinity tolerant species are surviving well. Rise in salinity has also resulted in a drop in the fresh water table. The Forest department is taking adequate measures by digging up pot holes so that wild animals can get drinking water. Moreover, driven by poverty more than 2 lakh people resort to tiger prawn seed collection. The collection process is very harmful for the natural regeneration of the mangroves as it destroys the mangrove seeds alongwith other species. All these are responsible for putting the Sundarban ecosystem under threat.
Livelihood generation of the local people
Tourism is a seasonal activity in Sundarban. As a result the local communities cannot solely depend on tourism as the only livelihood option. The income from tourism for the local people is mostly from working as cooks and guides. Apart from this, local people also get 25% of the revenue collected from tourists as the entry fees to the National Park. Questionnaire survey revealed that only a small percentage of the local people are involved in tourism related activities. The income generation from tourism for the local people is also very small.
Enabling environment for ecotourism promotion
Development and management of ecotourism requires conducive environment, which can facilitate its development and smooth operation. For that the most important requirement is the local people's participation in bigger number and ensuring that the income generated from this region stays within the community. At present, there are proper guidelines for ecotourism in accordance with the National Ecotourism Policy and Guidelines (1998). But local participation in tourism is a small percentage and only a small percentage of the total income generated from tourists actually percolates into the local community.
The success of any tourist destination lies in the satisfaction of the tourist after visiting the place. This is manifested in the number of tourists visiting the place, their feedback, duration of stay as well as their desire to make repeat visits. The number of tourists visiting Sundarban is increasing on a year on year basis. However, most of the tourists are not satisfied since tiger sightings in the wild are rare and destinations are over-crowded. As a result they did not want to make a repeat visit to Sundarban.
SWOT analysis of Ecotourism in Sundarban
Taking into account the background information on Sundarban as well as the opinions from tourists, tour-operators, forest officials and local people, SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis has been done for ecotourism in Sundarban. In analysis of the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats for each enterprise the following themes emerged:
- Sundarban is a well established tourism destination with a variety of natural attractions like the Royal Bengal Tiger, estuarine crocodile, mangrove vegetation, different avifauna etc.
- The local people strongly supporting the need of ecotourism in this region.
- Status of Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site of Sundarban.
- Good number of domestic and foreign tourists visiting this destination.
- Unique culture of the local people.
- Already existing tourism infrastructure.
- Lack of coordination among local people.
- Low involvement of local people in tourism.
- Little incentive for the local people from tourism in terms of income generation.
- Social mobilization through JFMs, SHGs, EDCs etc.
- Proper ecotourism package development involving local people in decision making and planning so that there is a larger involvement of the local people.
- Diversification of ecotourism products like stay in country boats, trail walks etc. which will help in retaining majority of the income generated with the local people.
- Migration of extremely poor landless people to Kolkata in search of job opportunities.
- Potential negative environmental impacts (damage to mangrove vegetation due to rise in salinity, loss of species due to tiger shrimp cultivation etc)
- Pollution by sewage, dumping of the wastes in river.
- Increase in biotic pressure due to increase in mass tourism.
- Lack of proper management causing negative impact on this fragile ecosystem.
- Tourists' dissatisfaction after visiting this place.
Ecotourism is a win-win solution for destinations like Sundarban where the conservation efforts for the environment are also associated with the livelihood opportunities of the local people. Sensitization about the environment as well as environmental education is best achieved through ecotourism. The livelihood opportunity component of ecotourism is considered to be a means of poverty alleviation of the local people.
For ecotourism to be effective in its true sense there is a need to develop a proper ecotourism package which should be different from the existing mass tourism packages. At present a small percentage of the local people are engaged in tourism related activities. Focus should be on more involvement and participation of the local people in ecotourism. This will help in maintaining a social balance in terms of income generation of the local people. This will also reduce their dependence on the forest to a great extent thereby aiding the conservation process. At present a small percentage of income generated percolates to the local people. Attention should be given so that the majority of the income from tourism is retained with the local people. Only then will the local people get an impetus to conserve the environment.
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Bhattacharya, M., Bhattacharya, P. & Patra, B. (2011). SWOT Analysis of Ecotourism in the Sundarbans, West Bengal, India. PHILICA.COM Article number 236.