What is the way forward?

World tourism day

In the Indian cultural tradition, visitors were respected. They were termed Athithis or personages received with great respect and regard. Their needs and requests were usually met with utmost concern (‘Athithi Devo Bhava’ means treat guests like God). Wayside choultries and inns were constructed for their rest, comfort and relaxation. Those who came from afar were scholars, researchers, pilgrims or explorers. We loved to lavish our hospitality on them, holding it our duty to assist them, support them and serve them.

Similarly we have learnt a lot from the athitis, that is the westerners, which is why we are facing so many problems today. Does today’s tourist bear any resemblance to the athithi of ancient times? Far from it, we receive the tourist as a welcome guest because he or she brings dollars to buy our tourist services and experience the exotic delights the tourist industry has painstakingly dressed up to cater to tourists’ tastes.

It is no longer a tradition to receive guests with respect and care for their comforts. Even where it exists, it is only marginally significant. Today, it is business. It is industry. We have changed our laws and policies to make tourism an organised global industry, with all its economic and commercial implications. It is such a mega business that we have a World Tourism Organisation, World Tourism Day and Ministries of Tourism in many third world countries. There are tourist Boards, tourism promotion agencies,tourism conferences and all the paraphernalia of a multinational business venture. Tourism today is the world’s largest export industry.

Looking at the global perspective, the number of international tourists visiting India is indeed very small. However, the money spent by the approximately four million tourists is nearly Rs 20,000 crores. Half of these tourists are persons of Indian origin visiting their relatives and friends or on a spiritual pilgrimage to some famed shrine or the other.
The current buzz words is eco-tourism. Eco-tourism annoys me because people take packaged tours to these wonderful, protected forests and natural reserves, sit in their lovely suite, order room service, complain that there’s a bird on their verandah, and then come home and brag about how nature-friendly they are. Most of these tourist spots are promoted by saying these are eco-hotspots that connect you with nature. But what do people do to these hot spots? They just abuse it by being very unfriendly to nature.
Green, it clearly is, tourist-oriented certainly, but how exactly is this nature-friendly? The global tourism industry is relentless in its promotion of tourism as a good thing. ‘Tourism brings harmony and peace’, and this kind of unjustified hyperbole is typical of an industry which depends for its survival on generating the feel-good factor for its consumers.
In an industry based not so much on greenwash as on total information mismanagement, perhaps one of the biggest lies is the notion of eco-tourism. It sounds lovely, doesn’t it, conjuring up images of skipping though leafy glades, pointing out darling cute animals and charming birds, just pristine unspoilt nature and you? And at the same time as having a lovely time, the eco-tourist can bask in the knowledge that they are in some way, ‘helping the environment’.

To be genuinely eco, a trip that  is not just about taking a stroll in the wilderness or enjoying a lodge with five-star facilities in a game park. Genuine eco- tourism would involve helping to sustain the delicate ecological balance which helps make a place unspoiled. Perhaps most importantly, participants on an eco-tourism trip would be coming not from the perspective of nature as a resource to be consumed, in the way that say, a fine wine or work of art might be enjoyed; but from a perspective of humility, gratitude and a desire to contribute to preserve and enhance eco-systems across the planet.
I feel that tourism as an industry, should come from the bottom rather than coming from the top. It must be people to people industry, since it can help in generating income for the local people. Knowledge can be shared and incomes can go into protecting and conserving pristine areas. Kumarakom was the best example wherein the Panchayat passed resolutions to develop people to people tourism. And the panchayat has a say in the tourism industry.

We do not want the kind of development that first pollutes the water and then offers the money to purify this water. We do not want to choose development that destroys our forests, coasts and mountains, damages our eco-system, and then offers money for afforestation and regeneration. We do not want a tourist policy that encourages unbridled tourism and then creates measures for regulating tourism. It is time to rethink our development on this tourism day.

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