Eco-tourism and the Double-Edged Sword of Development (+ Video)

In many developing countries, eco-tourism projects are heralded as one way to bring money into communities and create economic benefits for local people.  The premise is simple: showcase the local culture and natural heritage and gain the tourist dollar.  Unfortunately, this seemingly simple business idea gets messy when implemented. 

spiritual Small communities are often overrun with waste from materials brought in for or by tourists.  Mountains of plastic water bottles and other refuse are the usual suspects. Also, communities often lack sufficient water and sanitation infrastructure, which leads to sewerage issues. Local natural attractions can be overrun and degraded by unscrupulous tour guides and their groups.  Culturally too, it is far too easy for communities to be culturally overrun by outsiders and lose the very elements that make them unique to begin with. 

Thankfully, in the Spiti Valley of northern India, one social enterprise is taking these concerns into consideration. Ecosphere got started in 2002 with the premise to take a holistic view on ecotourism and what it could provide the local community.  The crux of the organization’s work is to couple economic empowerment, development, and conservation efforts so that no area goes lacking. 

Spiti is in a remote region of India, some 13,000-15,000 ft in altitude, and is home to around 10,000 people.  It is a cold desert region just behind the Himalayas, resulting in no rain and some snowfall.  Because of this lack of precipitation, water issues are of particular concern.  Not only that, but extreme winters generally mean that the bulk of economic and agricultural activity must take place during roughly a six month period.   

himalayaThanks to Ecosphere, the traditional subsistence farming now has other alternatives.   

Because of carefully planned tourism initiatives, the region is now prospering.  Many innovative programs have been set up: 

  • Part of each tourist visit fee goes to a common fund that goes back into the community, helping solve numerous issues
  • Monastery visits have provided resources and assistance for restoration work, and conservation of priceless Buddhist artwork
  • Bhuchen performances, considered an endangered performing art, are now becoming popular with travelers and making a resurgence
  • Other cultural troupes and artist activities have been developed to further conserve local culture
  • Habitat visits have highlighted the plight of several local animals-- including the endangered Himalayan wolf and snow leopard—and developed new local strategies for better co-existence between local peoples and species
  • Amchis medicine, a traditional form of medicine passed from one generation to the next, is starting to make a comeback after nearly dying out.  This expertise is typically not monetized, which lead to younger generations not seeing relevance to continue using it
  • Greenhouses have been constructed so locals can grow more vegetables locally, and during seasons when agriculture would ordinarily be impossible
  • Homes have been made more energy efficient, and carbon emissions from wood burning have been cut back by roughly 60%
  • Solar cookers and other useful tools have further reduced energy local consumption
  • A local, nitrogen fixing crop seabuckthorn berries, have been conserved and are now actively cultivated to make health drinks that are sold both locally and in other areas
  • Compost toilet facilities have been improved across the region and have proven quite popular with visitors

Ecosphere is also working on developing a handicrafts industry locally so that locals can pursue other forms of income during the winter months when they ordinarily have few alternatives.   

All of this activity is done with careful tabs put on the number of visitors that can come through each year.  This is to maximize the benefits and experience both the travelers, as well as the locals.  It is a delicate balance to keep.  Right now, Ecosphere is roughly 50% funded by grants and other sources, and 50% from tourism activities.   

While there are many success stories, there are still many inherent challenges.  Government support has been patchy.  Local government is not particularly strong, making it hard to work cohesively across the community.   

pugmarksThe Indian government at regional and national level has yet to really step in to assist in any positive way.  One recent bright idea was the introduction of TV to every house in the area via satellite.  As a similar case in Bhutan proved, the local culture, especially among younger generations was quickly eroded by the exposure to western culture.  This served to undermine many cultural activities that had been around for centuries in the isolate region.  

Another looming challenge is climate change, with weather patterns already making notable shifts.  The winters are getting less and less snow, which will make any agriculture in the region that much more challenging in the years ahead.  The full impact of this trend is not yet realized. 

Still, compared to many other places exposed to eco-tourism, the Spiti Valley seems to be making many positive strides.  Issues that arise are addressed, and dealt with in a way that can often be of benefit to the community and its local environment.  It is this clear dedication to conservation that has seen Ecosphere win several prominent awards, including the 2008 Wild Asia Responsible Tourism Winner Award.   
Check out the Spiti Valley Ecosphere project for yourself in this video:

Chris Tobias is Celsias Editor-at-Large and Lead Strategist at Forward.  Follow him on Twitter.

More great stories on Celsias:

Palm Oil: The Contentious Climate and CSR Issue in Asia

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All photos courtesy of Ecosphere.

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Canada Guy (anonymous)

Here's some thoughts on what Travel and Tourism might look like in a sustainable future.

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Written in December 2009

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  • Posted on Dec. 17, 2009. Listed in:

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