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Agro-ecotourism: A Potential & Sustainable Livelihood Option in the Indian Himalayan Region

The potential and forecasted footprint of both international and domestic tourists in the IHR is expected to be around 240 million tourists by 2025.  It is now recognized that tourism can support sustainable development and achieve the millennium development goal of alleviation of poverty. Tourism has great ability to be one of the key development activities in the region, and ensure conducive conditions to address the issues of unemployment, revenue generation and the ability of IHR (Indian Himalayan Region) communities and the environment to absorb and equitably benefit from the impacts of tourism in a sustainable way. Ecotourism is defined as a form of tourism that entails responsible travel to natural areas and which conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people. Interest in visiting natural areas and observing wildlife is growing bringing opportunities at the same time building pressures on resources and the need for good management.

According to the United Nations, issues such as climate change, effective resource management, poverty reduction and inclusive growth need to be at the centre of tourism development. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are now recognized as a universal 17-goal plan of action for people, the planet and prosperity for all countries require all stakeholders to act in collaborative partnerships. Apart from several other SDGs, mountain specific tourism is directly included as a target in Goals 8 and 12:

Goal 8 on the promotion of “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth”, full and productive employment and decent work for all includes as Target 8.9 “By 2030, devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”. 

Goal 12 aimed to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns” includes as Target 12.b to “Develop and implement tools to monitor sustainable development impacts for sustainable tourism which creates jobs, promotes local culture and products”.

Data for the last five years on tourist arrivals shows unprecedented growth in the IHR. The total number of tourist arrivals from 2011-2015 were 494 million which is 8.42% of the total national arrival (5,870,256,562). Further, it is expected that by 2025 (Figure 1) tourist footfall in IHR will increase multi-fold (estimated 240 million).

In this context agro ecotourism is an element within sustainable agriculture that addresses the acute threat to biodiversity by increasing landscape diversity, implementing the core principles of ecotourism and incorporating the essential practices of eco-agriculture and permaculture. It is a symbiotic relationship between tourism and agriculture where farmers and farms are an integral part of development and provide a positive economic approach to rural development. Agro ecotourism offers significant opportunities for the development of market niches based on the new food and nutrition experiences borne out of the traditional crops for the tourists, consumers and new educational experience by exposure to various agricultural production systems.

Agro ecotourism can be successful in rural and often remote areas where alternative sources of livelihood are scarce and levels of poverty are frequently high. It can provide a much needed addition to local income from an activity that values and supports conservation. However local communities should be involved in its planning and in the benefits it brings and attention must be paid to sound business planning and market access if it is to be economically sustainable and enhance the geographical character of place, its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage and the well being of its residents (Figure 2).

It will enhance the linkages of the agriculture and food system with nutrition, health and socio-economic status of the people. Agro ecotourism can deliver more benefits to poor people through employment policies, strengthen the local food supply chain, provide assistance with enterprise formation and support for local services and infrastructure. It will stimulate the sustainable traditional farming practices and create mutual economic advantages through creative links between ecotourism and agriculture. It will encourage innovative product development and fair trade by strengthening links with the arts, handicraft and local heritage. It will result in all round conservation which will benefit the local communities. Agro ecotourism should be popularized in order to maximize the potential of well managed ecotourism as a key economic force for the conservation of nature. Agro ecotourism depends on fine landscapes and abundant wildlife. Therefore agro ecotourism development and the revenues it can bring should be seen as a strong ally and tool in their conservation. This involves strengthening the traditional knowledge skills and resources of protected area.

Figure 2. Greenery and post harvest views of agroforestry farms in Kosi watershed

There is also need of agro ecotourism designing which will facilitate total harmony in its surrounding and leaving a minimal foot print and combining the traditional forces of inspiration with new technology. The viability and performance of agro ecotourism enterprises will strongly depend on the effective marketing, education and training of local communities. Poor farmers who are not skilled in finance or knowledgeable about markets and handling visitors need to be trained to develop skills. They need to be informed about markets and have access through the most effective channels including new technology. Agro ecotourism can help land owners in finding useful ways that they can afford to work their land. A major problem in central Himalayan region is the loss of the ability of the present land owners to utilize their land successfully in an economically feasible manner. The main obstacle facing present rural land owners is low return on agro activities. With every passing day it is becoming difficult to make money from the land. With the advent of tourism industry people can now augment their income. During peak tourist season i.e. spring and autumn when farm activities are less the local farmers can act as tourist guides, punters, bus drivers, housekeepers or cooks however they need to be made aware of tourist categories and that sometimes simple camping has to be replaced by ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping) where in sleeping bags, torches, match sticks and swiss knives will have make way for Persian rugs, extra-long beds with soft pillows, crisp sheets and blankets, 24 hours electricity, hot tubs and especially for the Indian MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions).

There is a need to establish a strong partnership between local communities' knowledgeable private sector tourism businesses, NGO’s and Government.

A panoramic view of agricultural farms of Central Himalaya at Saingy near Kempty falls, Mussoorie

Agro ecotourism involves observing the indigenous people whose farming and herding practices that are part of their customary knowledge and cultural identity can be experienced firsthand (Figure 3). Experiencing authentic local tastes is an important part of what makes an eco-holiday enjoyable and memorable therefore traditional food has an important role in promoting   agro ecotourism.  Tourists from abroad are keen to watch and experience the traditional farming practiced in this region, even our city bred population who hardly has a chance to see a blade of grass grow may love to know about how the food that is served to him reaches him. Thus tourists may be keen to observe and participate in traditional agricultural activities such as ploughing, sowing, harvesting, collection of firewood and fodder and care for family livestock. Some typical community activity may include:

1. Guided and non-guided treks through villages (Figure 4) to meet people in their homes and fields belonging to different religion, castes, ethnic groups to learn about their work, belief, dress, home decoration and customs. Enjoy wearing traditional dresses and ornaments and even purchasing them as gifts and souvenirs.

Wilderness trail along Chopta Reserve forest

2. Visit local artisans/craftsman and watch or join them working with traditional skills e.g. basket making, blacksmith/goldsmith etc. They can even enjoy traditional natural healing processes after visiting local traditional doctors called Vaidyas, gain knowledge on natural medicinal herbs and learn their traditional methods of identification.

3. Learn local cooking use of different flavouring spices, pickle making, tasting village cuisines which are not found in cities. Traditional milk processing, and enjoy fresh and pure milk products. Enjoy local drinks like Jaan, and salted tea that villagers drink to keep themselves warm in winter.

4. Watch traditional methods of oil extraction, husking paddy, and corn grinding by micro hydro powered mills called Gharat.

5. Learn about construction of traditional house made of wood, stone and mud.

6. Learn about the local architecture widely depicted in local temples and religious and mythical stories about local deities.

When the tourism product is the traditional community life then the community must address the difficult challenge of maintaining the traditional authentic character. While developing the tourism industry the locals have to keep in mind the fragility of their community, limited carrying capacity, restricted budgets, economic goals and the responsibility of protecting their traditional agricultural base. Then tourists both national and international will come to witness and experience the community and its way of life – the epitome of agro ecotourism. Thus agro ecotourism can be a source of poverty reduction and environment management in the Indian Himalayan region.

Reference

Gaur et al. (2018) Report of Working Group II Sustainable Tourism in the Indian Himalayan Region, NITI Aayog

Author

Paromita Ghosh and Sumit Rai*

1. G. B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment & Sustainable Development
Kosi - Katarmal, Almora - 263643,
*Corresponding author: sumitssac101@gmail.com


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