Odisha’s overall performance in getting tourists, both domestic and international, has been modest. Of the 185.50 crore domestic tourists in the country in 2018, Odisha attracted only 1.52 crore – a measly 0.82%; and out of 2.89 crore international tourist arrivals, Odisha had a share of 0.38% with only 1.11 lakh visitors. That year, Jharkhand hosted 3.54 crore domestic tourists and 1.76 lakh foreign tourists and Tamilnadu, the most preferred destination, both for domestic and foreign tourists, had 38.59 crore domestic and 60.64 lakh foreign tourists. Odisha continues to be of marginal interest to tourists.
This realisation warranted a relook at the sector. Government now seems eager to go off the beaten track and is looking at ecotourism as a route to give the state a different image and offer access to more visitors to hidden treasures of the state. The way it has chosen to achieve the objective, however, raises concern. This needs a little explaining.
Through ecotourism, we create awareness and empathy for culture and environment and facilitate their nourishment. Ecotourism encourages low impact visits to eco-sensitive areas and visitors love to use their spare time to work as volunteers towards the growth of the area. Such tourists could stay with local families to learn about social customs, festivities, style of living, eating and cooking habits. A healthy partnership develops, enriching the host and the guest. The host community has a new source of income. Many would find the source more remunerative and fulfilling than the traditional practice of earning small income through extraction of depleting natural resources.
The state government’s initiative towards ecotourism however continues to be government-centric and bureaucrat-driven. This obsession hardly takes into account the failure of the government in managing tourist infrastructure so far. Government has developed 47 ecotourism destinations with 333 cottages for 705 persons. Number of visitors to these destinations has been rising. Government is looking for new sites including water bodies for boosting ecotourism. A few trekking routes are also being developed. New destinations are to be managed by the local community including Self Help Groups and Vana Sanrakhsana Samitis. These initiatives, however, do not address the core philosophy of ecotourism as discussed above. Standards prescribed by the International Ecotourism Society and the International Union for Conservation of Nature stipulate that visitors to natural environment would do nothing to change or adversely affect these areas, they should offer cultural and economic advantages to local communities.
Odisha, however, expanded the experiment of the previous year with the Eco Retreat model in December 2020 and set up Camps in Konark, Bhitarkanika, Hirakud, Satkosia and Daringbadi. While the first one was a repeat location, the rest were off the beaten track. The Camp was in operation for 90 days in Konark and for 82 days in the other locations. Konark attracted 5512 guests; Satkosia 2088; Daringbadi 1924; Hirakud 1810 and Bhitarkanika 1414. This initiative was on Viability Gap Funding arrangement. It’s not clear if predetermined norms on standards and expenditure were set for private operators. Minister did not disclose in the legislature the names of the operators. At the end of the show, the Government paid Rs 24 crore to bridge the viability gap. Lion’s share was for Konark where the gap was a huge Rs 13.22 crore. This means a Guest in Konark was subsidised to the extent of Rs 24,000/-!!
A historic incident that underlined the attitude to wasteful public expenditure is worth recalling. In 1979, the launching of SLV programme had failed and the satellite fell into the sea soon after the launch. Shri Abdul Kalam was in charge of the project. He was overtaken by gloom because close to Rs 20 crore of public money got wasted. In contrast, the profligacy amounting to Rs 24 crore was a non-issue for the government and the Minister announced government’s decision to repeat the model in future!! It is doubtful if any public good was achieved by this reckless experiment which was in complete deviation of the standards set by the International Ecotourism Society and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Considering the huge tourist traffic of the country, development of a few eco camps to attract tourists is just baby-steps and it is most unlikely to make a difference to the tourist arrivals in Odisha. What Odisha seems to be predominantly doing in the garb of ecotourism is pampering consumerism in the cradle of nature, compromising its splendour and serenity instead of using the ecotourism model to nurture and develop scenic spots through guest-host partnership and low impact footfalls.
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