Less than two weeks before tiger reserves in India typically open up for tourism, the debate over whether to lift a ban on tourism in “core areas” of the reserves continues.
The ban was ordered by India’s Supreme Court in July, citing the need for better tourism guidelines that would protect the endangered tigers, of which only 1,700 in India, out of the world’s estimated 3,200, remain in the wild.
Tour operators and resort owners have complained that the ban, which affects the areas of India’s 41 reserves where tiger populations are most concentrated, will effectively shut down the industry.
“It’s a scary time for the industry,” said Julian Matthews, chairman of Travel Operators for Tigers, the Daily Telegraph reported.
“The 'core areas’ are where 99 per cent of visitors go, so tiger tourism has effectively been halted.”
Matthews argued that the tiger tourism industry employs thousands of local workers and serves to protect tigers against poachers and illegal logging.
Conservationists have argued that resorts and hotels have over-expanded in the reserves, encroaching on the tigers’ habitat and have largely excluded local people from most of the industry’s profits.
“[T]here is no quantification yet of how much money tiger tourism generates and what percentage of it goes to local communities,” wrote independent journalist Jay Mazoomdaar in a September article for the Indian weekly Tehelka.
“The industry has neither volunteered nor encouraged such studies.”
Mazoomdar said tiger reserves have marginalized local people who would have otherwise had access to the area’s resources, suggesting that they are faced with a choice to either work in the tourism industry or engage in illegal activities such as poaching and logging.
He argues that greater incentives must be provided to local communities to participate in tiger conservation alongside regulations of the industry.
“Lack of education, skill or hygiene is no excuse for denying the people who pay the maximum price for conservation the bulk of the profit tourism generates,” wrote Mazoomdar. “It is their land where the tiger flourishes and keeps the industry in business.”
“Since doles never help in the long run, such communities have to be brought to the center of eco-tourism through training in soft skills and co-operative financing,” he added. “The tourism guidelines cannot safeguard the tiger without taking care of the interests of conservation-affected communities.”
The Indian government has proposed, among its guidelines, restricting tourism to areas comprising no more than 20 percent of each reserve, which tourism companies say would hurt the industry and cut into funds that support conservation.
“[A]s well as doing nothing to protect the animals, these restrictions would put thousands of drivers and guides out of work, and could see holiday prices go through the roof,” Matthews told the Telegraph.
“We need all sorts of people to visit the parks, not just the rich.”
A Supreme Court hearing will be held Oct. 9 to review the proposed guidelines and determine whether they are sufficient to lift the ban.