NEW DELHI: Lease out 150 sq km of prime forest land to private tourism companies next to a prominent tiger reserve for 50 years. Buy it, if possible. Run an exclusive resort on the cordoned off land with rents upto $4,000 a night providing revenue of upto $4 million a year. Hire a few locals for minor services like supervisors, guards and other lower-level functionaries. This is the proposal from Tour Operators for Tigers (TOFT) — one of the most prominent association of tiger-tourism operators, who have opposed the Union government’s regulations on eco-tourism and the Supreme Court’s interim ban on tourism on core of tiger reserves.
TOFT, which has several high-end eco-resort owners and tour operators as partners across the most prominent tiger reserves, has openly solicited and collected funds from tour operators in several countries to fight the Supreme Court’s ban and the government’s guidelines restricting tourism in the name of Guide Association of Madhya Pradesh and Kanha Lodge Association.
The association, along with prominent wildlife NGOs like Wildlife Protection Society of India, whose head Belinda Wright also runs a resort in MP, has taken a public stand against stopping tourism in the core of tiger reserves. TOFT has opposed the imposition of a cess on its revenues to be used for conserving wildlife and providing livelihood to locals as proposed in the government guidelines.
The TOFT Pench proposal was advocated in 2009 and got an in-principle approval from the MP government, which too has opposed the restrictions on tiger tourism, but is yet to take off. TOI, however, could not determine the current status. Julian Matthews, who heads TOFT, did not respond to TOI’s emailed queries.
But the details of the proposal give an insight into the kind of tourism TOFT advocates in India. Documents show that the ‘conservancy’ operation was to be run by a company called Great Plains Safari Company, which runs similar operations in Africa and National Geographic Society. It was supported by a carbon trading firm backed by the international bank Credit Suisse and the then WWF chairman.
The multi-million dollar operation promised to hire 228 locals, including about 65 for running resorts, and the rest of the employees would continue to work for “government work guarantee scheme”. TOFT sought a three-year tax holiday for its venture. It claimed that the total annual profits would be about $1 million by the end of fifth month of its operations — of which half would be shared with ‘communities’. It has claimed that it would start the controversial carbon trading system in the area by banning cutting of bamboo and restricting harvesting of other timber out of which the `communities’ would get $1 million annually. The company would also buy livestock from locals to reduce pressure on the forest land.
TOFT has not stepped back even though this particular proposal hasn’t come to fruition.
On its website it is running a campaign against the guidelines and the court order stating, “Most of today’s conservationists fell in love with nature when staying in these rest houses and lodges (inside the tiger reserves). Valmik Thapar, Bittu Saghal, Billy Arjan Singh to name a few you know. How can you destroy our children’s chance of experiencing nature in this natural way?”
TOFT is asking for a different set of norms. It says, “These guidelines must plan for a huge increase in numbers of visitors, both from International visitors but more especially from our own Indian markets – and you must encourage and incentivize us (with other great wildlife habitats and wildlife experiences) to spread our clients.”
It seeks a “clear ‘road map’ as to how to build a better nature tourism industry that delivers both an exceptional wildlife experience to our clients — comparable with many other parts of the world in which we are in fierce competition — but most importantly a powerful tool for conservation to save our Forests and Wildlife.” But it notes, “sadly, the guidelines do not yet offer any of these benefits.”