By Preetika Rana
- Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
- Indian tiger reserves that opened their doors this month say a recent ban on tourism aimed at protecting the big cats has sharply hurt revenues and puts a cloud over their future.
Indian tiger reserves that opened their doors this month say a recent ban on tourism aimed at protecting the big cats has sharply hurt revenues and puts a cloud over their future.
In July, the Supreme Court issued a temporary order banning tourism in the parks’ “core areas” – or the zones with most tigers, an endangered species. On Tuesday, the court is expected to rule to make this a permanent order.
Activists who support the ban say it’s needed to save India’s tigers, whose numbers have dwindled to about 1,700 from an estimated population of 100,000 a century ago due to poaching and a shrinking natural habitat. Despite these lower numbers, India is still home to over half of the world’s tiger population and supporters of the ban, brought to the court by an environmental activist, say strict action is needed to protect this community.
Critics of the ban, including some environmental groups, say it’s poachers who are the largest threat to tigers, not tourism, and better law enforcement could stop the problem.
For the country’s 41 state-run tiger reserves, who began their season earlier this month, the effects of the ban have been huge. Although tourists can still look for tigers in buffer zones – or forests closer to inhabited land – it is harder to see them in these peripheral areas and many visitors are preferring to stay at home.
The ban could make a huge dent in the parks’ around $18 million annual revenues. An official at India’s tourism ministry declined to comment on the implications of the order.
Some parks, especially those that have larger core areas and smaller buffer zones, like Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthanand Madhya Pradesh’s Kanha National Park, alreadyare reporting almost no tourism at all.
“The last few weeks have been devastating,” says Balendu Singh, a senior official at Ranthambore. The reserve, which attracted over 200,000 tourists last year “has not sold a single ticket,” since it opened earlier this month, he added.
Earnings, as a result, have touched an “all time-low.” In the last two weeks alone, the park, home to 31 tigers, lost revenues worth 3.6 million rupees, Mr. Singh notes. Earnings are not the only cause of concern for officials at the popular wildlife sanctuary.
A recent report by Tiger Watch, a Mumbai-based wildlife non-profit organization, estimates that about 3,900 locals near Ranthambore – from hotel managers to travel guides – depend entirely on tourism and hospitality for their livelihoods.
Mr. Singh fears the order, if made permanent on Tuesday, would “destroy thousands of livelihoods” and effectively “kill tourism” in the locality.
Things are no different at Kanha National Park, home to 60 tigers, which opens for the season on Tuesday. Bookings, says Jasbir Singh Chauhan, the reserve’s field director, are down on previous years. “Lodges and travel agents have been complaining about lack of business, rather no business, for weeks,” he says.
Chitvan Jungle Lodge, a Kanha-based wildlife resort, for instance, earned close to a million rupees from 270 bookings in October last year. This October, however, the lodge is “absolutely empty,” says Manjeet Sharma, an employee of an Indian tour operator which owns the lodge.
Some travel agents say there’s talk the Supreme Court Tuesday may relax its ban to allow tourism in a fifth of core areas. But even this wouldn’t lead to a pick-up in tourism this year, says Mr. Sharma. That’s largely because tourists, particularly foreign travelers, plan their trip months in advance. “We’re anticipating the worst,” he adds.
Not all wildlife reserves will be drastically affected by the court’s final ruling, particularly those that already have independently banned tourism in core areas. These include popular reserves like Uttarakhand’s Jim Corbett National Park and Assam’s Kaziranga Wildlife Reserve, scheduled to open in mid-October and early November, respectively.
Both these parks have larger buffer areas than Ranthambore and Kanha. Tourists can still sometimes see tigers in these buffer zones despite the closure of the core areas.
In Jim Corbett, for instance, 95% of the park’s core area is already off-limits for visitors, says R.K. Mishra, the reserve’s field director. Still, travel agents point to a substantial dip in bookings for the year.
Rohit Manuja, the general secretary of Indian Voyage, a New Delhi-based travel agency, says his firm has received close to 500 bookings for Jim Corbett this season versus over 1,200 bookings the firm had received by this time last year.
Why the sharp plunge when parks like Corbett and Kaziranga will be largely unaffected by the court’s decision?
“Tourists are in great confusion, sometimes even mislead by reports on the ban,” explains Raj Sharma of Garhwal Himalayan Expedition, an agency specializing in travel packages across tiger reserves.
Travelers – domestic and foreign – are unaware that the ban is limited to core zones of a reserve, according to Mr. Sharma. He adds that his foreign clientele, most of whom cancelled their bookings this season, believed the court had imposed a blanket ban on tourism in reserves altogether. “It’s not their fault… That’s how the Indian media sensationalized the issue,” Mr. Singh claims.
Click here to read a detailed break up of how tourism in popular parks is affected by the order.
Click here to read more about the ongoing-debate around the order.