In the heart of a lush green jungle in south India, a group of tourists in a jeep glimpse a striped orange and black form slinking into the foliage. The driver silences the engine. Everyone anxiously waits for the tiger to re-emerge. The hum of insects and the distant call of a monkey are the only sounds. Minutes later the magnificent beast appears and the tourists lunge towards the front of the vehicle to capture a view or a photograph of the tiger in the seconds before it once again vanishes from sight.
Wildlife tourism is growing in India, with the endangered Bengal tiger being one of of the biggest draws. But despite its obvious appeal, the industry has faced significant controversy and there is still much to be done to boost the sector, experts say.
“It should be publicised,” says Y Rajeev Reddy, the chairman and managing director of Country Club India, a holiday and leisure company.
While wildlife tourism “has developed to a certain extent”, he says, it still has “abundant scope to attract a lot of people from around the world.”
His company’s wildlife resort in the Bandipur jungle in the southern state of Karnataka receives thousands of visitors a year, with its non-members paying about 6,000 rupees (Dh366) a night in the current season. Some wildlife resorts in India charge more than US$1,000 a night for accommodation in a luxury tent.
The resort is near a tiger reserve, which is home to tigers, elephants and birds, among other animals. This is one of about 40 tiger reserves in India. There are about 1,700 tigers left in the country, with poaching among the factors that has led to the animal’s dwindling population.
India attracted just 6.8 million foreign tourists last year compared to 6.6 million the previous year, according to statistics from its ministry of tourism. The BJP government, which came to power in May, has highlighted development and growth of India’s tourism sector as a priority, as it strives to boost the country’s economy.
While it is still a small part of the country’s tourism industry, wildlife tourism is one of the fastest growing.
“There has been a substantial increase year on year in terms of wildlife tourists,” says Prashant Narayan, the chief operating officer, head for leisure travel, inbound business, Thomas Cook India. The number of wildlife tourists to India has grown 15 per cent year-on-year, he says.
“Given the fact that India is home to some very special animals such as the Bengal tiger, the rhinoceros, the Asiatic lion, therefore there is a lot of attraction with the the endangered animals from all over the world and people would like to come to India to watch them. UK, USA, Germany, Australia, Canada and Japan are actually the leaders as far as wildlife tourism travel into India is concerned.”
He adds that “the potential of increasing wildlife tourism and eco-tourism in India is immense”.
But as with any journey in India, this one has also had its obstacles.
In 2012, the country’s Supreme Court banned tourism for three months in core areas of the country’s tiger reserves. When it lifted the ban, the court issued guidelines restricting the areas that tourists can visit. There are also restrictions limiting the number of vehicles that can enter reserves and bans in place on construction activity in national park areas.
The tourism ban “did have a temporary effect”, says Mr Narayan. “However, that was very temporary in nature and things have progressed back to normal over a period of time, and today it’s in a more sustainable and positive manner.”
Tourism in these areas has a major impact on the local economy, with wildlife resorts generating employment for locals and tourists bringing in revenues to the area, he adds.
Cox & Kings, a luxury travel company, also reports that it has been experiencing growing demand for wildlife tours in India.
“With the increase in awareness of nature and wildlife, national parks and reserves have been steadily gaining popularity as a holiday option,” says Karan Anand, the head of relationships at Cox & Kings. “Most of our travellers are from India, UAE, US, UK and Europe.”
Its tours include a mobile luxury camp trip taking in the Dudhwa National Park – home to rhinos, sloth bears, elephants and tigers – in north India, with prices starting from 198,450 rupees for four nights, excluding flights.
Divia Thani Daswani, the editor of Condé Nast Traveller India, says there is increased awareness of the rich bounty of wildlife that India boasts across the country, partly because of the plight of the tiger and the campaigns around that.
Wildlife tourism is “definitely increasing exponentially but there’s still a long way to go because there’s much more that could be done to get those numbers even higher,” she says. “In the luxury segment, I think the reason that we’re seeing this amazing uptake of wildlife trips is because it’s the one place that when people travel and go off into a jungle, it is pretty much the only place in the world that they can’t be reached. There’s this incredible sense of being cut off for people who are running banks and financial institutions and in very high stress jobs and all of that.”
She adds: “The thing with India is that you can travel cheaply but we have incredible luxury safari lodges in India, especially in Ranthambore [National Park].”
Striking the balance between conservation and tourism is crucial, an issue that is a debate globally.
“This is key for the entire sector to keep growing in a responsible way,” says Ms Daswani. Restrictions on wildlife tourism in India have to be managed carefully, she explains. “It’s a difficult situation. On the one hand, you want to put all these restrictions and limitations in place, so that you’re ensuring that the environment is really not damaged. On the other hand, unless you allow for people to come in and actually access these areas, you’re not going to bring in the tourists.”
Many wildlife lodges in India do work to conserve the environment and support the local community, Ms Daswani adds.
“There’s a lot of education that takes place,” she says. “As far as I know most of the lodges are giving back even when we’re talking monetarily.”
Accessibility and connectivity to wildlife areas because of a lack of infrastructure is also holding back the industry, experts agree.
Neelu Singh, the chief operating officer of Ezeego1.com, an online travel portal, says that there is a shortage of hotel accommodation in some popular wildlife spots.
“We need to have an integrated policy framework which takes into account objectives of the forests and environment industry, tourism industry and local communities living around these wildlife reserves, since conservation and tourism go hand in hand,” she says.
Mr Reddy still experiences a thrill from seeing tigers near his resort.
“We are trying to promote the entire concept of preserving wildlife,” he says, adding that attitudes have shifted over the years but more education is needed.
“People used to think to go and shoot a tiger was something heroic. If you see the houses of old maharajas, they have photos of them hunting tigers and they used to be on the elephants. It was a very bad concept.”
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