ECOTOURISM Empowerment and Disempowerment, Impact and Sustainable Development Ecotourism in India: Case Studies


In the earlier unit, we had discussed tangible and intangible heritage its meaning, definitions, and its preservation and conservation. With times in the world of tourism, a new aspect has been added besides preservation and conservation. The concept deals with tourism being made available not only to the present generation but leaving behind a heritage and legacy that would allow the next generations to sustain themselves. The aim is to be responsible for the environment that we are living in and preserve and conserve our natural heritages. This unit shall deal with the definitions of ecotourism and its concepts. Four case studies from the Indian sub-continent would leave space in the young minds to understand how ecotourism can be developed in the already existing heritage of the nation


The first formal definition of ‘Ecotourism’ was perhaps given by the Mexican architect Hector Ceballos-Lascurain. Ecotourism has been defined as “environmentally responsible, enlightening travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations” (Ceballos-Lascurain 1996). According to this definition, ecotourism can involve both cultural and environmental tourism and, bring benefits to the local population which is also an integral part of the activity. Various definitions of ecotourism were floated since then.

Most definitions perceive ecotourism as a special form of tourism that has three important criteria:

a. provision for environmental conservation that includes the participation of the community in a meaningful way;

b. profitable to the host community, and

c. self-sustaining.

Carrier (2005) stated that ecotourism is noteworthy as it is one of the ‘fastest growing sectors in the tourism industry. Ecotourism is sometimes referred to as an alternative form of tourism; it is also used synonymously with cultural tourism. It can be formally defined as, “a form of tourism that is consistent with natural, social and community values. It allows both hosts and guests to enjoy positive and worthwhile interactions and shared experiences. 

Instead of condemning the impact of tourism on local communities, there is a tendency to applaud ecotourism as a panacea for achieving a wide array of social, economic, and environmental goals.” (Stronza 2001: 274). In contemporary times, anthropologists are paying increasing attention to forms of tourism such as ecotourism, cultural tourism, community-based tourism, or simply alternative tourism. Ecotourism is inspired by the culture and natural history of a particular area. The combination of natural and cultural resources can contribute to generating revenue for the state and; at the same time provide economic opportunities to local residents. 

Since anthropology is a discipline that is particularly involved with the study and understanding of cultures and local communities, it can play an important role as far as the planning and implementation of tourism projects are concerned. Anthropologists can identify the local needs, the livelihood potentials, the cultural elements that are supportive of tourism, and those that are likely to cause impediments. They can design forms of tourism that do not cause too much disruption to local lives and those actions that can be positively harmful to the local communities. 

Professional anthropologists can therefore become involved in the tourism sector, expanding the relevance and potential of the discipline. Carrier and Macleod (2005: 315) say that “Ecotourism involves travel to enjoy and engage with attractive and interesting surroundings which are often identified as natural. It also involves travel to enjoy and engage with attractive people and their activities often identified as exotic or indigenous, in a way that respects and supports them”. In this way, they are emphasising the human desire to seek out the exotic and the unknown. 

Anthropologists were also said to do the same, but they have done so professionally, to know more and more about human ways of living and also about varieties of worldviews, to have a deeper comparative understanding of human behavior. However, the tourists are only superficially interested in the local cultures. Anthropologists are genuinely interested in the local communities and often apply their knowledge for the well-being of the people. But for tourists, it is just a touch-and-go affair. Many of them are not at all bothered about what happens to the local communities and this is a genuine drawback of eco/cultural tourism. 

In recent times, ecotourism ventures are in demand; this could be due to the saturation of old and often visited tourist destinations and the desire for new experiences. It is important to note that in many parts of the world, areas,,, and lands that are labeled as wilderness and occupied by indigenous peoples have been opened up to the tourism industry. However, there is a concern; these more remote, less developed areas that ecotourists seek are vulnerable to cultural disruption and environmental degradation (Cater 1993: 85).


Ecotourists are more likely to make use of services and accommodations which are owned by the local residents. This ensures that the local economy is benefitted. It is to be noted that ecotourism should be able to fulfill the following: 

a. protect the environment; 

b. benefit conservation of local cultural items; 

c. benefit the local economy; d. empower local communities; 

To ensure that local people get their due benefits from ecotourism, some control over it should be handed over to the local people. There will be the empowerment of the local people if their voices are taken into consideration. They should be able to decide what forms of tourism facilities and wildlife conservation programs should be developed in their respective regions. The local community should become an important stakeholder in decision-making and in claiming benefits.

Political Empowerment

The voices and the concerns of the local community should be able to guide the development of any ecotourism project from the conceptual stage to its implementation. It is pertinent to give voice and decision-making powers Emerging Trends in Anthropology and Tourism 115 to diverse interest groups within a community and power to be distributed among all diverse groups divided by age, sex, and class. All the stakeholders within a community need to have representation in the community and broader decision-making bodies. For the local communities to exert some control over ecotourism, power needs to be delegated to the level of the community. It is to be ensured that even the most marginal groups within the community get the benefits.


Social empowerment refers to a situation in which a community’s sense of cohesion and integrity has been confirmed or strengthened by any collective activity whose benefits are distributed among the group members- ism. Strong community groups, including youth groups, and women’s groups, may be signs of an empowered community. Social empowerment is perhaps most clearly a result of ecotourism when profits from the tourism activity are used to fund social development projects, such as water supply systems or health clinics, in the local area. Now let’s check if there are any disadvantages to ecotourism.

It has been reflected that social disempowerment may happen if ecotourism activities result in crime, begging, overcrowding, displacement from traditional lands, loss of authenticity of local culture, and the emergence of prostitution (Mansperger 1993). These consequences are quite likely to happen in the situation of tourism of any kind, including ecotourism. Certain internal power differences within the local community that lead to inequities in the distribution of the benefits of ecotourism, may lead to social disempowerment of certain segments and disproportionate benefits to others. Conflicts and dissatisfactions may arise due to feelings of jealousy and ill-will as a result of inequities in the distribution of economic benefits and opportunities


A community is said to be psychologically strong when its members are positive about the future, have strong faith in the potential and abilities of its residents, are self-reliant, and independent, and take pride in their traditions and culture. One needs to understand that in many smallscale societies, maintaining a group’s sense of belongingness, self-esteem, and well-being is very important. This maintenance is ensured by the preservation of their tradition. One of the key features of ecotourism is sensitivity to cultural norms and respect for local traditions. This sensitivity and respect can be empowering for local people.

On the other hand, ecotourism can be disempowering if it interferes with the cultural norms of the local people. For example, interfering with the vital relationship between the local people and their land may have demoralizing effects. The Yagua Indians of the Peruvian and Colombian Amazon who were relocated by their tour operators, to places that were more convenient and more accessible to tourists is a case that can be cited here. Eventually, the Yagua became more dependent on money received from cultural performances. Their obligations to tour operators for cultural performances led to insufficient time to cultivate, hunt and fish, also not forgetting the unavailability of land to cultivate slash-and-burn agriculture. It is said that the Yagua are now seriously afflicted by different forms of ill-health, thus leading Ecotourism 116 to apathy and depression which is now quite common. These feelings, disillusionment and confusion, are indicators of the psychological disempowerment of a community. 

We can also take a look at the local community’s access to resources in area proposed for ecotourism to determine economic empowerment or disempowerment. For example, if certain areas of land are identified as protected areas for the sake of ecotourism, it eventually reduces access to agricultural lands as well as hunting grounds. Protection of wildlife species may even result in the destruction of crops and cause harm to livestock and people. Local people should have equitable distribution of benefits, however, there is a concern, that local people will willingly support the conservation of protected areas only if it is simultaneous with their own development.

Community-based Ecotourism

Since the term ‘ecotourism’ is fluidly used by various writers, some have suggested that the term ‘community-based ecotourism ventures’ should be used to differentiate those ventures that are environmentally sensitive, and the local community has a higher degree of control over ecotourism activities (Liu 1994; Ceballos-Lascurain 1996). This is totally different from ecotourism ventures that are controlled by outside operators, and it is also different from the contexts in which the government claims most of the revenue generated through ecotourism.

The need to promote the quality of life of people and conservation of natural resources is important for a community-based approach. In order to make ecotourism economically and socially sustainable, it is imperative that members of local host community be trained. A community-based approach seeks to revive reverence for traditions, at the same time boost local livelihoods by providing a source of income for unemployed members of local host community. An important way to establish responsible community-based ecotourism is to approach it from a sustainable development perspective, which takes into consideration social, environmental and economic goals. Instead of prioritizing only the economic or environmental impacts of a community-based approach, it is important to take into consideration the social dimensions of the experience of tourism too. 


Sustainable development is becoming an important focus for transnational, and NGOs, especially in developing countries. This is the result of increased awareness of the need to preserve the environment (Grieves et. al, 2014). The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), published the Brundtland Report called ‘Our Common Future. The Brundtland Report defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

As regards marginalized indigenous communities, the guidelines stated in the report are not specific enough to implement sustainable development policies. Preservation of the environment and elimination of poverty remain important domains of sustainable development, yet an increasing emphasis has also been made on the participation of the local community and their control in sustainable development endeavors. There is a focus on ecotourism, sometimes known as sustainable tourism, to sustain natural resources of indigenous communities.

These ecotourism endeavors strive to rope in mechanisms that ensure that the benefits produced by ecotourism should profit the indigenous local community rather than external agencies. It is to be noted that such kind of partnership between indigenous communities and outside agencies, however noble it may sound on paper, are often encountered with conflicts and imbalance of power. According to Subramaniam ecotourism has a vital role to play in sustainable development in India. It has also a pivotal role in developing an agenda for the inclusion of non-urban communities, which are excluded and marginalized to some extent in most programs of development.

To achieve this, a shift in attitudes is required; there has to be a shift from regulation control to empowerment, from patronage to partnership, and from linear government-led structures to alliances with diverse stakeholders. Subramaniam also argued that in the context of India, the need to emphasize the aspect of improving the well-being of local communities should be addressed through ecotourism ventures. To reap the value of the benefits of ecotourism, there is a need to embrace all non-urban communities in the country too.


Nagaland: Community Participation

The Naga society is mostly community-based. In most of the Naga villages, important decisions related to cultivation, conservation of forests, and other important socioeconomic issues are being made collectively. If ecotourism has to succeed in Nagaland, then local participation has to be tapped strategically. The Nagaland Communitisation of Public Institutions and Service Act 2002 (Act no. 2 of 2002) “provides for the empowerment of the community and delegations of the powers and function of the state government to the local authorities by way of participation of the community in matters connected with the management of local public utilities, public services, and the activities of the state government connected with education, water supply, roads, forest, power, sanitation, health and other welfare and development schemes and also to provide promotion of community-based schemes”.

The State Tourism Department is promoting community participation in Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Development; however, it offers some facilities but is not sufficient to cater to the entire inflow of tourists, both foreign and domestic. Therefore, the villagers have started to open paying guest accommodations which are also popularly known as ‘Homestays’. The interest of the state to promote tourism in Nagaland is also directed at weaning people away from shifting cultivation because it does not produce as much revenue for the state as tourism does. 

Ecotourism in Khonoma Village

Ecotourism initiatives in Khonoma village are a great success. The village council banned logging and hunting because these activities were contributing to environmental degradation. Hence the need for conservation of the environment was the first step that was initiated. Despite being initiated and funded by the government scheme ecotourism in the village is still identified as a community initiative because it is the members of the community who took lead in planning and implementation of ecotourism ventures. The sense of ownership in the community is high; this has to do with the fact that land ownership solely lies with the people and not with the government. 

Amur Falcon Conservation

Every year, a huge number of Amur Falcons from Siberia stopover in the state of Nagaland, on their way to Africa (Kinny and Lanusosang 1996:158). It is considered to be one of the biggest falcon roosts in the world. The conservation program of migratory bird Amur Falcon is mainly implemented by a local NGO-Natural Naga, Nagaland Wildlife, and Biodiversity Conservation Trust, working with the Nagaland Forest Department along with three village councils in the Wokha district. The village councils in the Wokha district prohibited hunting and killing of Amur Falcons and made it illegal and punishable. This prohibition along with the support of members of the village community helped in the conservation of the migratory birds in Nagaland. It has also started attracting hundreds of tourists and curious scientists. The success of such initiatives has made other villages realize the immortalizing tapping the natural resources for sustainable livelihood.

Wildlife and Bird Sanctuaries

Nagaland has several Wildlife/Bird Sanctuaries that are located and scattered in different parts of the state. The chief ones are Intanki National Park in Peren district, Fakim Wildlife Sanctuary in Tuensang district, and Ghost bird Sanctuary in Zunheboto district. Despite the immense potential for sustainable tourism in the state, there are several factors that have emerged as obstacles in the way of desired development. Peace and security are important factors for any kind of development. The entire North East region of India has insurgency problems.

With the signing of the ceasefire agreement in 1997 and the Peace Accord in 2015, the situation has improved to some extent in Nagaland. Nonetheless fear and insecurity still exist in the minds of tourists. The state has plenty of constraints in the form of poor connectivity, lack of communication facilities, poorly developed infrastructure, and entry formalities like Inner Line Permit and Restricted Area Permit. At present, the state is totally dependent on central assistance for the development of ecotourism ventures. Sustained peace and security are essential for the future of tourism in this region.

Kerala: Ecological Sustainable Tourism

The state of Kerala also known as God’s own country is one of the most famous eco-destinations in India. It has many destinations known for their natural beauty and exquisite landscape. The Western Ghats region of Kerala has a protected area that includes two National Parks and 12 Wildlife Sanctuaries. These sanctuaries and parks are important destinations for ecotourism.

The Western Ghats of Kerala have a natural advantage because of their beauty and density of forests and wildlife. The major ecotourism ventures in Kerala are broadly classified as backwaters, beaches, hill stations, and wildlife sanctuaries. Kerala is rich in evergreen forests and its rich biological diversity is of added advantage to boosting ecotourism. Due to the construction of dams and other related projects, water bodies have formed within the forest. These are being used for recreational facilities. Various activities like mountaineering, trekking, bird watching, etc. are being initiated by the Government of Kerala as part of a marketing campaign. In Kerala, ecotourism destinations have a range of choices.

Parambikulam Tiger Reserve

The word Parambikulam is derived from two words; ‘para meu’ (reeds) and ‘kulam’(waterhole). In this reserve there is a teak plantation which is managed scientifically. Within this plantation the great Kannimara tree stands against time. This tree is considered to be the oldest and largest of its kind and is worshipped by the tribals as they believe it to be a symbol of the Gods and its magnificence is amplified by the sheer magnitude of its size and reach.

Parambikulam tiger reserve is one of the emerging ecotourism destinations in the country with attractive tourism packages like eco meditation, elephant song trial, bear path trail, Camps, Tree top hut, Island Hut, trekking, full moon census, Bamboo Rafting etc., All these activities are organised by local tribal communities. The economic benefits from ecotourism are reaped by the locals. Some important source of income are bamboo handicrafts, bee wax balm, carry paper bags, honey processing and other souvenirs. The locals create environmentally friendly souvenirs with the intention of making the reserve plastic free. The communities owned ecotourism enterprises and take care of their resources. 

Aralam Wildlife Sanctuary 

Aralam is the only wildlife sanctuary in Kannur, spreading over a 55 sq. km area of forests in the Western Ghats. The forest offers pleasant trekking options. The Aralam witnesses the remarkable natural phenomenon of butterfly migration. Like in Parambikulam, the ecotourism efforts at Aralam are a community-based affair too. Regular nature camps are held in Aralam with special emphasis to children. Conservation of natural resources are given importance as that is what the younger generation will inherit.

Gujarat: Development of Ecotourism Circuit

Gujarat has a great wealth of wildlife and is considered an ideal place for a wildlife getaway (GOG 2017). Gujarat offers opportunities to see a wide range of wildlife including the Asiatic lion, Indian wild ass, endangered antelopes, and a variety of deer. It is also one of India’s most important regions for bird watchers as it has many rare and endangered species of migratory bird’s wildlife sanctuaries. It also has India’s first marine national park. The forest department has various Ecotourism sites placed amidst the dense jungles for nature enthusiasts. The state occupies a special status among Eco-tourists for its per-historic Dinosaur nesting sites in Baltimore, remains of Indus Valley Civilization at Dholavira and Lothal, heritage and cultural monuments and artifacts. Gujarat has its own distinctiveness as it is the only remaining habitat for species like the Asiatic Lions and Wild Ass. 

Great Rann of Kutch 

The natural history of the Rann is unique and has international conservation significance. Fossils of different periods - Pre-Jurassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous are found. There is an area rich in wood and marine fossils, and it is managed as a fossil park. The visitors find the fossils of big-sized trees interesting. The migrating birds can be seen crowding various water bodies during winter. 

The Gir Forest National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary

This wildlife sanctuary in Gujarat was established in 1965. It is the only home of the pure Asiatic Lions (Panthera leo persica) and is considered one of the most important protected areas in Asia. The ecosystem of Gir comprises diverse flora and fauna.

Ecotourism in Dang District 

Dang is a tribal-dominated district located in the extreme south of Gujarat. It has mountain ranges and dense forests. Bhil, Konkani, Varli, Kotwaliya, Kathodi, and Gamit are some of the major tribes in the Dang district. The Dang district has been declared an Ecotourism spot by the state. The district is adorned with rich forests, small and large waterfalls, beautiful landscapes, and tribal unique culture. Saputara, in the southern part of Dang, is known as the abode of serpents, and offers rich wildlife for ecotourists. Saputara museum gives out interesting information about the topography and anthropology of Dangs.

Assam: Potentials and Challenges

Assam is considered to be a hotspot for tourists for its natural beauty and favorable climatic condition. The state is famous for its varieties of flora and fauna, historical monuments, pilgrim centers, tea gardens, and colorful cultural festivals which are considered as tourism ventures There are various national parks, wildlife and bird sanctuaries, and biosphere reserves in Assam, which are potential resources for tourism. 

i) Kaziranga National Park: The Kaziranga national park has a large number of hilly terrains, marshes, plains, and water bodies where many species of unique flora and fauna, inhabit. The Great Indian One-horned Rhinoceros to tiny turtles are a sight to behold and where one can gather an exhilarating experience of adventure sports too. 

ii) Manas National Park: Located on the banks of the Manas river, Manas National Park is a world heritage site and an important tiger reserve of India. It is marked by highland savanna, moist deciduous, and tropical semi-evergreen trees. The park is also a forest of endangered and rare flora and fauna. The existence of rare species also attracts tourists, both national and international.

iii) Nameri National Park: Nameri National Park is located at the foothills of the eastern Himalayas. Main activities in this park include bird watching, trekking, angling (fishing) on the Jiabharali (river), etc. It is to be noted that angling for the golden mahseer has been the trademark of Nameri ever since the colonial regime. Every year, the Jiabharali attracts anglers from all over the world. Regulated angling is permitted on a ‘catch record and release’ basis. 

iv) Majuli: Once the largest river island in the world, situated in the Brahmaputra river of Assam, today falls under the endangered list owing to heavy erosion. Majuli is the melting pot of various ethnic communities like Ahoms, Kacharis, Brahmins, Koch Rajbongshi, Bona is, Koibartas, Nepalis, etc. It is considered to be the cultural capital and the cradle of Assamese civilization known for the Satras (monasteries) that have been the seat of learning for the past five hundred years. Pottery done in Majuli shows resemblance to the ones found in ancient Harappan Civilisation.

Pottery is made from beaten clay and burnt in driftwood-fired kilns. The preservation of the unique culture of various ethnic groups inhabiting Majuli island is pertinent for ecotourism ventures. The craft of mask-making; the finest boats are a part of the island activities. A wetland, Majuli is a hotspot for flora and fauna, harboring many rare and endangered species including migratory birds that arrive in the winter season. The colorful cultures, migratory birds, Ali-ai-ligand festival, pottery making, mask making, Paal Naam and Raas Leela festival, and crafting of masks, are some major attractions that boost ecotourism.

Other places in Assam which have huge potential for ecotourism ventures are Haflong, Maibang, Umrangso, Panimoor, Chandubi Lake, Rani Reserved Forest, Hajo, Darranga, Mayong, Bardowa, Bordowa (Devi 2012). The state of Assam has huge potential with respect to ecotourism ventures.


Ecotourism is expected to usher in lasting economic benefits to a local community. Many households in a community earn cash through ecotourism. Das and Hussain argued that ecotourism generates economic welfare by positively and significantly affecting household budgets. Taking into consideration the extent of poverty and backwardness in the periphery villages of Kaziranga National Park (KNP) Assam, the ecotourism venture sounds feasible and desirable. 

According to Das and Hussain, the people living in the periphery villages of KNP would have continued to practice less profitable agriculture or similar activities if not for ecotourism. Income generated from traditional livelihood may not be sufficient due to the low level of investment, the small size of agricultural land holdings, animal raids and floods, etc. 

There is the potential of ecotourism to boost the local economy in Kaziranga National park. Ecotourism provides a range of employment possibilities for the periphery villages of KNP in the form of opening restaurants, crafting handicrafts, making locally preserved food, hosting cultural programs, souvenir sales and production, eco-lodge, home stay accommodation, tours and transportation, and guiding services. 

The Naga villages in the state of Nagaland are community-based. Decisions pertaining to cultivation, preservation of forests, and important socio-economic issues are collectively made. If there is any breakthrough of ecotourism in Nagaland, it is because of community participation. The village of Khonoma in Nagaland deciding to go green and abandon their traditional activities of hunting animals and collecting wood from the forest is a huge boost to the eco-conservation and ecotourism venture. Community members have taken a lead in planning and implementation of the Green village project. Ecotourism is flourishing in Nagaland because of the effort of the community with assistance from the government. 

Harmon discusses intangible values derived from protected areas in Gujarat: ‘recreational, therapeutic, spiritual, cultural, identity, existence, artistic, aesthetic, educational, peace, and scientific research and monitoring’. These values are seen as potential to change the social lives and well-being of the people who visit parks and the people living in them. 

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