This page briefly describes "India's First Planned Ecotourism Destination": the Thenmala Ecotourism Project. Thenmala is a small village at the foothills of Western Ghats and predominantly a forest area. It is located about 72kms from Thiruvananthapuram, the State Capital of Kerala, the southern most State of India. "Then + Mala" , i.e. in local parlance "Then" means honey and "Mala" means hillock i.e. it mean honey hills. The honey collected from Thenmala forest region is of good quality and of high medicinal value because of the unique floristic composition of the forests.
In general, ecotourism in India is mostly confined to wildlife sanctuaries and National Parks, the mountainous regions of Himalayas and the islands. New ecotourism destinations, under internationally accepted principles, are being developed as awareness about ecotourism is being created through the media, seminars and workshops. Recently the Ministry of Environment and Forests, in connection with the World Environment Day Committee, declared that ecotourism in National Parks, sanctuaries and other forests would be a major area for development. A separate ecotourism directorate has been created to give policy support for the development of ecotourism.
With the cooperation of departments such as Forest, Irrigation and Tourism, the Thenmala Ecotourism Project was formulated in and around the famous Shenduruney Wildlife Sanctuary, which is about 100 sq. km. and harbors large varieties of flora and fauna.
The major objectives of this project are:
- to develop Thenmala dam and its surroundings as a major tourist destination;
- to promote ecotourism on the basis of the principles of ecological sustainability in the area surrounding Thenmala; and
- to have a well-planned tourism destination with the emphasis on sustainable tourism development as a model for other destination development programs.
The project contains three major components: ecofriendly general tourism, ecotourism and pilgrimage tourism.
- Facilities and activities such as a garden, boating in the reservoir, a boardwalk, an elevated walkway, a walk-in aviary, amphitheatre, musical fountain and mountain biking have been created, and ecotourism takes place in the surrounding forest area.
- An environmental education centre and an interpretation centre has been set up. Activities include bird watching, trekking, mountaineering, wilderness treks, staying in natural caves, studying fl ora and fauna, simple bushwalking, animal behaviourstudies, ecological studies etc. A unique trekking package has also been developed in the nearby Shenduruney Wildlife Sanctuary.
- The idea at Thenmala is to provide some sort of basic ecotourism exposure to people who are not very keen eco-tourists, as well as provide a better ecotourism experience in surrounding forest areas for those who really have a concern for nature and are real eco-tourists. With assistance from the Global Environment Facility, an innovative trekking program with stays inside the forest in the Periyer Tiger Reserve in Kerala has been formulated. The tour group size is normally about six or seven, which is in line with expert opinion on group size for this type of environment and the experience being offered.
Management aspects and people involved
A management plan was put in place in order to ensure ecological sustainability of the destination. Before the start of the project, a research institution prepared an environmental impact assessment. A total of 15 local youths were then trained as guides. (This is an obvious benefit from ecotourism.) Strategies were also formulated to involve voluntary organisations to work among the local people to help them get involved.
The team guiding the project consists of local people who were once involved in forest destruction. A destructive dependence on forest was their previous mode of existence, leading to severe conflict with Forest Department. This project provides them with an alternative means of livelihood, and turns their dependence on the forest into a positive one. Their excellent knowledge of the forest and the camping sites (which were essential in their former occupation) makes them the appropriate people to assist with this program. Further, their presence in the area, along with the forest officials and tourists, ensure its protection from poachers and other illegal encroachers.
An eco-development committee has been constituted for the project and a certain portion of the revenue earned goes to a fund held by this committee for common use. The forest department and private tour operators are cooperating on the development. All in all, it will ensure:
- the conservation of the natural resources;
- that local people will benefit; and
- that authentic ecotourism experiences are provided.