Ecotourism is a new concept in tourism. It is a purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the cultural and natural history of environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem, while producing economic opportunities that make conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people. In short, ecotourism can be conceptualised as

"Any tourism programme that is

  • nature based,
  • ecologically sustainable,
  • where education and interpretation is a major component and
  • where local people are benefited

can be called ecotourism". If it does not satisfy any one of these components then it cannot be called a real ecotourism venture.

THENMALA ECOTOURISM

Tourism Department, Government of Kerala, India has taken steps to give focussed attention to ecotourism in the State. A separate ecotourism wing has been created to give policy support for the development of the ecotourism destinations in the State. Accordingly a project for the first planned ecotourism destination (Thenmala Ecotourism Project) has been formulated in and around Shenduruney Wildlife Sanctuary with the co-operation of departments such as Forest, Irrigation and Tourism. In order to give flexibility in management for the development of this destination, a separate Society, the Thenmala Ecotourism Promotion Society (TEPS) has been constituted.

"Thenmala Ecotourism" has been conceived as a first planned ecotourism destination in India and the initial stages of implementation is completed.

The major objectives of this project are

1. To develop Thenmala dam and its surroundings as a major tourist destination.

2. To promote Ecotourism on the basis of sound principles of ecological sustainability in the surrounding areas of Thenmala.

3. To have a well planned tourism destination with emphasis on sustainable tourism development so as to become a model for other destination development programmes.

When the idea of developing Thenmala as a tourism destination was mooted seriously in 1996, it was decided to develop it as an ecotourism destination by keeping the degraded forest area, in the outskirts of the Sanctuary, as a familiarization zone. The studies and discussions followed helped to evolve a strategy to control the mass tourism within the outer limits of the Sanctuary. Hence the ecotourism products, which are developed within Sanctuary, are expected to be supply driven, which eventually takes care of ecological sustainability. It was also planned to have satellite centers in various places in Western Ghats mountainous region within a radius of 50 km from Thenmala. The familiarisation zones thus created function as area for soft ecotourists.

Eco-friendly General Tourism is planned in the periphery of the sanctuary so that pressure of tourism will not affect sanctuary. The real ecotourism is to take place in sanctuary and only ecotourists are encouraged for that. Others can experience the ecofriendly products such as small nature trails, elevated walkway through canopies, mountain biking etc. This will give them a feeling of what awaits as ecotourism in the sanctuary area, for which they have to wait since it is supply driven. This was a consciously developed management strategy after analysing what is happening in various sanctuaries by way of tourist pressure.

Facilities such as boating in the Sanctuary reservoir, boardwalk, sculpture garden, amphitheatre, Musical Dancing Fountain, etc. are also provided at Thenmala for soft ecotourists. An Environmental education and interpretation center is also being set up at Thenmala.

Thenmala Ecotourism Promotion Society adopted a strategy to co-ordinate with Forest Department, the Irrigation Department and Tourism Department and implement various activities in association with each Department.

Private initiative is expected in areas such as providing accommodation, transportation facility etc. No permanent constructions are made in forest areas. Accommodations for tourists are developed outside the forests, at a distance.

To make this project a great success Thenmala Ecotourism Promotion Society (TEPS) entrusted the conduct of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI). KFRI had conducted EIA for the destination and the satellite spots. Further, on the recommendations of KFRI and on the basis of the Environmental Impact Assessment, TEPS amended the activities so as to minimise the negative impacts of the project.

The products such as trekking, bird watching trails etc. is being developed and operationalised through the institution of Eco-development Committees / Participatory Forest Management Committees (locally known as Vana Samrakshna Samithi (VSS)), thereby ensuring local benefits from ecotourism. Forest Department has already evolved expertise in the formulation of Eco-development Committees and VSS through institutionalised means. This will help in channelising the benefits of ecotourism to the local people, which will ultimately elicit support of local community for forest protection and conservation.

Thenmala ecotourism project is the first planned ecotourism project/destination in the country. In many other cases it was just renaming of an already existing "nature tourism". Here from the very beginning efforts have been taken to imbibe the internationally accepted principles of ecotourism in the planning process as well as in implementation. A conscious management strategy has been evolved to create a familiarization zone to limit the impacts in sensitive ecosystems to the minimum. Another important feature is the institutionalizing of co-ordination mechanism among Forests, Irrigation and Tourism Departments, Local Community, Local Self Government and other stake holders.

In short "Thenmala ecotourism" is a learning experience. Our idea is to make this destination qualitatively better by getting valuable feedback from all esteemed visitors and there by strive for excellence in the area of conservation of natural resources and authentic tourism experience.

Chief Executive
Thenmala Ecotourism Promotion Society