18 August, 2022

Regenerative tourism: Avoiding the ‘Tragedy of Commons’

The post-pandemic world is a significantly different place – to live as well as to travel. Consumers today are more informed and aware about how tourism has, over the years, also had a negative impact on the environment as well as on the local communities. Sustainable tourism grew as a response to this realisation, but more needs to be done; regenerative tourism embodies that promise. 

Mridula Tangirala
Mridula Tangirala

Regenerative tourism is a fundamentally different approach that starts with putting the well-being of the destination and its people, above all else. It paves the way for the emergence of ‘Destination Stewardship’ which means finding solutions outside the mere confines of the privatised or government control of environment to maintain cultural, environmental, economic, and aesthetic integrity of their destination. 

A destination, as we know, is a common public good and would inevitably face the ‘tragedy of commons’.

Garret Hardin, renowned American ecologist, and others demonstrated amply in theory and practice that if everyone acts only in their self-interest, contrary to the common good of all users, it results in depletion of the underlying resource for everybody, thereby the term – ‘tragedy of commons’. Pioneering work done by Nobel Prize laureate Elinor Ostrom has also shown how a community of like-minded people can avoid this tragedy and create thriving common resources if they follow certain principles.   

Regenerative tourism can deliver on its full potential if the following five enabling conditions are ensured. Each element on its own also helps the cause; but lasting, long-ranging, irreversible change requires all the five elements.  

  1. Collective action for inclusive management and governance – In initiation, a forum must be created to allow participation by all relevant stakeholders in decisions regarding balancing tourism and conservation. Creating such a forum is the easier part, the difficult aspect is to ensure that this collective body has a mechanism for low cost and speedy conflict resolution. Forums with face-to-face communications make it easy to build trust and find creative solutions that would inevitably follow. There already are examples of community tourism like Himalayan Ark or Ecosphere that leverage their existing community ties merging the livelihood needs of the local community members with their role as transformation stewards of their landscape. 
  2. Recognition of rights by government – To work effectively, the above body must have recognised rights to steer the destination, locally. Panchayati Raj Act and Forest Rights Acts have been enablers in this regard, while some states, like Uttarakhand (Van Panchayats) and Nagaland (Community ownerships of the vast tract of forests), also have additional institutional structures. However, to effectively discharge their role, these collective bodies need to have influencing power over various aspects, like building vocabulary, usage of fragile resources, like water, waste management, and tourism revenue collection. The new draft Strategy for Rural Tourism also envisages the creation of District and State level nodal agencies as well as Cluster level monitoring and Coordination Committee to act as a Destination Management Organisation. These bodies need to have the authority to create incentives for strengthening compliance and enforcing graduated sanctions (as per severity, frequency, and context of the violation) for violations.
  3. Critical systems thinking, improved convergence in planning and action – In a connected eco-system, any intervention should be backed by science and ancient wisdom. Local capacities need to be built so that the limits of usage or boundary of a particular resource are not only understood by all, but also create a conservation mind-set. Effectively implemented rules governing both consumption and conservation of resources can create all-around acceptance, results-oriented dialogues and empowered agency; as it happened in Mangalajodi. This former notorious poacher-village on the banks of Chilka Lake in Odisha changed their mind-sets as well as livelihood from bird-hunting and illegal prawn-farming to eco-tourism, when the local bird protection collective forced them to confront the impact of their actions.
  4. Access to resources and finance for regeneration – Regular monitoring of various parameters describing the health of the landscape and all its life-forms is often missed. Usually, only biodiversity hot-spots or important cultural site are monitored for specific aspects while satisfaction levels of local communities vis-à-vis tourism (through surveys like Planet Happiness for example) are rarely monitored. Holistic tracking of a destination would clearly establish the need for the trans-disciplinary resources and finance for regeneration which can then be solicited. It also becomes easier to influence policy and programmatic action for sustained investments. 
  5. Building coalitions, awakened everyday leadership – This is the most important component; when every stakeholder is an ethical change agent working in a synergised manner with others, the ‘Tragedy of Commons’ can be circumvented. The beauty of this journey of a thousand miles is that each of us can contribute by taking that one step of personal transformation. Be it the volunteers cataloguing the cultural and natural assets or the NGOs carving out their programmes to use tourism as an enabler, regenerative tourism can be the thread connecting all of us together in our quest for a better world!

— By Mridula Tangirala, Tata Trusts

This article was first published on 18 August, 2022 in TOI, Voices

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