THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Realising that ecotourism activities inside forest areas in the state are violative of the country's conservation laws, the Forest Department has decided to conduct a 'carrying capacity' assessment of all the 60 ecotourism sites within tiger reserves and national parks in the state. Until then, no new ecotourism sites will be opened. Even the ambitious Rs 95-crore Pathanamthitta-Gavi-Wagamon-Thekkady Mega Tourism Circuit, which involves the construction of intrusive structures in the buffer zone of Periyar Tiger Reserve, has been put on hold.
It has been found that none of the existing ecotourism sites has secured the mandatory approvals. After the 'carrying capacity' assessment is done, the Department will take off certain sites from the ecotourism map, and tourism in the others will be highly regulated. "In six months the study will be over and then we will decide on the number of visitors that could enter a site a day, and also the duration of their stay," said Ms Prakriti Srivastava , additional principal chief conservator of forests in charge of eco-development. The Forest Department was warned about the violations fairly early.
In 2010, the MoEF had sent a missive to the Department emphasizing that ecotourism was a "non-forestry" activity. "Taking up any non-forestry activity, including setting up permanent structures, amounts to violation of the provisions of FC Act," the letter had said. If at all such an activity is taken up, many layers of approvals are required; right from the approval under the Forest (Conservation) Act to the go-ahead of the standing committee of National Wildlife Board. None of these were sought nor given. Still, field officers conduct ecotourism activities in their divisions as if it was part of their mandate like improving the habitat and removing encroachments.