Friday, August 29, 2014

Govt of India launches Comprehensive Sustainable Tourism Criteria for India

26 August, 2014 : The Union Minister for Tourism Shri Shripad Naik here today launched the Comprehensive Sustainable Tourism Criteria for India (STCI) for Accommodation, Tour Operators and Beaches, Backwaters, Lakes & Rivers Sectors. Speaking on the occasion the Minister said, his Ministry is committed to develop tourism in India based on the principles of sustainability, minimizing the carbon footprints. Government has ensured that strategies for development of tourism are not in conflict with the environment and have minimal negative impact. Shri Naik urged all the stakeholders in the Tourism industry not to over-exploit natural and other resources for short-term gains. 

He said, when we talk about sustainability we should not only talk about conservation of resources but also our culture and heritage. The authors of the STCI have adopted a comprehensive approach. The principles of the Sustainability as has been elaborated earlier include conservation of water, energy, culture, heritage, revival of ancient architecture, involvement of communities, protection of wildlife and non- exploitation of women, children and weaker sections. 

Shri Naik said, the exercise of implementation of Sustainable Tourism Criteria must be all inclusive. The criteria must be implemented for success by all of us together - the hoteliers, the tour operators, the tourists, the opinion makers, the media, the community leaders and members. The Ministry would like sustainability criteria to be implemented on voluntary basis based on the principles of providing incentives. 

Referring to the priority of the Union Government, the Minister said, tourism development is one of the five major priorities of our Government led by Shri Narendra Modi. He said, the Prime Minister sharing his vision had stressed upon the need for development of tourism, neighborhood cleanliness and conservation of resources for the economic development of the nation. The Finance Minister as part of the common vision of our Government in his Budget Speech has made special allocation of Rs. 900 crore for development of five new tourism circuits, development of pilgrimage centers, archeological sites and heritage cities. He said, the issue of sustainability assumes greater significance in context of India as we support one fifth of the population of the world with only 2.3 percent land mass available. 

Shri Naik urged all the stakeholders in the Tourism Industry to be eco-sensitive and adopt the Sustainable Tourism Criteria for India and do business for long-term benefits with the objectives of creating employment, generating national income, preserving our cultural & natural heritage, enhancing the status of women and underprivileged and facilitating growth of a more just and fair social order. 

Later, Shri Naik also inaugurated the Sensitization Workshop for the stakeholders on STCI wherein panel discussions were held. Both the initiatives are part of activities/programmes that have been taken up by the Ministry of Tourism for completion within the 100 days of the incumbent Government. Deputy Director for Sustainable Development of Tourism, UNWTO Ms. Sofia Gutierrez, President of the Development Alternative, Mr. George C. Varughese, leaders of Tourism Industry and experts in the field participated in the two events. 

Ministry of Tourism constituted a Steering Committee with representatives from all the 14 sectors of the tourism and hospitality industry of India to formulate the Sustainable Tourism Criteria. The Committee has since finalized the Comprehensive STCI. These are the guiding principles and minimum requirements that any tourism business for State Governments should aspire to reach in order to protect and sustain India’s natural and cultural resources, while ensuring development of tourism in India are not in conflict with the environment and have minimal negative effect. Sustainability is imperative for all tourism stakeholders and must translate from words to actions. 

(Source : Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Ministry of Tourism )

Friday, August 22, 2014

Flow of Foreign Tourists to North East States on Upward Trend: Tourism Ministry

Good news for tourism industry in North East. The tremndous potential had not been harnessed because of political and social unrests in last decade. The flow of foreign tourists to the northeastern states has been on an upward trend since 2011 and the growth rate in 2013 was more than double compared to 2012, according to Tourism Ministry data.

A jump of 12.5 per cent was registered in foreign tourist visits (FTVs) to the northeast in 2012 as against 2011, which further rose by more than 100 per cent to register a growth of 27.9 per cent during 2013 in comparison to 2012, the data states. There were a total of 58,920 FTVs to the northeastern states in 2011 with the figure going up to 66,302 in 2012. That number further increased to 84,820 in 2013.

In Assam, there were 16,400 FTVs in 2011 and the number rose to 17,543 in 2012. The following year, 2013, saw the figure rise to 17,638. According to the data, Sikkim drew 31,698 FTVs in 2013 as against 26,489 in 2012. There were 23,602 FTVs in Sikkim in 2011.
(Source : PTI)

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Tiger Temple, Kanchanaburi : The monk and his pet

A visit to the famed Tiger Temple at Kanchanaburi in Thailand was on the top of my activity list for the Bangkok stopover. I have been extremely lucky to witness many tigers in the Indian wilderness as part of my photography trips. This trip promised to offer chances to actually touch a live tiger. Scanning the itineraries on offer, I found several iterations combining upto 4 attractions on the way. I zeroed down to a combination that would offer me maximum time at the tiger temple. After all, how often do you get a chance to pet full grown tigers.

The monk and his pet
Excitement was high as we got ready before dawn breaks. As we walked into the hotel lobby, I thanked God for the promise of a clear day. We were picked up from hotel at 6:30 am. There were four of us. A British lady joined us from another hotel. We were now 5 in a van that could carry 10+ people. Thus the trip turned out to be almost a private trip at the cost of a group tour. October is kind of shoulder season in Thailand with occasional rain. One day of my week long trip in October was spoiled by rain. Peak tourist season starts from November onwards after the rains. I generally prefer travelling in shoulder season, just days before peak season starts. This way you not only beat the mad rush of peak season, but also get very good bargains for everything from hotel to sightseeing.

As our van zipped through empty streets of Bangkok, we went past many city landmarks like the king’s palace, military HQ, UN office etc. Soon we were on an elevated expressway. The distance to Kanchanaburi is about 180km and travel time is around 3 hours. At around 10:30am we reached the first attraction en-route – the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery commemorating the allied soldiers of WW II. As we stepped out of the van, a young lady selling souvenirs approached us. As we politely said no, she acknowledged and went back. This is quite in contrast to what we get to see back home. The hawkers and sellers will push to the brink of becoming rude and then and while going away he will return you back some of the complements you had mouthed.

The next stop was the JEATH War Museum. JEATH stands for Japan, England, America and Australia, and Thailand. It is a small place with a replica thatched house used to house the prisoners during WW II that were used to construct the death railway. It also has some war memorabilia. Tourists are given the option to go to the next stopover – the bridge over river Kwae by a long tail speed boat. The cost of 200 THB did not appeal to us and hence we continued by the van. Being shoulder season, the bridge and the adjoining railway station was only sparsely crowded. We walked down the bridge soaking in some history. The original wooden bridge was destroyed during allied bombing. The current steel bridge was built alongside it. Some tourists wait for the train from Bangkok to arrive. The scheduled arrival is 1130 am, but the train often gets delayed by couple of hours. We decided not to waste time and headed for lunch at a floating houseboat nearby. Lunch was included in the package.

Post lunch, we drove for another 45 min through green countryside to reach the monastery which is also called the tiger temple. We were slightly ahead of scheduled opening hours of 1230 pm. Ticket cost of 600 THB was included in package cost. As the gates were opened, several tigers were taken out of their enclosures by volunteers and staff. Guests were allowed to proceed through a different alley. As we had reached the designated spot, tigers had also started arriving. Laces were pegged to the ground. It was obvious that they can easily get off those plugs if they try to. Guests were given safety briefing by an international volunteer. However tamed the tigers may look; they had wild instincts in their genes. Post safety briefing in English by some European volunteers, we were allowed some photo opportunities with the tigers under supervision of volunteers. The moment of touching and petting the first tiger got etched in our mind forever. As the crowds were very thin, barely 50 odd, we had good time to with several different tigers. There were around 12 tigers of different ages. The tigers and the monks share a special bond. For the monks, the big cat was no more than your house cat. As and when the monk sat by a tiger, it would invariably crawl onto his lap, and doze off. There has been allegation of tigers being drugged. It had already been proved wrong (Read here). There also has been controversis regarding animal rights violations. Mulnutrition is an issue became evident to me as well. Despite all these, number of tigers around the world is decresing while it is increasing here. 

Me walking a tiger with the monk was a moment to remember
My personal observation was that these tigers simply replicated the behavior of tigers in the wild. I have seen more than 30 tigers in different jungles of India. Tigers generally sleeps entire day and is active all through night. In the wild, tiger sighting occurs either early morning or late afternoon when they generally move. Thus tigers dozing off when taken out on a hot humid afternoon are quite normal. The comments of ‘drugged tigers’ are apparently made by uninformed tourists who expects a tiger to keep displaying antics all through the day. The monastery has around 125 tigers (as claimed). Only a few of the docile ones are taken out for tourist interaction. These tigers were born in the monastery and have become used to humans. But one should never forget the wild instincts in their genes. These tigers are fed on chicken. The monastery is using the gate fees to buy food and build an island home for the tigers so that they can be freed from cages. But this money collected did not appear enough, especially in the lean season I visited. They started with one tigers, but now have the problem of aplenty. Chicken fed tigers do not look as strong as those in wild. Rather than clamoring about ethics, drugging, money making, etc., effort should directed towards rehabilitating some of these tigers.

As the time went by, a sizeable crowd had arrived. It was around 2:30 pm when tigers were to be taken to the canyon waterfall. Tigers love water in summer. Guests were divided into small groups of 15-20 each and were offered to walk the tiger down to the canyon, each guest holding the lace for couple of minutes. That was another moment of significance. Twice that afternoon, for couple of minute each, a full grown tiger was my personal pet. I was elated as one of the revered monk joined for a minute for the walk. As we had arrived at the canyon, we waited for other tigers to arrive. At the canyon, tourists were provided another opportunity to get photographed with almost all the tigers on display. For the late comers, this was their only opportunity. For us it was one more opportunity. We did not realize how three and half hours flew past. The moments got etched in our mind for ever. It was hard to believe that we had touched so many tigers. The volunteers captured the moments for us in my camera. Not to take any chances with photos, I put the camera into manual mode with continuous shooting and set parameters that would give me acceptable result. In auto mode, half of the photos would have been shaky or out of focus or badly exposed.

A male tiger being lead to the canyon

As we left the place with fond memories, we could see some vehicles arriving. I pity for those late comers. This was bad planning. They may miss all chances to pet a tiger as 3:30 pm is the last time for visitors. If you include floating market with river Kwae and Tiger Temple, then this is most likely to happen. Therefore after a careful study of the packages on offer, I decided to opt only for River Kwae with Tiger Temple. On the way back we were dropped at the Gems Factory en-route. This is the same company which has an outlet at Phuket. We had nothing to buy from their stock of over priced stones. Buying stone was never on our agenda. Indians do not buy stones without consulting astrologers. The guide probably gets some incentive just by dropping off the guest. We could have avoided it, but the guide Kate had been nice and hence agreed for the stopover. The gem factory arranges the drop off to the hotel irrespective of whether you buy something or not. If you stop at Gems factory, then make sure not to leave anything in the vehicle you have been travelling all day. That vehicle will leave after dropping you at the factory and you will be dropped off at the hotel by another vehicle / taxi arranged by the Gems factory. I had a shocker of experience on this at Phuket when I left my spare camera bag on the vehcile that dropped us at the Gem Factory. That vehcile alongwith the guide left after dropping us  which I realised only after coming out. I called up the agency and the guide and were lucky to get my bag by evening with all content. Your guide will generally ensure that you have a smooth passage to your hotel. This being a long trip, almost 12 hrs with 400 km road travel, you will be tired to do anything else for the day. Enjoy Bangkok night recalling your trysts with the tigers.