Biodiversity and Sustainable Tourism

   TwitCount
Lipy Adhikari
Pratikshya Kandel
Darchula
Photo credit: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

In 1992, the United Nations adopted the text of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at a conference held in Nairobi, Kenya. From 2001 onwards, each year, on May 22, the International Day for Biological Diversity has been observed as a celebration of this achievement. One of the main objectives behind celebrating IBD is to foster understanding and raise awareness about the importance, concerns, and challenges around biodiversity. Hence, a particular theme is addressed every year on the occasion of IBD. This year’s theme is “Biodiversity and Sustainable Tourism.”

Per the World Travel and Tourism Council report, tourism and related economic activities generate 11% of Global Domestic Product. Close to 200 million people earn their livelihoods through the tourism industry. It has also been reported that nature and adventure travel are among the fastest-growing segments of this industry. As a major source of all kinds of recreational activities, biodiversity is vital to tourism. Around 40% of the global economy is said to be based on biological products and processes. Mountaineering, trekking, nature walks, and jungle safaris are all examples of biodiversity driven tourism. Therefore, biological resources become a valuable asset to sustain the tourism sector. Recognizing the important interconnection between tourism and biodiversity, the United Nationals World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) promotes sustainable, responsible, and universally accessible tourism. Sustainable tourism harmonizes and sets a perfect balance between environmental, economic, and socio-cultural aspects. In biodiversity rich landscapes, sustainable tourism can be a major source of revenue and employment for local communities, providing them with a strong incentive to protect biodiversity. However, haphazard and unplanned tourism that does not involve local populations in the conceptualization and implementation phases is equally dangerous. In reality, tourism can be seen as both an opportunity for conserving nature and a threat to nature, if not conducted responsibly.

Olangchung Gola
Photo credit: Yadav Uprety

In the national context, Nepal is a country known for its beauty and culture.  The world recognizes Nepal as the land of Everest and the Buddha. Owing to great altitudinal variation (60 metres–8,848 metres) and diverse climatic conditions, Nepal is endowed with a wide range of floral and faunal diversity. With eight of the 10 highest mountains in the world, Nepal is an ultimate destination for mountaineers, rock climbers, and adventure seekers. In addition to that, the country’s religious and cultural diversity attracts tourists from all over the world.  In this article, we would like to discuss the immense potential of biodiversity embedded tourism in two important landscapes in the country: Kailash and Kanchenjunga. 

The Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KSLCDI) and the Kangchenjunga Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative (KLCDI) are two collaborative, transboundary programmes at the International Center for Integrated Mountain development (ICIMOD). While KSLCDI works mainly in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, northeastern Uttarakhand in India, and the far-western districts of Nepal; the Kangchenjunga Landscape (KL) encompasses western Bhutan, eastern Nepal, and Sikkim and North Bengal (including Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri districts) in India. Baitadi, Humla, Darchula and Bajhang are the core working districts for KSLCDI in Nepal, likewise KLCDI has works in Taplejung, Panchthar, Ilam, and Jhapa. Owing to the great altitudinal variation (KSL: 390–7,336 masl; KL: 60–8,586 masl) and varied climatic condition, the regions are considered to be among the biologically richest landscapes in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. Within KSL Nepal, approximately 83 species of mammals, 455 birds, 38 amphibians and reptiles, and 119 fish species have been reported, of which some are listed in various Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) categories and are either endemic or have restricted range.  Floral diversity in KSL Nepal includes over one third (over 2,000 species) of the total angiosperms found in the country.  Similarly, KL Nepal provides habitat to 102 species of mammals, 354 species of birds, 98 species of herpetofauna, 44 species of fish, 393 species of insects and 197 species of butterflies. There are more than 2,400 species of flowering plants recorded in the region. In addition, the landscape is also home to approximately 771,934 people from several ethnic and social groups with rich culture and traditional knowledge. Some of them belong to distinct ethnic groups such as the Lepchas and the Walungpas.

Tourism is an important economic sector in both KSL and KL. The historic trek from Simikot to Hilsa, and the Limi Valley of Humla District in Nepal is a well-recognized adventure and cultural tourism destination. The trekking route is famous for culturally important monasteries and gumbas like the 11th century Rinchenling Gompa in Halji; the 11th century Dongark Chuling Til Gompa in Til; and the 12th century Pfelgling Gompa in Jang. The trail is also enroute to Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarovar in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Every year, thousands of tourists make the Kailash Mansarovar Yaatra. In 2007, a record number of 72,645 tourists (75% Chinese tourists, 25% foreign tourists) visited the area. More recently, other peaks like the Api and Nampa have been attracting tourists in the region. Similarly, in the KL Nepal, tourism activities date back to early attempts to climb Mount Kangchenjunga. As early as 1899, an expedition team led by Douglas Freshfield completed the first high level circuit of Mount Kangchenjunga. The establishment of the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area (KCA) in 1998 has added impetus to the growth of tourism in the region. The number of tourists visiting KCA in the years 2010, 2011 and 2013 were 556, 702 and 635 respectively. However, current tourism activities are mostly limited to the scaling of Mount Kangchenjunga, and trekking in the KCA and along the recently promoted Great Himalayan Trail in Taplejung district. 

Despite the fact that both KSL and KL offer numerous opportunities for adventure, nature, and cultural tourism, the current tourism flow in the region is relatively low as compared to other trekking routes in Nepal. This might be attributed to the fact that these areas are still remote and proper tourism plans are yet to be endorsed. Given the natural richness and cultural diversity, these regions have the potential to promote nature and trekking tourism, eco and wilderness tourism, village/rural homestays, adventure travel, pilgrimage, culture and heritage tourism, agri-based tourism, tea tourism, and flori-tourism, among others. The natural landscapes, rich flora and fauna, food diversity through rich agrobiodiversity and diverse culture of these regions can be linked with tourism activities along the bordering areas of Nepal with India and China, promoting transboundary tourism in these landscapes. The highly developed tourism sector in KL India (Darjeeling and Sikkim) could also be a boon for KL Nepal if tourism activities are well coordinated. 

Nonetheless, there are examples where tourism has impacted the environment negatively. Problems related to solid waste disposal have been listed as one of the biggest challenges in all touristic destinations in Nepal. Similarly, with more tourists visiting, authentic cuisine and traditional attire have died away in many parts of the country. Therefore, it is important that linkages between biodiversity and tourism promotion are well thought out and key stakeholders consulted before tourism promotion activities are taken on. It is important for relevant stakeholders including hotel/ restaurant owners, tour guides, and operators and home stay facilitators to adopt responsible tourism strategies to promote sustainable tourism in these landscapes. In future, it is important to assure that any tourism concept is developed based on a given landscape’s potentials and complete knowledge of the risks involved. Likewise, sensitizing tour operators and local populations on nature conservation with guaranteed benefits can contribute to local biodiversity conservation.