The pristine locales of Tawang and West Kameng  in Arunachal Pradesh attract a vast number of tourists every year. These serene expanses of wilderness also fall under WWF-India’s Western Arunachal Landscape (WAL)- embodying a stunning array of biodiversity,  gorgeous landscape, a rich variety of indigenous communities and snow-clad mountains. Enchanted by the beautiful visages, the influx of tourists in these areas creates a variety of livelihood opportunities for the indigenous communities, which if left unregulated, could inflict considerable damage on the ecosystem and the biodiverse species of flora and fauna.

The landscape is not only a vital stronghold for these local communities but is also home to the elusive red panda and snow leopard that share the land with 13 other threatened and vulnerable species of vertebrates, in a forest that possesses over 5000 species of flowering plants, including 32 species of rhododendrons. Here, 81% of the state’s area is covered in forests, and more than 60% of it falls under the rights and ownership of the local indigenous communities governed by traditional customary laws. In other words, local communities own 31,826 of the state’s forest that is some of the nation’s prime wildlife habitats.

© Abhik P /WWF India

In an effort to strike a balance of sustainable survival between the two important facets of Arunachal Pradesh, WWF-India stepped in with an initiative of Community-Based Tourism (CBT). Working with villagers belonging to indigenous communities, the CBT programme aims to equip locals with knowledge, infrastructure, and business acumen, in order for them to realize and harness livelihood opportunities in the sphere of tourism. CBT, therefore, aims to establish a network of community-centric homestays offering diverse services such as accommodation, catering, camping, nature trails, cultural programmes, among a long list of other immersive activities. The larger goal of the initiative is to not only provide villagers with a source of alternate livelihood, but is also to give them a platform to display their indigenous knowledge, exhibit their traditions and culture which are so deeply entwined with the eco-system within which they live, while ensuring that the same communities visualize a scope for benefit and sustenance from conserving the biodiversity in the region.

The field team of WWF-India from Arunachal Pradesh was accompanied by a representative of Chalo Hoppo, an experiential travel company operating in the northeast aimed at delivering local experiences to travelers by promoting cultural exchange in the region. The team is currently exploring opportunities to partner with the company under its CBT programme. Thus, the visit conducted in the month of February 2019, was held to explore tourism opportunities, as well as to distribute support materials to the homestays operating within the Mandala Phudung Khellong Community Conserved Area (MPKCCA). A meeting with the members of the management committee and homestay owners was also scheduled to discuss the future of the CBT initiative within the community conserved area (CCA).

© Abhik P/WWF India

During the visit, homestay owners were oriented in understanding the role eco-tourism could play in the sphere of conservation and augmenting livelihoods while being made aware of the underlying threats, the sector posed. Following this, there was an enthusiastic discussion amongst the group regarding the various tourism opportunities within the CCA which could be used to attract tourists. This was accompanied by a mapping exercise wherein the villagers drew a map depicting the various attractions and activities for tourists and some tentative itineraries were drawn up in consultation with the villagers.

The team split up into different parts and stayed at the various homestays in the CCA in order to experience them first hand and identify opportunities to improve the guest experience. The team also took the opportunity to undertake some of the activities that had been identified in the community consultation session such as the trek to Resa Gompa and a visit to the Phudung monastery. A potential campsite was also identified where tourists could camp overnight at a serene spot next to the Tongchudar river. The team then held a brainstorming session with Chalo Hoppo and the villagers to understand how such experiences could be packaged as attractive activities for tourists.

The last day of the visit entailed the distribution of support materials under the aegis of partnership between WWF India and SONY India Pvt. Ltd such as room heaters, wash basins, towels, water purifiers, to the homestay owners as a step forward in making the stay more comfortable for tourists.

The MPKCCA is indeed an enchanting place and holds many different allures for those who choose to visit it. The CBT endeavor is a promising avenue to be explored and the programme must now work towards stabilizing tourist inflow to the homestays being operated by the locals. It also essential to ensure that gains to indigenous peoples from the tourism sector are made to translate into better outcomes for biodiversity conservation in the region.

After all, the conservation of India’s wild is only possible, together!

© Abhik P/WWF India

The author of the story, Abhik Palit, is a Project Officer in the Western Arunachal Landscape, WWF-India.

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