Putting people and ecology at the core: fostering ecotourism in G-B

Green tourism

by Ghulam Amin Beg

The Gilgit-Baltistan government’s recent decision to lease out 37 properties, including motels, guesthouses, and nurseries, along with lands owned collectively by local communities, to a newly established ‘green tourism company,’ has sparked significant controversy and debate both in the public sphere and on social media platforms.

This action has prompted a multitude of critical questions regarding the collective rights of local communities, their economic interests, and environmental sustainability in a contested region like G-B. The local administration is not authorized to lease or sell public properties to entities or individuals outside Gilgit-Baltistan without first obtaining informed consent or engaging in partnership agreements with local communities.

Therefore, a critical issue is the leasing of collective community land without consent. In many cases, these lands were managed through a community-forest department partnership, and the unilateral decision undermines the rights and contributions of local communities.

Moreover, the lack of transparency surrounding the agreement has fueled concerns regarding the ramifications of mass tourism, heightened vehicular traffic, and the potential marginalization of local businesses and residents. There’s also apprehension about the unlawful acquisition of water, pathways, access roads, electricity, and other essential services, which could exacerbate pollution due to the absence of standardized operating procedures and a robust legal framework.

The regional government should consult with leading local and national tourism experts and destinations to develop an environment-friendly tourism framework and strategies that align with global standards while addressing the unique needs and challenges of the region.

Global frameworks & successful models

The global framework for sustainable mountain tourism, as outlined by the World Tourism Organization (WTO) and other international conventions, emphasizes the integration of environmental conservation, socio-economic development, and cultural preservation. Key principles include ensuring community involvement and benefits, promoting eco-friendly infrastructure and practices, protecting biodiversity and natural landscapes, and respecting local cultures and traditions.

This framework advocates for tourism that supports local economies, preserves natural and cultural heritage, and fosters sustainable development by balancing the needs of tourists, local communities, and the environment.

Aligned with this framework, successful green tourism initiatives worldwide prioritize the active involvement of local communities and emphasize the protection of ecological resources. By engaging communities in decision-making processes and ensuring that they reap tangible benefits from tourism activities, these initiatives foster a sense of ownership and stewardship over their environment. Additionally, by implementing sustainable practices that minimize the ecological footprint of tourism, these initiatives contribute to the long-term preservation of natural habitats and biodiversity.

The G-B government must draw inspiration from successful models worldwide, such as Costa Rica’s community-involved ecotourism initiatives ensuring that a significant portion of the income generated goes back into local development and conservation efforts.

Likewise, New Zealand’s inclusive approach to respecting Indigenous rights, such as Māori communities having a significant stake in tourism projects ensures that tourism development is both sustainable and culturally appropriate.

Similarly, our neighbouring tiny Himalayan state Bhutan’s strategy of limiting tourist numbers and implementing daily fees maintains the sustainability of tourism while channeling revenues into community development and environmental conservation, a model echoed in Nepal’s eco-tourism initiatives.

Moreover, international organizations like IUCN, WWF, and AKRSP have championed natural resource management-based tourism, often involving local communities. Collaborative efforts, such as the trophy hunting scheme, exemplify successful government-community-private sector partnerships in sustainable tourism development.

Given the insights from both global and local examples, the GB government must reassess its approach and embrace a more inclusive, community-centric model for green tourism development.

Way forward

Here are four alternative partnership models that the GB government should explore:

Co-management with local communities: The government and the green company may reach an agreement with local communities on implementing co-management of the tourist sites and infrastructures. Like the successful trophy hunting scheme, where 80% of the income directly benefits local communities, such agreements would ensure that communities have a significant stake in management, while also allocating a portion of the revenue towards environmental conservation efforts.

Open bidding with profit sharing: Additionally, initiating an open bidding process and allowing local companies to participate, with profit sharing as a core component, would promote transparency and fair competition. By inviting local private companies to partner with communities on a 50% profit-sharing basis, the government can foster economic empowerment at the grassroots level while encouraging responsible tourism practices.

Community-led management: Cancel the current lease agreement and empower communities at each site to manage and operate the properties based on mutually agreed terms. This model would ensure that local communities retain control and benefit directly from tourism revenues.

Local government involvement: Postpone the leasing process till local government (LG) elections are held and transfer the management of these assets to local governments and municipalities. This would allow for co-management with local communities, ensuring that the benefits of tourism are widely shared.

The role of the GB government should be to come up with a legal framework and a green tourism policy establish clear standard operating procedures (SOPs) and enforce compliance for each site or tourist destination.

These SOPs should cover environmental protection measures, community involvement, and sustainable business practices.

In conclusion, the GB government must prioritize the establishment of a robust legal framework in collaboration with the approval of the GB Assembly that underpins sustainable tourism practices while safeguarding the rights and interests of local communities.

Through the adoption of a model centred on local partnerships, environmental conservation, and economic equity, Gilgit-Baltistan can emerge as a leading example of green tourism, setting a standard for other disputed regions like Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). This approach not only fosters sustainable development but also ensures the preservation of the region’s natural and cultural heritage for future generations to cherish.

It’s essential to recognize that, legally, the right to first refusal rests with local communities. Upholding this principle is crucial to guarantee that any development projects respect the rights and interests of those who have historically managed and relied upon these lands.

By prioritising community involvement in decision-making processes and honouring their rights, the GB government can pave the way for responsible tourism while preserving the region’s unique cultural and environmental heritage as well as, establishing a blueprint for development in disputed territories.

Ghulam Amin Beg is a community-driven development practitioner, conservationist, climate activist and policy analyst, currently residing in Islamabad with frequent development travels to tourist destinations in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral.

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