"I think there needs to be a paradigm shift from the dominant view of tourism as primarily a business or economic force to a view of tourism as a social force that can bring radical transformation of things...Radical democratic forms of ownership of tourism enterprises, participatory decision-making rejecting the hierarchical approach, significant involvement of grassroots local communities as well as the realisation of the concept of 'Commons' in the context of tourism should be some of prominent features of tourism as a social force."
Sudipta Kiran Sarkar is a PhD research candidate with the School of Hotel and Tourism Management, Hong Kong Polytechnic University. His main research interests are ICT applications in sustainable tourism (the role of social media in ecotourism and community-based tourism), peace and community-based tourism. He has been a tourism educationist since 2001 in various hospitality and tourism higher education institutions in India and Malaysia. He was involved in a number of teaching assignments on tourism in semi-rural and suburban areas of India as well as higher education institutions imparting tourism education exclusively to women, also in India. This is where he got the exposure in teaching students from rural communities as well as had the opportunity to observe various issues in tourism higher education concerning rural communities and women. Prior to embarking on PhD in 2011, he was involved in a number of research projects namely urban ecotourism in the context of Kuala Lumpur, role of social media in hospitality and tourism higher education as well as the use of ICT tools by health tourism agents in Malaysia. He has published in a number of national and international tourism academic journals on topics like peace through alternative tourism, social tourism enterprises, role of ICTs in facilitating ecolodge operations, rural tourism, cultural tourism in Malaysia with respect to inbound tourists from India and rural tourism.
ECOCLUB.com: In your thought-provoking paper "Peace Through Alternative Tourism: Case Studies From Bengal, India" (2010) you discuss among other things the relevance and role of ecosocialist ideas in the alternative, peace tourism current in India. Considering the ever growing number of adjectival tourisms, do you feel that "Ecosocialist Tourism" could be a valuable and clearly-defined addition, and if so, what would you propose as its key tenet(s)?
Sudipta Kiran Sarkar: Well, the growing number of adjectival tourisms is turning out to be mere labels. I do not feel that labelling of forms of tourism that are influenced by radical and progressive alternative views like ecosocialsm is a good idea. Labels seems to reflect commodification and we all know how new forms of so-called alternative tourism have been co-opted and labelled by corporations and agents of neo- liberalism in tourism for their own interests. I think there needs to be a paradigm shift from the dominant view of tourism as primarily a business or economic force to a view of tourism as a social force that can bring radical transformation of things. Tourism should be able to play a broader role by implanting itself in the environmental and social perspectives of destinations and is able to meet the social and ecological needs. In other words, tourism should not be external to the local socio-economic and ecological conditions but naturalised into it as a compatible and an emancipatory element. Responsible and ethical practices should be the basis of such tourism that will enable it to boldly encounter malefic forces responsible for violation of human rights and ecological destruction. Radical democratic forms of ownership of tourism enterprises, participatory decision-making rejecting the hierarchical approach, significant involvement of grassroots local communities as well as the realisation of the concept of 'Commons' in the context of tourism should be some of prominent features of tourism as a social force. Besides the cases I discussed in my paper from West Bengal, India, there are quite a few more radical examples of tourism based on alternative ideas from Latin America. The indigenous-grassroots driven tourism in Ecuador often referred to as "tourismo communitario", the emergence of social tourism in Venezuela based on workers participation and local community initiatives, the development of small scale, community-run and ecologically conscious tourism carried out near San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico under the purview of the Zapatistas as well as the case of Hotel Bauen, in Buenos Aires, a recuperated enterprise based on workers self-management, are some examples of how tourism can play a role of a social, transformative force. Also significant is the case of Battir, a Palestinian Village in West Bank that is putting a peaceful resistance against Israeli occupation through ecotourism. All these instances reflect forms of tourism that foster self-determination, transformation and emancipation and are free from the exploitative characteristics of the predominant neo-liberal models of tourism. These cases can be considered somewhat as role models of what tourism as a radical, progressive social force based on ecosocialist ideas would look like.
ECOCLUB.com: What changes would be required in your view, for intra-Asian tourism flows to contribute to trust- building and peace-making, especially between the regions' major adversaries?
Sudipta Kiran Sarkar: In connection with this question, I would like to recall some facts from history especially in the context of India. Many of the historical facts that we find in our history are from the records left by spiritual travellers and scholars like Fa Hien, Hiuen Tsang, Al-Beruni and many more from outside who visited India for pilgrimage, enlightenment and knowledge seeking. They travelled extensively to learn more about spiritualism and in the process gained knowledge and wisdom. They gained comprehensive understanding of the people, society, nature, cultures,politics and philosophies of the times wherever they travelled in India. They had extreme desire to know the unknown as a part of their process of seeking spiritual knowledge. The travel writings left behind by them are one of the most extensive and authentic sources of information on ancient India considered by historians. I think modern-day travel must carry some of the philosophical virtues of the scholars and wayfarers who visited ancient India for instance. Knowledge-seeking, understanding of people, society, nature, cultures and solidarity with these elements should be some of the major tenets of modern-day travel instead of being a merely superficial 3-4 day fast track package tour comprising of groups of noisy, arrogant and insensitive individuals. This applies to the intra-Asian tourism context more than any other. DMOs and tourism operators must strive to foster intense common people-to-common people contact that will enable tourist and host communities to exchange solidarity with each other and rise above the mean and narrow boundaries of extreme nationalism and negate hostility, abhorrence and tensions between nations often patronised by opportunist politicians and religious right-wing groups.
ECOCLUB.com: You have extensively researched social media & Ecotourism in the context of your PhD. Did you detect any social media issues or trends that are characteristic or exclusive to Ecotourism?
Sudipta Kiran Sarkar: Theoretically speaking there are quite a few issues of ecotourism particularly linked to social media. But that is going to be a very long discussion. However, what I could say is socialisation (social interactions between ecotourists while on an eco-tour) and knowledge sharing have often found as important characteristics of both softer types and 'hard' ecotourists. Social media which is a two-way communication platform can facilitate ecotourists in enhanced socialisation and knowledge sharing at pre and post visitation stages. Social media can facilitate through socialisation communities of likeminded individuals who share knowledge mutually useful to all and which can lead to community identification. This significantly applies to nature-based recreationists like ecotourists and as a result social media appears to play a much greater role for ecotourists than general tourists as it goes well beyond meeting merely the utilitarian needs of trip and destination information search or purchase decision making.
ECOCLUB.com: You have also researched community-based tourism (CBT) in India. What would you name as its strengths and weaknesses, how does it interact with the caste system, and is it growing in importance and recognition in terms of the overall Indian Tourism Model?
Sudipta Kiran Sarkar: Well, India is a big country with diverse socio-cultural and socio-economic conditions as well as diverse socio-political conditions. Each province is like a nation. So I guess it's easier for me to talk about my home province, West Bengal than to give a universal picture of community-based tourism (CBT) in the whole of India. However, the Endogenous Tourism Project jointly carried out by The Ministry of Tourism, Government of India and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in partnership with local implementing NGOs, is worth mentioning. It is carried out with an objective to enrich rural industries like handicrafts, handlooms, revitalise rural economies through empowerment of local communities in community-based tourism. It involves developing rural tourism attractions at selected rural destinations which could be villages known for unique natural and cultural heritage. However, I am not sure about the current status of this project in terms of its progress and achievements so far.
In the context of my home province, West Bengal, NGOs and organisations like Help Tourism in association with local communities have been involved in carrying out successful and responsible CBT projects that have resulted in empowerment of local communities, their socio-economic development as well as providing tourists with authentic and satisfying experiences of cultural and nature-based tourism. Some of these projects have been highlighted in my paper "Peace Through Alternative Tourism: Case Studies From Bengal, India" (2010). Besides, the new government in West Bengal has also shown some interest to emphasize on CBT and ecotourism. However, poor infrastructure, poor access to technologies like internet and lack of proper hygiene and sanitation facilities in rural areas are some of the difficulties faced by CBTs.
The interaction of CBT in India with the age-old Hindu caste system is indeed an interesting point you have raised. I have not thought about this extensively yet. I believe it would be really interesting to carry out research that zooms into the complexities of the relationships between CBT and caste system in rural India. It would also be interesting to see whether CBT enables towards eliminating the prejudiced caste system and brings justice and fairness to like Dalits, Adiwasis (indigenous communities) who have been the victims of caste system or whether CBT totally bypasses or fails to address these issues? As for West Bengal, I do not reckon that the caste system is of much significance in CBT as it has been somewhat nullified through various progressive socio-cultural, spiritual, and political movements starting from the Bengali Renaissance Movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
As far as the question of a Tourism model is concerned, I do not think India has any.
ECOCLUB.com: In the light of recent criminal attacks on women, including on women travellers, how would you describe the position and role of women in tourism in India, as well as the effects of tourism on the perception of women?
Sudipta Kiran Sarkar: Contrary to the increasing violence against women and women travellers, it is interesting to highlight on the fact that the tourism industry in India employs much more women than men. According to a recent report I read, women comprise 70% of the tourism workforce in India which is indeed encouraging news. Given this fact, I truly hope that women in the Indian tourism workforce play a key role in altering the damaged image of India as an unsafe destination for women travellers. I really hope that they achieve success in persuading the positions of power in charge of law and order to take effective measures in ensuring the safety of women travellers as well as their own safety as working women in the tourism industry. I started my teaching career in an academic institution in India exclusively meant for women to study. While teaching there I had come across many motivated, efficient and committed individuals as my students who are now in the tourism industry. Based on this perception, I really hope that they can bring a radical change in terms of improving women's position.
ECOCLUB.com: Do you consider payment for ecosystem services (PES) schemes as a realistic and effective solution for conservation, or as conservative, self-serving tactics produced by a global socio-economic system (actually-existing-capitalism) that wants to commodify and monetize everything?
Sudipta Kiran Sarkar: Well, PES is obviously a neo-liberal conservation tool that considers market forces as key drivers of it. It commodifies ecosystems elements and the services and maximizes business interests in ecosystems. Ecosystems are a 'commons' issue i.e. it belongs to communities and the public and therefore its use value is more important than the exchange value but that is exactly the PES schemes try to do. It is definitely a socially and ecologically undesirable concept to me. I feel alternative models of conservation that are local community-driven as well as the role of the concept of 'Commons' in conservation must be explored.
ECOCLUB.com: At a time when most of their traditional European markets are stagnating, many small countries dependent on tourism, dream that they will be able to attract a sizeable share of the rapidly growing Indian and Chinese outbound market. In the light of the sheer numbers involved, Is it a case of be careful what you wish for?
Sudipta Kiran Sarkar: The fast growing outbound tourism markets of China and India could be a highly positive development but we need to keep in mind the realities. Both Chinese and Indian tourists are not known to be among the most responsible, sensitive and ecologically conscious ones. Moreover societies in many of these emerging Asian economies are one of most materialistic and rampant consumerism is quite common given the neo-liberal wave sweeping across them (read India). This makes the majority of people in these societies unaware of the environmental implications of rampant consumerism and will show similar consumption tendencies while visiting another country. Therefore, small destination countries with unique, sensitive cultural heritage, fragile ecology and limited infrastructural capacities must be mindful of how to regulate and effectively manage inbound tourist flow from China and India given their sheer numbers, their levels of cultural sensitivity and environmental awareness. Perhaps, these small countries need to carefully target the market segments from these emerging outbound markets that are compatible with sustainable development. In other words, specialist nature- based recreationists, adventurers and high-income tourists from these markets may be specifically targeted who have the ability and the willingness to purchase truly sustainable/green products which are often pricy. This may turn these destinations into enclaves for elites but to accomplish the greater objectives we may need to make some sacrifices. Maldives is a good example. Of course if the lion's share of the tourism business in these small destinations is made up of small scale, community/democratically-managed tourism enterprises or small business type enterprises that run on sustainable principles and benefit local communities, then it would be really a near –to-perfect scenario.
Also important to note is that many of the small destinations countries are developing countries with significant sections of people living under the poverty line. So another way to look at this issue is how these small, developing destination countries are able to equitably distribute wealth flowing in as incomes from tourists from these emerging outbound markets among the majority of the people instead of letting it go only into the pockets of the privileged few like transnational hotel and tourism corporations and local elites. Socialist governments in Latin America particularly in Venezuela made optimal use of incomes from fossil-fuel industries like petroleum by heavily investing in social programmes, health and on other pressing social necessities leading to drastic cuts in poverty levels never experienced before. Small destination countries earning majority of their national incomes from tourism could optimally use such income in a similar way as those of Latin American countries. Tourism incomes earned by attracting a sizeable share of these outbound tourism markets could be extensively invested on social programmes that aim at drastically reducing poverty levels, providing quality and affordable healthcare for the masses and meeting the civic needs of the masses like water and electricity. This will in turn create a positive image of the destinations, better host-guest relations and satisfaction for tourists. It will make the tourism trade between these emerging outbound markets and the small destination countries less exploitative and mutually beneficial.
ECOCLUB.com: Is there anything else you would like to raise?
Sudipta Kiran Sarkar: When it comes to ecotourism or nature-based tourism, a destination may consider looking for opportunities to carry out such tourism activities in urban settings instead of just remote locations. Ecotourism in remote locations is relatively more expensive and physically challenging making it out of reach of many economically challenged (urban poor) and physically challenged people who also have a right to experience nature. Moreover, ecotourism projects in remote locations are sometimes not entirely feasible as big corporations can find such locations as cash cows to exploit. One vivid example from the Indian context is the Sahara Group Ecotourism project in the Indian Sunderbans which was stopped and abandoned thankfully before it could even start, due to local resistance. Besides, ecotourism taking place relatively more in urban natural locations is ecologically desirable for remote locations. Therefore unique nature spots in and around cities and urban areas can be used sustainably by local tourism authorities through the promotion of urban ecotourism to all sections of the urban population in order to educate them and make them aware about the value of natural environments to human societies. By harnessing excellent affordable public - mass transit systems that many cities have urban ecotourism opportunities can be made accessible to all sections of the society making it an egalitarian affair. The argument for urban ecotourism that gathered some momentum years ago both in research and practice seems to have faded away. The argument needs to be revived and continued.
On an ending note, I would like to thank you immensely for offering an opportunity to me to express my thoughts and views about global tourism in a respectable platform like ecoclub.com.
ECOCLUB.com: Thank you ! It is a great pleasure to provide a platform to people who offer radical as well as practical views, based on a deep understanding of the sociopolitical potential and broader context of genuine ecotourism (ecological & socially just tourism).