Sahara and the Sunderbans - Ecotourism or Megatourism?
Tourism is now India's largest industry,
providing 15% in foreign exchange
earnings1, and wildlife tourism is its fastest
growing sector. With the potential to
deliver massive economic benefits, global
tourism has also been found to contribute
to environmental degradation and to the
undermining of human rights. Whilst
there is a need to harness the positive
potential of tourism in India, care must be
taken to manage tourism in a manner that
does not compromise the integrity of
natural resources, including forests and
What is Ecotourism?
The application of the term 'ecotourism'
has often caused controversy, mainly due
to the fact that some providers of
conventional tourism use the concept as a
marketing tool, without embracing its
ethical and environmental basis. The
World Conservation Union (IUCN)
adopted the following as a definition of
- Sahara India Pariwar is proposing an 'ecotourism' project in the ecologically fragile mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans in East India.
- EIA does not believe that Sahara's proposals meet with an acceptable definition of ecotourism.
- Based on the available information from Sahara's website, EIA has serious concerns
about the environmental and social implications of this project.
- EIA calls upon:
- The Government of West Bengal to reject the proposal as it is currently
- The Government of India to review and amend tourism policy, to ensure that,
in the interests of transparency, good governance and corporate accountability,
multi-stakeholder forums are established to guarantee that tourism is
conducted in a responsible and environmentally sustainable manner.
"Environmentally responsible travel and
visitation to relatively undisturbed areas,
in order to enjoy, study and appreciate
nature (and any accompanying cultural
features - both past and present) that
promotes conservation, has low visitor
impact, and provides for beneficially
active socio-economic involvement of
The above definition demonstrates the
ethically led and holistic approach of
ecotourism, one in which the well-being of
local people, conservation of natural areas
and the running of a profitable business
are taken as a set of integrated
management goals. Ecotourism
operations typically tend to be small-scale
and sensitive in terms of their impacts on
the local environment and culture,
involving the participation of local
communities as major stakeholders.
When properly managed, such
ventures can result in significant benefits
to the local community, through increasing
employment opportunities, diversifying
the local economy and providing funds for
conservation. The ecotourists themselves
have a more fulfilling experience by
experiencing natural areas in a manner that
raises their awareness of sustainable
development and engenders respect for
A Unique Mangrove Forest
The Sundarbans mangrove forest is one of
the world's most outstanding wilderness
areas and is part of the planet's largest
delta. Formed by the convergence of the
rivers Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna,
it covers an area of 10,000 square
kilometres (km 2), just over 40% of which
is in India and the rest in Bangladesh.
The Sundarbans National Park (1330
km2), created in 1984, forms the core of
the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve (2585 km2).
The high levels of biodiversity and
uniqueness were recognised by its
designation in 1985 as a World Heritage
site and in 1989 as a Biosphere Reserve3.
The forest is home to fifty out of the
sixty species of mangroves found in
India4, hundreds of species of migratory
birds, small cats, crocodiles and threatened
reptiles. The shallow swamps provide an
ideal habitat for juvenile shrimps,
crustaceans, molluscs and fish, as well as
breeding grounds for endangered species
of marine turtles and horseshoe crabs.
Furthermore, the forest contains the largest
remaining contiguous population of the
tiger (Panthera tigris), with an estimated
population in 2002 of 245 in the Tiger
In addition to controlling pollution,
preventing erosion, protecting coral reefs
and buffering against tropical storms, the
Sundarbans ecosystem sustains important
shrimp fisheries and provides for the
livelihoods of thousands of people with
firewood, timber, medicines, honey and
other natural products.
The Ministry of Environment and
Forests (MoEF), of the Government of
India, has declared all coastal stretches as
protected, and all activities herein subject
to regulation, under the Coastal Regulation
Zone (CRZ) notification6. This lists all
mangroves as 'ecologically sensitive'
areas under CRZ-I, which prohibits new
construction within 500 metres of the High
A Threatened Habitat
The need for protection of the Sundarbans
is highlighted by the record of past local
mammalian extinctions, including the wild
buffalo (Bubalus huybalis), the swamp
deer (Cervus duvauceli) and the hog deer
(Axis porcinus)7. The forest currently
faces a number of threats: encroachment
from an ever-expanding human
population, pollution from the heavy use
of water transport, habitat destruction from
shrimp aquaculture and a decrease in
freshwater inputs (with an associated
increase in salinity) due to alterations to
river networks. It is, therefore, crucial that
tourism does not add to this list and
instead becomes a beneficial force.
Sahara India Pariwar8, an Indian business
conglomerate, proposes to create a worldclass
tourism project in the Sundarbans
region, worth over US$155 million and
spread over 303.5 hectares of land on a
number of islands, including Sagar, L-plot,
Kaikhali, Fraserganj, and Jharkhali9.
Documents outlining their proposals
were submitted to the West Bengal
government in 200310, but it is not clear if
the project has received the necessary
environmental clearances from MoEF.
EIA has contacted both government
officials and Sahara India Pariwar in order
to obtain specific details on the plans.
However, the only respondent, a member
of the West Bengal government, stated
that the plan is not available in the public
domain. The following information, on
which this critique is based, has been
obtained from Sahara's own websites8,9.
- A mixture of accommodation types,
comprising 5-star floating hotels,
high-speed boathouses, land-based
huts, luxury cottages and tents for
1000 pilgrims at Sagar, an eco-village
at Fraserganj. (It is unclear what is
meant by an 'eco-village'.)
- Landing jetties, hovercraft, helipads
for emergency evacuations, a "30-
seater multi-utility high-speed powercraft
for floating clinic, fire fighting
and ultra modern security system"8
and broadband Internet facilities.
- Solar power plants on some islands.
(It is unclear whether this will be
sufficient for the project and what
other sources of energy may be
- Beach development to create
"exclusive, beautiful virgin beach"8;
development of 36,000 km2 of
waterways; water-based activities
including catamaran services for
tourist excursions, aqua sports, e.g.
scuba-diving; wildlife watching
facilities including an elevated
walkway through the forest, watch
towers, a tiger/crocodile breeding
centre; other land-based facilities
including a casino, spa, health,
shopping and meditation centres,
restaurant complexes and a mini golf
- Interpretation centres, an ecology
centre, a community hall for
traditional art and drama, pottery and a
- Fish/vegetables/shrimp culture. (It is
unclear whether or not Sahara intends
to set up fish processing in the
Why Sahara's Proposal is Not Ecotourism
According to the information on the
proposals currently available, EIA is
concerned that this project does not satisfy
an acceptable definition of ecotourism. In
fact, rather than being ecologically and
socially sustainable, the project could have
potentially damaging implications for the
Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, the
surrounding mangrove forest and the
Sahara's corruption of the concept of
'ecotourism' seriously undermines the
legitimate use of the term by organisations
genuinely seeking an ecologically
sustainable alternative to mass tourism.
Sahara's proposals do not meet with
the definition of ecotourism as it is applied
to conservation, environmental
sustainability, local communities and
education / cultural respect.
- Ecotourism: contributes to
conservation through: the direct
improvement of local habitat e.g.
rehabilitation work; donating to
environmental or conservation
organisations; ensuring that
merchandise for sale does not come
from rare or threatened species.
- Sahara: There is no indication of
support for direct conservation of the
mangrove forest or for conservation
organisations, e.g. Project Tiger.
Outside of strictly controlled scientific
programmes designed to maintain
genetic diversity, there is no
conservation benefit to be gained from
captive breeding of tigers: 1) there is
no need to augment India's substantial
captive bred population; 2) they
cannot be reintroduced into the wild
and 3) there is widespread concern
that many captive breeding facilities,
some of which have recently been
raided in Thailand, are contributing to
the illegal trade in tiger parts.
- Ecotourism: employs practices which
do not degrade the environment in
terms of an appropriate location,
construction materials, site
disturbance, visual impacts, lighting,
water conservation, treatment of
effluent, noise, air quality, waste
minimisation, energy efficiency and
minimal disturbance to wildlife.
- Sahara: The development of
waterways could threaten the fragile
ecology of the mangrove swamps and
facilitate poachers' entry into the
forest. Increased waterway traffic
could increase pollution, whilst
floatels could involve higher noise
levels and the unnatural use of
floodlights, which could disturb
wildlife, possibly altering natural
breeding behaviour. Increased tourist
flow may increase conflict with tigers
and encroach on their habitat. Beach
development is likely to include the
removal of vegetation, reducing the
buffering effect against the sea.
- EIA is aware of opposition to this
project on environmental and
conservation grounds from Sanctuary
EDUCATION / CULTURAL RESPECT
- Ecotourism: provides ongoing
contributions to the local community
through purchase of local
products/services, employment of
local guides, etc.
- Sahara: The proposal is for a largescale
project with huge investment in
expensive construction work rather
than for socially useful development
or conservation. The focus on high
technology employs relatively fewer
workers. There is no indication that
local guides and other workers will be
employed or that the project will
diversify the local economy.
- EIA is aware that there has been
opposition to the project from the
National Fishworkers Forum12.
- Ecotourism: embraces the cultural
aspects of the area, consulting with
local people to allow presentation of
authentic cultural values, providing
guides with knowledge of local
heritage/people, advising ecotourists
on appropriate behaviour, etc.
- Sahara: The type of construction
proposed is not in keeping with the
local way of life. There is no
indication that the local communities
are being properly consulted by
Sahara. Far from engendering respect
for local people, there are reports that
fishworkers are being relocated from
the island of Jambudwip to make way
for foreign tourists, with a bureaucrat
of the West Bengal government
reportedly stating that it was "to get
rid of these eyesores"13.
- EIA does not believe that Sahara's
proposals meet with an acceptable
definition of ecotourism, and therefore
calls upon the Government of West
Bengal to reject the proposal as it is
- EIA also calls upon the Government
of India to review and amend tourism
policy, to ensure that, in the interests
of transparency, good governance and
corporate accountability, multistakeholder
forums are established to
guarantee that tourism is conducted in
a responsible and environmentally
1 Sustainable Development International Corp.
International Conservation - Sundarbans in a
Broader Context www.smartoffice.com/tiger/id18.htm
2 Ceballos-Lascurain, H. (1993) Ecotourism as a
worldwide phenomenon. In: K. Lindberg and
D.E. Hawkins (eds.). Ecotourism: Guide for
Planners & Managers. The Ecotourism Society,
North Bennington pp 12-14.
3 WCMC-IUCN. Protected Areas Programme - World
Heritage Sites: Sundarbans National Park
4 Sanctuary Asia. Sunderbans: Tourism threatens
5 Project Tiger Directorate. Population of Tigers in the
Tiger Reserves as reported by the States.
6 Warrier, S.G. (1997). Business Line
7 Salter, R.E. (1984) Status and utilisation of wildlife:
Food and Agricultural Organisation, Rome, Italy.
8 Sahara India Pariwar www.saharaindiapariwar.org
9 Sahara Infrastructure and Housing -Integrated Sahara
Tourism Circuit in West Bengal
10 Hindu Businessline (08/08/03). Sahara submits
project report on Sundarbans.
11 Sahara India Pariwar - Sunder Ban Project
12 National Fishworkers Forum. Five star mega tourism
project to destroy the largest mangrove forest of
13 Dubey, S. and Lahiri, S. (2003) Endangered
Livelihood. A Fact Finding Report on the
Transient Fishing Community of Jambudwip.
Environmental Justice Initiative, New Delhi
This briefing was written by Alex Sylvester, edited by Debbie Banks and Nick Mole.
Environmental Investigation Agency Ltd. 62-63 Upper Street, London N1 0NY United Kingdom
Tel: (+44) 20 7354 7960 Fax: (+44) 20 7354 7961
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