Julian Matthews is the Founder and Chairman of the travel trade campaign called TOFTigers, and worked in Indian nature tourism for the last 15 years, principally in using the economics of nature based tourism to save endangered species and wild habitats. Prior to setting up the charity, he was a safari operator and conservationist.
Do you think that post-Covid pandemic, wildlife tourism will return to what it was?
Yes, I do. Covid has made us rethink – and hopefully, reinvent some elements of it – but it will return and probably return even more as people want to flee the cities!
With incentive travel becoming impracticable, group travel seems shrinking, and city breaks less popular, will there be additional pressure on wildlife tourism? And will it not create an imbalance?
Yes – there could well be. The problem India faces is twofold with nature based tourism. One is a poor understanding of nature tourism by the bureaucrats and foresters who run it, that ensures it works and operates in the same way Taj Mahal tourism does. This is a massive wasted opportunity and something TOFTigers has been trying to get changed for 15 years. The second issue is the travellers/industry problem – because they too sell it as a ‘product’ not dissimilar to Taj Mahal tourism. Until we can reinvent the purpose and experiences that nature tourists are offered and the infrastructure and expertise it needs to flourish – it will always be under strain – and most of its extraordinary potential – real ecotourism – will be lost.
You are vocal about rural communities, especially those living in and around parks and sanctuaries. They are the most sufferers with an end of an economic lifeline to hundreds of millions across the national parks. And it is not that everything gets normal the day travel resumes once the lockdown is lifted. What is your opinion on this?
Yes rural, bordering and communities who live in the parks and wilderness areas across India need to be the principal beneficiaries of nature dependent tourism – if it is to become sustainable. That does not mean they are the only beneficiaries, as the economics must ensure Governments, Forest departments, and nature entrepreneurs also have to make funds and living out of delivering, supplying and supporting it. If communities are at the core of the tourism product and can be the key stakeholders and decision makers – then ecotourism will be the result. Sadly they are not at the moment because of a lack of political will, weak laws, lax regulations and an absence of monitoring. But India has all the skills, funds and expertise to change this – but does it have the political will to do this?
Because of the pandemic, there are even more pressing reasons to defend conscious travel that protects nature through wildlife tourism. What is your take on it?
Julian Matthews says Nature tourism has now become a critical part of conservation in India and can take a large part of the credit for turning around the fate of the Bengal tiger in the last 15 years. It’s been powerful in turning around the fate of many well-known nature destinations, driving rural jobs and livelihoods, creating opportunities and hope for marginal villagers, creating a passionate, vocal and the large community of travellers who now fight for tigers, parks and nature, and many parks now rely on the funds for visitors to support protection budgets and pay compensation to villagers. With the pandemic ensuring foresters budgets are cut even further, they will increasingly rely more on tourism incomes to fund conservation, protection and community support – and this is how it should be. The key now is to drive these destinations down more sustainable nature tourism formats – and not post Covid carry on ‘Business as usual’.
Some countries like New Zealand, Iceland, Palau, Bend, inspire visitors pledging to act in a sustainably responsible way for the environment, local culture and community. How would you see this in India’s context?
Julian Matthews says Yes – India needs to learn from others, and copy where they have achieved this. Many lessons can be learned from others, and many countries are in the same situation, and many have found a way to make nature tourism work well – so it’s critical India does this too. India is competing for visitors – so they need to get better at ensuring they deliver quality experiences if they’ve to compete.