Community Forest-based Ecotourism in Nepal

Community forest-based ecotourism

Introduction

Foreign tourism is an important source of income for the national economy of Nepal and local communities. The number of tourists arriving to Nepal significantly increased during last decade and exceeded one million in 2018. According to official statistics, tourism brings about half a billion US dollars in revenue to the country annually. The tourism sector contributes about 2.7% GDP in Nepal and this sector generate about annual 2.05 million USD. The major destinations for the ecotourism in Nepal are mountain (mountaineering), protected areas and world heritage sites (trekking), rivers (rafting) and community forests (hiking, jungle safari, bird watching and nature scenery). Therefore, the Government of Nepal has developed different policies and laws to promote community forest based eco-tourisms.

Ecotourism, which is focused on responsible travel to natural areas, contributes to environmental protection and well-being of people. Ecotourism can provide significant benefits to local rural population in Nepal ensuring flow of direct financial profits, empowerment of local communities and respect of their culture (Anup, 2017). Ecotourism offers opportunities for the sustainable development of local communities inhabiting forestland in Nepal. Despite having lots of success story of community-based eco-tourism in Nepal, the community forest groups and other local communities have been facing different challenges to operate eco-tourism activities. Among the problems are valuable forestland grabbing by the corporate profit-based tourism companies, lack of adequate support from government agencies, government control over the benefits from tourism and restrictions to travel and eco-tourism activities due to COVID-19. Though, the local communities are struggling to give continuation in the eco-tourism activities by following the health safety measures. In this article, the major policy opportunities, challenges and way forwards for the community-based eco-tourism activities in Nepal are highlighted.

Existing Policies and Programs

About 42% forestland (2.2 million ha.) of Nepal is managed by community groups. The goal of the community forestry is to enhance sustainable management of forest with collective tenure rights of forest dependent local communities. One of the major objective of community forest is to promote community-based ecotourism as development of micro-enterprise facilities at the community level. Such goal and objectives are envisioned in the forest policy and legislation of Nepal. Therefore, many community forestry groups develop and implement management plans for different types of community-based ecotourism activities at local level.

The Constitution of Nepal (2015) has given emphasis for the ecotourism and equitable sharing of the benefits from tourism activities to the local people under state policy. The local communities including community forest groups might be benefited from such constitutional policy. The Local Government Operation laws has also given specific responsibility to the local government to promote community-based eco-tourism within their jurisdiction. Based on these policy, the community forestry groups provide eco-tourism activities in their forest landscapes. Two forms of ecotourism have been presented. In-situ based ecotourism serves to those who interested in nature scenery, wildlife/birds watching, hiking, aquatic observation. Ex-situ based ecotourism focuses on management mini-zoos, wildlife rescue centre, homestay and community information centres, educating people about wildlife management and conservation issues. Community-based eco-tourism helps to generate local employment and income to forest-dependent communities including women and poor families.

The Forest Act (2019) and protected area laws provide legislative framework for operation of ecotourism activities by local groups within the area of the community forest, based on the approved forest management plans, in buffer zones or on conservation areas.

Opportunities for community-based Ecotourism in Nepal

Community forest areas serve as one of the major tourist destination for both domestic and international tourists in Nepal. According to survey conducted in 2018 within 16 community forests, more than 1.8 million tourists visited these community forests, including more than 16 thousand international tourists. Considering the importance of the community-based eco-tourism, the community forest groups implement the number of ecotourism activities in their forest landscapes providing nature watch activities, presenting cultural traditions and services at the community homestay facilities for tourists and sharing traditional knowledge and conservation education in community information centres. Such activities contribute to improvement of livelihoods and socio-economic conditions of local communities. Poor people, marginalised households and women have opportunities for income generation through involvement in micro-enterprises, agro-forestry, organic farming, employment as nature guides and through other relevant activities.

Challenges and Solutions

Since last few years, the private sector, corporate companies and foreign investors are creating pressures over the government agencies for withdrawal community forests from local communities to take over such beautiful forest landscape in order to operate corporate and destructive tourism constructing large hotels, resorts and cables for profit making. However, the community forestry groups are capable to operate ecotourism activities in their community forest by themselves. A well-organized community awareness and legal capacity building of communities about the community rights over forestland is urgent to stop the forestland grabbing for corporate tourism. An effective implementation of community land/resource rights related legal provisions is also necessary to promote community-based ecotourism

The policy instruments have incorporated enough provision to provide technical and financial support from government agencies and local government to the local communities to promote eco-tourism activities. Though, there is a lack or very limited support from the responsible state authorities for this purpose. Concerned government agencies (such as Forest Offices or local governments) hesitate to approve the eco-tourisms management plans, prepared by communities. To address this challenge, it is important to empower community forestry groups to incorporate clear provisions on eco-tourism activities in their forest management plan based on new forest laws.

The Inter-Governmental Fiscal Arrangement Act (2017) has made a provision to sharing the tourism royalties between three levels of governments (federal, provincial and local). However, there are no provisions to share the tourisms royalty with the affected local communities that is not consistent with the state policy of constitution. Therefore, local communities advocate for the equitable benefit sharing mechanism in tourism sector. An advocacy campaign may be required to create pressure on the government to establish legal mechanisms for the equitable sharing of the revenue from tourism sector to the affected local communities.

Needs and Expectations in the post-COVID period

The community-based eco-tourisms are largely based on the domestic tourists, community gatherings and education visits from different organizations, including universities and schools. Due to COVID-19 all these activities are restricted and almost all community-based ecotourism activities do not operate since spring of 2020. The income of the local communities is heavily affected due to decrease of the domestic tourists’ flow to the community forests for ecotourism. 

At the same time, the community forestry groups and other local communities can develop different documentary for virtual tourism and manage domestic tourism applying health safety measures until returning back to normal life. There is also a need in financial support or subsidies to those community forest groups who are managing wildlife-based (Ex-situ) ecotourism activities such as mini-zoos and wildlife rescue centers in community forests. 

We are looking for partners and supporters who can provide us resources to help local communities in this challenging time to create new virtual platform for community ecotourism in Nepal. Our contact details provided below:

Dil Raj Khanal, Policy Adviser of the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal) (FECOFUN), Kathmandu, Nepal; Email: dilcommon@gmail.com

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