Nurturing Conservation with Tourism
Summer time. On May 05 2015, Emirates Natural History Group(ENHG), Abu Dhabi hosted a discussion to prepare guidelines for ecotourism practices in UAE.
By Sujata Devadas, June 02, 2015
I am Dutch, a tourist…
Marieke was present at the meeting. She kept repeating, “please involve the local community”. With good reason.
“I am from Holland” she clarifies, “Lelystad is my home, a 45 minutes drive from Amsterdam. It is the capital of the province of Flevoland, built 30 years ago on the seabed of the former Zuiderzee. Earlier, it was just water in the middle of Netherlands. Then the decision was made to reclaim land there. In 1967, Lelystad came into being, named after Cornelis Lely, who engineered the reclamation.”
Engineers in Netherlands are noted for creating ‘polders’. There are 3000 polders nationwide. Wetlands are drained and made usable for agriculture. It is said, "God created the world but the Dutch created Holland.”
Marieke, from Lelystad, chose to pursue building engineering, after high-school, for her bachelor degree in the North of Holland. “As I grew up experiencing the design and developments of my hometown, I felt a strong inclination to take a degree in the building environment. I specialized further in spatial planning. My aim is to create a more sustainable world, to go beyond buildings per sé and integrate people and places.”
“In May 2014, I was grappling with my masters thesis, when my Dad accepted a job in UAE. My parents began packing to leave Netherlands. I watched enviously as my parents brimmed with excitement. Impulsive, I decided to join my parents. I love to travel, get to know other people and familiarize myself with different cultures.”
“I reached UAE in May 2014. By October 2014, I took a short-term employment position with Etihad as ground staff and also joined ENHG Abu Dhabi.”
As Marieke acclimatized herself, she reeled at the pace of rapid growth and progress of Emirati cities. “I made a natural connection with changes in Lelystad that took place as I grew up. It is a city with a short history. Buildings just mushroomed everywhere.” Marieke now leans forward as she looks at me, stressing her words conveying emotion with intensity. “But here” she says, “centuries of history are now hidden by lots of modern buildings, contemporary structures. The history is not immediately evident.”
Marieke is pensive. “To me, that is sad. My desire is to delve into this nation’s amazing history. So, I bought a book from the Lonely Planet to explore and know this area better. For my first trip, I went to Al Ain - my first getaway from skyscrapers.” I saw farms on both sides of the road. Al Ain is not a tourist destination but there is a lot to discover that people are unaware of. From our hotel at the top of Jebel Hafeet, we had an amazing view over Al Ain’s beautiful mountainous landscape, surrounding nature and wildlife.”
Marieke thinks out loud. “Most of my friends in Europe have never heard of Abu Dhabi, much less Al Ain. They do recognize Dubai as a modern city, but it does not strike them that it has risen up in the desert. They forget that Emiratis have a history, a rich culture. If they visit, they continue their western life. But there is much more to UAE than just Dubai as a shopping venue.”
Marieke sees many contradictions as she walks around UAE.
ONE. Arabs in traditional clothes and expats in many different attires bring the world together in a strange menage of humanity - one world.
TWO. She recently took an eco-tour, a boating trip, with Captain Tony: a ‘Sunset Tour’ starting from Yas Marina sailing over coastal waters - a sweeping contrast to the modern buildings in the city.
THREE. I joined ENHG and learnt so much about the desert - about its flora and fauna. Tourists like me are completely ignorant of this.
FOUR. Visit Fujairah, another Emirate and you are awestruck by Wadi Wurayah - cupping the natural beauty of UAE.
FIVE. Camel history is fascinating. Emiratis have a strong emotional attachment to this marvel of the desert. It sustained UAE ancestors for centuries.
So, one year later, Marieke is determined to promote sustainable efforts in conservation here in UAE.
“Education is the key.” she says. When the government designates a region for natural conservation, there are people living in and around it. They availed of and enjoyed these resources until this time. Now, suddenly, their access is restrained. Discontentment and conflict can soon arise unless you bring the local community on board and help them understand the reason for conservation measures.
“Take the fishing community, for example” says Marieke. “If you designate a marine area for conservation, fishing is stopped there. The income of those fishermen harvesting their catch in that area shrinks. So, keep them informed. Provide them an alternate region for fishing. This is the best way to manifest desired results. Otherwise, they just don’t know. It is all about working together.”
Conservation: Block all human intervention?
In the beginning conservation meant, block all human intervention. This was done in nature reserves like the Yellowstone National Reserve, USA. But later, United Nations modified ‘conservation’ to include different levels of human participation. People can enjoy nature. “Conservation through use”.
This second option was much more amenable to Netherlands, a nation far smaller than USA, where conserved areas are still used by humans. “You can promote sustainable conservation through tourism. Income from eco-tourism is invested back in the park. “It is all about a good management plan.” Marieke points out “Be selective about access in these parks:
Control the number of visitors entering a reserved area daily
Fence off some areas
some regions have paths, designated to immerse into with peace
Some areas are off limits to visitors - for its preservation and regeneration.”
Tourism is a privilege
“Look at the Arabian Oryx” Marieke says, excited. “Bringing it back from near extinction to a more sustainable population provides a great example. It is definitely attributable to research and informed action at the Dubai Desert Conservation Area, the first national park of UAE. They focussed on eco-tourism - nurturing tourism without harming nature. Very few contractors had permission to bring in visitors.”
Bad management of nature sanctuaries and parks exist all over the world. Uncontrolled unsupervised tourism makes it worse. “But that can be turned around.” Marieke reaffirms. “As tourists appreciate the spell-binding creativity of nature, knowledge can be imparted - so it all weaves together. Change the mindset of tourists. Practice conservation even after their holiday is over.”
“I am writing my masters thesis now but I am also having a splendid time. Water sports, winter sports, camping, astronomy, hiking, coastal adventure…! Yup. I shall do whatever I can to help conserve nature here in UAE.”
“What is happening here is really uncommon. Development is rapid, but environmental conservation and sustainability is in perspective. ‘Resilience’, ‘sustainability’ - modern catch phrases - are keyed into it. I am really curious how it is all gonna turn out.”