ECO-TOURISM
VIRTUAL VACATION PLANNING --Wondering how you can do your bit for the environment ? Eco-tourism is one likely answer --
 

Traveling has never been easier what with the treasure trove of services the Internet has to offer says Deepesh Das.

The Internet does for travel what it does for any other activity – makes it easy, accessible and more community-oriented.

Whats the first thing that every urban Indian traveler does before leaving home? Whatever the journey – whether its a long-haul foreign holiday or a short trip to the nearest hill station; whether its a business trip or one with the whole family – one thing that has become a constant on the urban Indian travelers to-do list is check on the Internet’.

You start by deciding where to go, getting basic information about the destination and booking air or train tickets. Then you find the best places to stay and finalize your hotel rooms.

From a freewheeling, backpacking country hike through Europe to the most meticulously planned holiday in Australia, theres no information and no service that the vast world of the Internet cannot provide.

Ask veteran traveler and travel blogger J. Alfred Prufrock (the moniker he prefers to use on his blog www.sadoldbong.blogspot.com)."I almost never plan a trip without going on the Net," says the civil servant who prefers to remain anonymous.

When he travelers, whether on work or for pleasure, both of which he does extensively, he can use the Internet to compare prices and book a hotel room in Chennai, hire a car ("or at least get a number for hiring a car") in Trivandrum, download a road-map for Moscow, check out the timings of a museum in Milan in short, as he says, information is everywhere."I can also compare prices on everything from air fares to extra beds and book online," he adds.

Last year, the compulsive traveler planned a 7-night 8-day trip through Europe on the Net, starting off at Milan and then through the Alps to Vienna to Prague including a day-trip to the Carpathian region, to Budapest, flying back to Rome – all for slightly less than $500 on twin-sharing basis. Global travel websites and communities such as Virtual Tourist (www.virtualtourist.com) help you plan travel as well as get in touch with other travelers who can share their experience and expertise, says J. A. P.

Back home, the Net experience is just as wide. In a survey conducted by the Internet and Mobile Association of India, 39% of the respondents had bought railway tickets online and the figure was expected to go up to 48% in the future, while more than 40% had bought airline tickets. While IRCTC (Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation) services the railway sector, websites such as makemytrip.com, travelguru.com and the recently launched cleartrip.com offer the best airline ticket deals to passengers.

"Most of the time I buy railway tickets online on IRCTC as they provide home delivery of the tickets at no extra cost," says Bangalore-based PR manager Ronita Dutta."This saves me the hassle of standing at a queue at a crowded railway station or booking office, or paying extra money to travel agents," she adds. Dutta also checks up on all the travel websites for the best available prices for her trips back home to Calcutta and most of the time ends up buying tickets on the Net, either through the travel websites or the airline websites.

If its a comprehensive holiday youre planning, there are several websites with an offline presence that help you hit the right itinerary and literally hold youre through the journey. Recalls Delhi-based financial consultant Sravasti Talukdar,"Last year my family took a vacation in Kerala. I put a query on a travel website called Cocohol Tours (www.cocohol.com) and within an hour they had called me back. Then they sent us an itinerary, and once we had approved, they did hotel bookings for us and provided guides and chauffeur-driven cars at every single destination". The eight-day tour, which included such pit stops as Munnar, Kumarakom, Thekkedy, Alleppey and Cochin, cost around Rs.50000 for the four of them.

And finally, after the trip is done and the last souvenirs have been given away, there are certain other things to be sorted away and field – the memories. And even there, the Internet is an immense help."For me, beyond the ease of planning and execution, the Internet has made travel a community experience. You end up reflecting on your journey and sharing your experiences," says London-based Neha Vishwanathan. According to her, this makes travel a much more enriching process."You share your photographs, thoughts and come back to read blogs from that place. You develop a relationship with the place that goes beyond just a vacation. You become your own travel writer," says Vishwanathan. Finally, as she puts it, the Internet does for travel what it does for any other activity – makes it easy, accessible and more community-oriented.

               BACK TO THE NATURE

FOR THOSE OF US WHO LIVE IN CONCRETE

jungles, the environment has come to mean enclosed private spaces, machine-facilitated chores and recreation, and clock-determined behaviour. Yet, even in this Matrix-like existence, the urge to reconnect with nature and its many wonders remains strong, even if for small intervals. Its no surprise; therefore, that eco-tourism – to experience, enjoy and sustain nature and non-urban communities – is rising to the top of the holiday priorities of a lot of people.

        Far from the madding crowd -WOODEN HILLS IN KARNATAKA

With natural forests and a healthy population of exotic (read: endangered) flora and fauna, several resorts and tourism destinations in the country are slowly replacing fancy 5-star hotels as places to unwind in. For instance, if you are amongst the teeming IT workforce in the Silicon Valley of India, Bangalore, or someone braving the northern summer, then your weekends could very well become a tryst with nature at its purest, whether it is amidst the forests of Karnataka or the cool of the sub-Himalayan hills.

Bangalore is slowly transforming into a hub for eco-tourism with several such destinations cropping up on all sides of the city. Spread over thousands of square kilometers of wooded hills, shrubby plains, and interspersed with rivers and lakes, this area is managed by Jungle Lodges and Resorts (JLR), the eco-tourism arm of the Karnataka State Tourism Department.

But holidaying at JLR is not about watching the grass grow. Jungle treks, fishing, canoeing, rafting, snorkeling and safaris ensure that you dont miss your fix of television or networking. Importantly, to balance the financial support for the venture and the sustenance of nature and habitat for the wildlife, the noisy and polluting jeep safaris are limited to three hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. In places such as Bandipur and Nagarahole National Parks, rangers try to ensure that vehicles do not disturb the serenity of the jungle since that affects the behaviour of wild animals.

JLRs success has got Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab and Orissa interested in developing a similar network of destinations.

Some entrepreneurs are also trying to cater to the growing demand for eco-tourism. There are camel safaris in Rajasthan that give you a flavour of human and wild life in the desert, and there are a growing number of ecology-oriented resorts in the hills of Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal.

AFTER SUNSET --Eco-lodges,such as Chevron in Kausani,use natural and reusable materials

One such resort is the all-wood Chevron Eco-Lodge off the town of Kausani in Uttaranchal. It does not just out like an unwelcome intrusion in the surroundings like most hotels in the hills. The interiors are decorated with Kumaoni paintings and the food ingredients are entirely local.

Waiting For U - Jungle retreats are great places to detox your mind

Globally, eco-tourism networks have emerged, such as the Athens-based International Ecotourism Club, which promote tourism to natural areas and encourage responsible tourism.

Ironically, the growing popularity of eco-tourism is also leading to spike in construction, consumption and vehicular pollution at such destinations. The way out for the conscientious is to adapt to local conditions and once there, walk more and drive less.