What do birds and India have in common? An entire State. Gujarat, India’s Western-most desert outpost, is on the rise as both a bird-watcher’s must-see destination and, if the Tourism department plays its cards right, an eco-tourism hot spot. Boasting more than 500 species of birds (with more likely to be recorded in the years ahead), Gujarat may now be officially on the map as a world-class destination for birders. What is fondly referred to in the business as Avi (avian) tourism is a newly developing market in India – and one that organizers of the 2nd Global Bird Watchers’ Conference intend to nurture. (Check out www.gbwc. org)
More than 400 delegates, including tour operators, bird watchers, journalists, wildlife photographers, environmentalists, researchers and ornithologists – representing 38 countries – showed up for the Conference, held in Gandhinagar, Gujarat State, India from January 19-22. The event was organized by Gujarat Tourism and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). (Check out www.gujarattourism. com & www.ficci.com) The purpose of the event was two-fold: to showcase the abundant bird life of the State and to promote greater tourism. Gujarat happens to sit strategically between two major bird migration paths: One traversing Europe and the Middle East down to peninsular India and the other from East Africa to North and Central Asia.
Planners arranged the conference to coincide with winter’s arrival of migrating water birds that come to rest and feed in the area’s abundant wetlands and lakes. In addition to the extensive range of waterfowl that pay their annual visit, Gujarat is blessed with many indigenous ‘terrestrial’ birds who stick around year-round. During the opening ceremony held at the Kensville Golf & Country Club, Gujarat Tourism Minister, Jaynarayan Vyas shared his thoughts on the intersection between bird watching and State tourism. “The combination of coastal, brackish and fresh water found throughout Gujarat make it a unique destination for Avi Tourism.” “Responsible tourism always aids and enhances the local environment,” said Vyas, pointing out that this extends to educating the local population of the value of conservation. Gujurat Principal Secretary for Tourism, Mr. Vipul Mitra, elaborated: “We are committed to promoting ecotourism. The state is taking initiatives to inculcate a spirit of conservation among the masses.”
He pointed out the value in cultivating environmental awareness among the local populations includes the ability better counter illegal acts such as poaching. FICCI representative Sunil Parekh also spoke during the opening festivities. “This is the first initiative by any state government to promote a niche tourism segment in India,” he said, adding that when the idea of an international birding conference was initially proposed, both government and tourism officials were skeptical. But after the success of the first conference, held in November of 2010, they knew they were on to something that could benefit the state’s ecology and economy. Birding happens to be the fastest-growing recreational activity in the United States. But Americans aren’t alone in their fondness for feathered friends.
The United Kingdom’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds currently has some one million members. There are also big birder societies in across South America, Asia and Europe. On the morning following the ceremonies, a two-day trip sent delegates out into the field(s). The program included three separate group tours, taking people to a number of winter migration zones across the state. During the conference proper, held on the last day, experts, advocates, specialists and bird photographers spoke during three different plenary sessions. Birding Magazine editor Dr. Ted Floyd offered both a tour of birding history and an inspired vision of birding’s future during his “Global Bird Watching in the 21st Century” talk. Dr. David Harper, Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Conservation at the University of Leicester, UK, spoke about the challenges tourism officials face in balancing the needs of expanded tourism and protecting the State’s wetlands and lakes.
The final, Photography session, “Photographing & Documenting Birds,” was a feast for the eyes, with renowned Indian wildlife photographers Saleel Tambe, Bhaskar Krishnamurthy, and Sudhir Shivaram providing inspiration, tips and tricks for better bird photos. “Gujarat is 20 years ahead in conservation practices and is now emerging as the foremost Indian state for birding,” said the Coordinator of Wetlands International South Asia, Dr. Bharat Jethva. “The potential here is huge,” he added, “and with proper guidance and the correct infrastructure, we will see more people than ever taking up bird watching.” The 3rd Global Bird Watchers’ Conference in Gujarat is currently scheduled for the same dates in January 2013. Additional Resources — JN Rao Tours will organize custom trips across Gujarat State and any part of India: http://www.jnraoindia.com/ The Fern Hotel is a 5-star Ecotel in Ahmedabad www.FernHotelAhmedabad.com Author Bio — Dawn DelVecchio is a travel writer who specializes in South and Southeast Asia. You can find her work online at www.AsianFoodandTravel.com, as well as in several Asian in-flight magazines and publications in the USA. Check out her video shorts on Gujarat at http://www.youtube.com/user/arunadawn13.