Are safety measures in place for tent camping in the forests of Kerala?

An all-woman camp in the wilderness, without doubt, is something that all women would like to experience.  

An overnight stay in the verdant forests and a day-long trek can be the ultimate adrenaline rush for a group of female friends. These expeditions are usually set rolling by social media groups or vlogger celebrities.

But when safety measures are compromised, a jovial trip can end in an incident like what happened recently at Meppadi in which Shahana, a young teacher, was killed by a wild elephant while tent camping. The Meppadi incident points a finger to the fact that people visiting the unknown labyrinth of the wild can lose their lives if caution is thrown to the winds. 

Many posts by vloggers inviting tourists to the Rain Forest Resort in Elimbileri, where Shahana died, were erased from social media platforms fearing punitive action from the authorities concerned. Many people, including homestay owners, were flooding social media platforms like Instagram with messages about tent camping and some even uploaded related pictures, though they were later deleted. The tragic accident in Meppadi is a reminder to people who are unaware of the safety measures that should be followed while tent camping in forests but want to spend a night or two in the wilderness.  

Everyone needs privacy not amenities  

The stakeholders in the tourism industry opine that there had been a boom in the travel and tourism sector after the COVID-19-induced restrictions were lifted. People, especially those living in the cities, always fancied to get a feel of the forest life and that prompted many to visit hill stations with expansive forests such as Wayanad and Munnar in Kerala. Earlier, travellers used to stay put in hotel rooms but later migrated to tourist homes, resorts and homestays. Presently, what’s trending is tent camping. 

And interestingly the backpackers in search of tent experience don’t want any amenities as they are in search of utmost privacy, in other words, total seclusion. And for this, they are ready to go to extremes without taking into account the risks involved in such expeditions. For them, more danger means added adrenaline rush. 

But those running the show pitch tents in the wilderness by paying scant regard to safety with only a means to keep snakes at bay. As the travellers opting to stay in the forest would be into trekking and tenting, the resort owners don’t have to spend much money on providing food for the visitors. 

Presently ‘she’ camps are the in-thing in the travel industry. The colour of such camps changes with the interest of groups involved. 

Around 40 unauthorized camps are operating kilometres inside the forest from Meppadi off the Kozhikode-Ooty road. Insiders in the tourism industry note that the panchayat authorities turn a blind eye to illegal camping sites as there is someone to grease their palms. Moreover, the local people don’t have a complaint against such activities inside the forest. Though many cases of drug abuse had cropped up in the past, they were hushed up without much trace. 

It is alleged that the panchayat was hand in glove with the erring resort owners and issued stop memos to all retreats in the region only after the Meppadi incident. 

Law takes back seat 

If someone approaches the panchayat to register a homestay or tent camping, the standard reply from the authorities concerned is ‘What law? You take forward the venture’. The reality is that most of the officials are ignorant about the procedures to register homestays and related facilities. Those who are knocking the doors of government offices to register their retreats opine that the homestays can be registered under the tourism department but the authorities are in the dark about how to deal with other facilities offered to travellers. 

The operators in Wayanad and the majority of tourist centres would either register the homestay and illegally put in place tent camping or bribe the officials to run the resort without any hassles. 

Influence of social media  

The homestay centres and tent camping activities are marketed riding on the power of the social media and the first step in marketing is to zero in on celebrities who have legions of followers on various online platforms. These well-known personalities are offered free lodging at these retreats to keep them in high spirits. Apart from this, paid promotion is also carried out to lure tourists. 

Another trick to catch the attention of people is to invite celebrities for tent camping and anyone can be part of it. 

Unlimited food and stay for two at Rs 2,000 to Rs 4,000 can be a hot offer to resist as the homestays charge between Rs 6,000 and Rs 10,000. The icing on the cake, though at a cost, is that transportation would be arranged by the operators to bring tourists to the tent camping area. 

Though the homestays offering tent camping carry a higher price tag, the guests have the option to return to a sturdy room at night when there is a nip in the air. But people staying in tent camps, which are mushrooming everywhere, don’t have such a luxury and if there is a wild elephant attack you have to just run for life. The number of tents will be increased with the spike in tourist footfall and the usual practice is to take more land on lease to pitch extra tents to accommodate tourists.   

Free run for drug cartels 

The resort and homestay owners have land holdings ranging from 15 cents to 300 acres. Moreover, the hotshot estate owners rent out a few cents of land for Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 for camping purposes and there is a great demand for estate land that is on the fringes of forests. 

There are indications that ganja is cultivated in estates and forests, and provided to those coming for camping. It is worth noting that there won’t be a proper road leading to these camping areas and one has to pass through five or six check posts to reach them. Rave parties are quite common at these camping sites as the chances of police and excise officials reaching these secluded places are quite slim. The resort owners admit that the New Year celebrations were on a high in every respect. 

Surprisingly, there are groups that regularly organize rave parties at these camping centres. They reserve tents in advance and send out invites through social media platforms. Though the property owners provide DJ and lighting facilities, the drug dealings are between the rave party organizers and guests. But the resort owners may get a slice of profit from these racy get-togethers. The authorized homestays issue warning against the use of drugs but at times no one heeds to it. 

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