Indian tourists have forever explored each destination with the spirit of conquerors, hopeful of ticking off a laundry-list of attractions. Darting from one ‘touristy’ landmark to the next, most of these touch-and-go visits offered only a cursory glimpse. But as travellers evolve, they hope to acquire a deeper insight and want their experiences to be more inclusive and sustainable. In a quest to explore the unexplored, responsible and eco-conscious travellers today choose to explore every destination without proving to be a threat to the locality, community or habitat. In fact, they hope to contribute towards its conservation and proliferation. Rahul Kulkarni, owner of ‘Farm of Happiness’, an agro-eco tourism destination says, “Tourism norms in India are changing a lot. Earlier, it used to be about sightseeing. Today, it’s more experiential. Travellers are interested in stepping into someone’s shoes to get an insight into their way of life.”
Conscious travellers have thus altered their choice of destination to opt for nature-based, eco-friendly and community-based tourism. Such journeys encourage deep diving into a locality’s ecosystem, while also bolstering local habitats and economies.
A traveller interacts with locals during one of Antara’s trips
The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) defines sustainable tourism as “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”, while The Global Development Research Center, an independent non-profit think tank, describes it as being “an industry which attempts to make a low impact on the environment and local culture, while helping to generate income, employment, and the conservation of local ecosystems”.
A traveller tries her hand at weaving using sustainably-produced yarn
Green with empathy
In 2018, the residents of Shimla made a plea to tourists to skip the much-favoured summer destination. The hilly capital of Himachal Pradesh was facing an acute shortage of water and the peak tourist season was contributing to its woes. Depleting natural resources, excessive commercialisation, unmanageable waste output had dented the environment and these are serious concerns in most tourist spots across India. The tourism industry is still unorganised in India, yet for many states, it is the biggest source of revenue. And that’s where sustainable tourism comes into the picture. Thirty-two-year-old Akanksha Pundir, an avid traveller with a travel enterprise of her own called ‘Grass on the Hill’, foregoes the jargon and describes sustainable tourism in a manner that’s relatable and inspiring. She says, “It’s all about empathy and compassion towards everyone and the places you visit. It helps one be open to new experiences in a responsible way and look at other aspects, including nature, in the same manner we look at our families.” Akanksha recalls the shift she has seen in her own travel patterns, as the desire to establish a deeper connect with the environment and the people of the place takes precedence.
The sustainable travel enthusiast says, “I was sick of the tick-mark kind of tourism, because, to use an analogy, it makes you feel like a visitor to a zoo. You stay in your comfort zone of being a ‘tourist’ and look at the animals cordoned off by enclosures. There is always a wall between you and what you’re viewing and this makes you feel disconnected and uncompassionate towards anyone or anything other than yourself. So, you must engage with nature and those who inhabit the place. This makes you compassionate about both — the environment and the communities that live there. You will automatically become a vigilant traveller and see to it that your actions are sustainable.”
This thought is echoed by Shikha Bala, a photographer who confesses taking multiple trips in a year. She too believes that engaging with local communities fosters sustainable travel practices. “When I engage with people from the place, I develop a relationship with the place and this makes me want to be cautious about the way I dispose my garbage, refrain from using and throwing plastic items and opt for homestays rather than five-star properties. I don’t like staying in hotels because it’s too impersonal. You never get a chance to interact with the locals, except for maybe, the people working there. It is local experiences that help you learn more about a place and make you concerned about its wellbeing as well,” she opines. As the growing breed of ‘conscious’ travellers opt for pristine, lush green destinations, or to connect with secluded communities, one wonders if it can negatively impact the area and the locals. “Monetarily, it might benefit the locals, but I wonder if we’re exposing them to urbanised comforts and desires. Also, visiting offbeat places puts them on the map, and that leads to more people visiting them. So, though I enjoy my trips, it’s not entirely guilt free,” says Sushma Hegde who often makes trips to the Himalayas. However, Sushma does her bit to preserve the environments she is in. “I never carry plastic to the mountains, or chemically-saturated products like shampoos and lotions. I bring back all my non-compostable waste and dispose it in the correct manner after I reach the city. Also, I never expect lavishness when it comes to the stay or any of the facilities. It is because we ask for lavishness that big hotels come up and ruin ecologically sensitive spaces,” she avers.
While travellers are doing their bit to keep their travel plans sustainable, there are also those within the travel industry who are championing sustainable tourism, encouraging travellers to explore the ecology and biodiversity of a place, but in a responsible fashion. However, founder of the award-winning travel blog ‘Breathedreamgo’, Mariellen Ward underscores how the term ‘ecotourism’ has been misused as well. “Many times, a term is used just for marketing purposes. There’s a concept called ‘greenwashing’ which unfortunately happens not just in tourism, but in other areas as well, like organic food, where the marketeers will say something is organic or natural or ‘eco’, but it’s not. It’s a marketing or advertising gimmick and makes it very difficult for the consumer to be able to differentiate between what is really environmentally friendly and what is just a commercial gimmick,” she says and points out how very often elephant riding is promoted as an eco-friendly activity when it’s not.
However, there are some in the space who are going the extra mile to walk the talk. Botanist Dr Sujata Goel, who runs ‘Rainforest Retreat at Mojo Plantation’, a unique project that combines ecotourism with sustainable agriculture and environmental education, along with her husband Anurag, says that awareness about the Earth’s fragile state is driving responsible travellers to explore ecotourism. Their eco-lodge, which is situated on a certified organic farm in Kodagu (Coorg) in southern Karnataka, invites conscious travellers to not only explore the flora and fauna of the Western Ghats and tropical forests, but also learn about biodiversity conservation and organic farming through workshops and forest ecology trails. “Ecotourism makes a person aware about the ecology of the place. It makes them realize that anything they do relating to the environment and their carbon footprints can go a long way in their own lives and not necessarily only when they travel.
We want to draw people outside concrete confinements and make them aware of the habitats we are losing,” shares Sujata. Though the eco-lodge invites human beings to take a closer look at the Western Ghats, Sujata says that they try their best to reduce the traveller’s carbon footprint by introducing sustainable initiatives on the lodge and farm. “We use solar energy for lighting and heating purposes, biogas for cooking, compost for farming, practice rainwater harvesting and recycle waste. We also forbid our guests from using plastic bottles and encourage them to not leave behind any plastic waste,” says the botanist. Even Rahul Kulkarni’s ‘Farm of Happiness’, located in the biodiversity-rich Konkan region, is a similar sustainable destination that facilitates ecotourism, while encouraging guests to feel closer to nature. Rahul and his wife set up the traditional Konkani homestay in 2014, when the duo decided to take to farming to feel closer to nature. “This is a farmer’s opportunity to enlighten people about his daily struggles and let the consumer connect to his own food,” he says. And so, while visitors are taken on treks and boat rides and birding trails to view more than a 100 species that abound in the lush landscape, they are also given a tour of his organic farm, encouraging them to participate in any or all of the farming activities. However, Rahul too ensures that his agro-eco tourism initiative doesn’t defile the environment. “The farm is working towards being a sustainable system in itself. We cook using biogas made on the farm; our meals too are derived from farm produce. Also, there is no waste as the leftovers are passed through the animal house; the rest is used for biogas,” informs Rahul.
For the community, by the community
Despite impressive growth in the tourism industry in the last few decades, local communities did not have much role in tourism development. Often, it resulted in conflicts between the community and the industry. Therefore, it is essential to involve locals and boost the local economy. “As a policy, we don’t hire anybody apart from the local villagers. Our team is also strictly local,” avers Rahul.
This is one of the key features of sustainable tourism, where the focus lies on promoting local economies through community-based initiatives. Ankit Sood, founder member of ‘Sunshine Himalayan Adventures’ who motivated locals around the ‘Great Himalayan National Park’, now a World Heritage Site, to take up eco-tourism believes it is important to empower locals as they are the ones most affected wherever ecologically sensitive areas are converted into wildlife sanctuaries or national parks. “They are the first people to be stopped from entering, despite being dependent on the natural resource for generations. So, we have to put them first by training them to earn a livelihood by conducting ecotourism activities like birding, trekking, setting up homestays and allied businesses. We can’t allow big tourism companies and hotels to siphon away these opportunities,” he says.
While individuals like Rahul and Ankit are helping boost local economies through ecotourism activities, there are also sustainable tourism initiatives like Antara Chatterjee’s ‘The Little Local’, a two-and-a-half-year-old travel company that puts local communities completely in charge of tourism in their respective areas. Antara, who in her previous corporate job got a chance to engage in rehabilitation activities in Uttarakhand right after the 2013 floods, understands well the impact community-first tourism can have on local economies.
And so, her travel initiative ties up with local partners to help them find a footing in the tourism industry. “We curate experiences by identifying local communities and organisations already working in their respective regions and then partner with them through workshops and other activities. So, we are in the space of supplementing rural livelihood,” says Antara.
Antara also focusses on setting up workshops that connect city-based women with their rural counterpart so that both groups can share knowledge and experiences with each other. Alternatively, her team works on setting up culturally significant properties such as small museums that preserve artefacts, folklore and become a permanent cultural asset for a village. The goal is to boost local economies and share the spotlight with local partners to draw attention to them. “We’re very conscious that it’s a partnership model. Also, we make it clear that we’re looking for authenticity rather than ‘touristy attractions’. So, if a community doesn’t have a traditional dance, it’s fine. We don’t want local communities to be ‘putting up a performance’ for us. They should not be employed for our experience, but be the owners of our experience,” she insists.
Akanksha’s travel enterprise does something similar, but focusses on international experiences. For her recent trip, she invited city-dwellers to live with Romanian gypsies so that they could get a feel of the community and their lives. She tied up with a Roma gypsy she met on one of her previous travels to facilitate staying options and community interactions. “The point is to promote a cultural exchange so that communities can learn from each other. Marginalized communities, no matter where they live, do have serious, often similar issues, so there’s great possibility of learning from each other. So, while travelling, you’re not just having a good time, but also giving back. You can create awareness about different communities. I want to evoke, empathy, compassion and conversation,” she explains. Since Akanksha’s young company doesn’t have much of a team, she ties up with other community-first travel initiatives for support. She says, “It’s true that travel is a super competitive industry, but it can also work in another way, where people co-operate and work with each other,” which seems to be the spirit that guides sustainable tourism.
Right thoughts, right deeds
It is this spirit of cooperation, understanding and empathy that, experts believe, will prevent the sustainable tourism industry from succumbing to the problems the ecotourism industry encountered. “If you’re truly concerned about where the world is going, you’ll be a vigilant traveller yourself. We can’t afford to not be responsible anymore. A ridiculously cheap hiking company was banned in Ladakh for behaving irresponsibly in the area. The community itself became the watchdogs. And that’s the way sustainable tourism is going to be,” says Akanksha.
Antara believes that travel organisers like herself too can help change attitudes of travellers, so that they truly connect with a place and act responsibly. “Having a context or expectation setting session at the beginning of the trip is extremely important, because this helps travellers to understand the local communities they will be visiting, better.” Akanksha echoes this view when she says, “‘Immerse’ is an important word, because when you immerse yourself in a place, you will behave in a manner the community is used to when you’re with them. I brief the people in terms of what the culture is like and what we need to take care of. You have to go in as an equal; you don’t go in as a ‘visitor to the zoo’. To become a part of them, you have to leave your ego behind,” she says.
And it is introspection and empathy that makes one act responsibly and sustainably. “The impact on the local environment and culture is the crucial consideration. So travellers should ask themselves how their journey is impacting the local environment, the culture, and the community. It also means asking whether the money being spent by you is going back into the economy or to a multi-national office located in another city. Unfortunately, there’s no way of getting the perfect answers even if you do a lot of research. However, the very fact that you’re asking these questions means that you’ve taken the first step in the right direction,” concludes Mariellen.