Apart from them all beginning with the same 2 alphabets, these 3 words pretty much summarize the way we work and think. They also form the basis for what we call, ‘Inclusive tourism’, the only way to sustain any tourism initiative in the Himalaya.
An experience common to almost everyone who has travelled in the Himalaya (be it trekking, a chill-out holiday or an adventure camp) is that its scale and grandeur brought a sense of perspective in their lives. Himalaya help us draw our senses inwards. It rejuvenates and energizes and we so badly need that. In other words, a Himalayan journey helps us to correlate with ourselves.
There is always a way to give back to the place and people where we go for our holidays. This is how we do it:
- By making a contribution to the local economy : At CWH, our entire business model revolves around involving the Himalayan natives in planning and organizing our trips. This way we take the ‘travel agent' out of the picture. Locals benefit as they have a direct stake in the financials and not a fixed rate. Those who travel with us get an authentic experience and save a lot of unnecessary commissions.
We work directly with the local people and organizations :
- Who? Trained guides, porters, drivers, etc.
- Why? Only alternative source of income, they have the best knowledge about the place, are inherently sensitive towards their environment.
- NGOs working towards local development and sustainable tourism. E.g Spiti ecosphere in Spiti, Snow leopard conservancy in Ladakh.
- Co-operatives like women groups, local handicraft sellers, etc. e.g Kumaon women weavers group.
- Self help groups, rural initiatives etc. e.g Sikkim Homestays
- Govt institutions working in the field of sustainable tourism. State tourism depts employing local organizations to conduct treks. E.g. In Darma valley.
About Homestays and the experience :
Homestays are by far the best and most successful initiative towards sustainable tourism in the Indian Himalaya. For an agriculture dependent population this provides the much needed alternative source of income. Also, it gives the visitor an insight to the local way of life like nothing else. The warmth and hospitality of the home owners is something that stays with us much longer after the trip is over. The rooms are clean, the food healthy and the smiles genuine.
- By understanding and respecting the local culture and lifestyle : Every region in the Indian Himalaya has its distinct customs and beliefs (beyond the broad categorization into 3 religions: Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam) and the locals live and die by them. They worship nature in its raw form: stones, trees, mountains, streams as much as they believe in Gods and Goddesses. There is an inherent respect for local ecology. At CWH, our endeavor is to educate those who travel with us about the way of life of the regions we visit, their history and evolution and their beliefs.
As we debate about global warming and carbon footprints, in the Himalaya its a cruel reality. Travelling there, one gets a first hand experience of how glaciers are receding, weather is becoming more and more unpredictable, streams are either drying up or over-flowing coz of unseasonal rains and crop cycles have gone out of control. And this hits harder than any documentary or academic paper. The terms 'Eco tourism' or ‘Carbon footprints' etc may add the cool factor in a travel company brochure, but for all practical purposes mean little.
So how can we Coexist?
Step1: Understanding and acknowledging the reality is the biggest contribution:
- Understand how their daily life is affected by the changing climate. How agriculture, their only source of income, is severely impacted by depletion of water sources as well as the reduction in conducive conditions for cultivation.
Step 2: Realize how our actions away from Himalaya can and do affect the life there:
- Most of our comforts sourced from Himalayas - Electricity, water, timber, fruits, etc
- How small change in our attitude towards conserving natural resources will have a big impact there.
In the field
Theory is all very good, but here are some real examples of our ways of making a contribution through our trips:
- Rupin-Supin: This geographically and culturally isolated region is a trekker’s and archeologist’s paradise. An umbrella group of local youth acting as guides, porters and horsemen have taken upon themselves to promote their region. We trekked with them and have subsequently recommended them highly as the best way to know the area.
- Kewzing homestays: Sikkim has one of the best developed community run homestay program in the country. Any Sikkim trip we plan invariably includes stay in these villages and so was the case in our April 2010 trip where we stayed in the quaint hamlet of Kewzing. Most of my clients are still in touch with their host families and some have even invited the for a visit to their home in the city.
- Rishikesh – Ramana’s paradise: There is so much more to Rishikesh than yoga and ashrams. For example, there is this orphanage called Ramana’s paradise with a unique concept. They generate funds to survive from the plays that the children perform and their in-house speciality restaurant where they serve what’s grown on the property. In our March 2010 trip there, we watched as the kids enacted how Bhagirathi was suffering due to senseless damming. (Few months later the govt. actually put a stop to all dam work in upper Bhagirathi valley).
- When traveling inside Spiti, there is always an option of letting go of your camps outside the village, which benefit nobody, and instead stay with the local families in homestays. In Aug 2009, we trekked to Spiti with a local team of guides and porters and than stayed in 3 of the highest villages in the world in homestays – eating the Spitian cuisine and sharing their stories.
- In our June 2009 trip to Ladakh, like all our trips to this region, we stayed with local families in the village of Rumbak. In the hustle-bustle of the ever growing tourism industry in Ladakh, this remains a genuine way to experince Ladakhi way of life.
- In our trip to Darjeeling and Sikkim in Nov 2008, we participated in a 10K run in Darjeeling hills. The run ended in the tribal village where Smrithi runs the school for underprivileged kids. We were running to create awareness amongst the locals about conserving forests and also the pangolin, a specie facing extinction. We then donated pressure cookers to the local families. The idea being reduction in cooking time and hence less usage of wood, the only source of fuel. The event was widely covered in the local press and as per Smrithi really helped in garnering the attention of locals.