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The unforgiving pandemic has thrown the global tourism industry off the tracks and left it grasping at straws. While most of us are waiting for this uncertain time to fade away, Rakesh Mathur, Co-Founder and President at the Responsible Tourism Society of India, talks to us about looking beyond the grey clouds and finding the silver lining—a sustainable and responsible travel world. By Sushmita Srivastav
In your opinion, how badly has the pandemic affected the tourism industry worldwide and in India? How long do you think it will take for things to go back to normal?
I am neither very pessimistic nor too optimistic. Just like many other global crises that have happened in the past, the industry will face it and overcome too. The moment the preventive vaccine gets discovered, the recovery will start. Be it for business or leisure, the confidence to travel will only come post that. Till then, only the most essential travel plans will get a go-ahead. What we are looking at is an extremely grim period for the industry until the end of this year. Also, once the vaccine is out and bans are lifted, tourism will expand in stages. Right now, it looks like it could take a good two years for it to go back to normal.
They say, “never waste a good crisis.” Do you think COVID-19 would lead the world towards practising sustainable and responsible tourism more diligently?
In terms of responsible tourism, this situation has come as a blessing in disguise. There’s no better way to put it, sadly. That’s because for the last 12 years, ever since we formed the society in 2008, we had just been trying so hard to inculcate in the minds of the service providers the absolute importance of responsible tourism practices. Now it is going to come in through legislation along with the sheer acknowledgement of the fact that we actually have no other way to survive! I believe the bodies like National Green Tribunal and The Pollution Control Board of India will now be even greatly empowered. Even we, as the Responsible Tourism Society of India, will get a boost. Earlier people saw these practices as a painful process, but now they will see it as a necessity to survive.
What does the future hold for responsible tourism in terms of new guidelines, practices, and precautions?
See, COVID-19 is still an unknown virus. In the current scenario, guidelines are pretty simple. But once we dig deeper and find the vaccine, other important aspects will come into focus like the certification process to ensure that all the measures are being taken up properly and all the practices are being followed in a neat and clean fashion. Social distancing will eventually fade away because once the cure is in hands, Coronavirus will be just like any other flu. Lots of things will be sorted on their own. But the realisation that somewhere in the race of development, we took a few wrong turns, will remain, and that’s when responsible tourism will come into play in the longer run.
People are now seeing the importance of sustainable practices better than ever. Do you think it will bring a sense of responsibility in the minds of travellers across the world?
For all the years of our existence, we have been on every platform, talking about the need to bring in responsibility in tourists. The problem, of course, was also with the traveller, and not just with the tourism industry and service providers. You must have seen the kind of mess that tourists in India often leave behind. We have been talking about creating stricter and more specific guidelines for tourists. This is the time when we can finally see it happening. Because of the current situation, awakening and awareness have knocked into people automatically. All we need is that it has to be driven by the authorities and state governments of each destination in terms of proper implementation.
Do you think sustainable tourism strategies can help to revive the damage caused by lockdowns and global travel bans?
Absolutely. One of the key factors of sustainable tourism strategies is developing a carrying capacity and making sure that you do not misuse a destination and nature to an extent that it loses its charm and punches back. This is the reason why we had switched our focus from ‘eco-tourism‘ to ‘responsible tourism’ because the latter shows your commitment not just to the environment but to the entire community in multiple ways.
What are the absolute necessary changes that you think Indian tourism industry must bring to existence to ensure the inflow of international tourists post the pandemic?
Long haul travel will take longer time to restart. That means we can’t really expect inflow from our key source markets that are in the West. There’s going to be a psychological shift there; people are not going to think of travelling such long distances, especially to the Eastern countries. We will have to reinvent ourselves in order to bring things back on track. We’ll have to re-define our value propagation – the things that we are unique and really good at, including spirituality, wellness, knowledge of Ayurveda, yoga, a variety of local cuisines, etc.
How is the Responsible Tourism Society of India doing its bit?
We have so far conducted 20 workshops in 13 different states. We have been instrumental in creating policies for two states through tourism conclaves. We have recently signed an MoU with Ms Jahnabi Phookan, Sr Vice President of FICCI Ladies Organisation. We’re in the process of finalising three more in Jharkhand, Odisha, and Meghalaya when the outbreak happened. Secondly, we work very closely with the government to establish the sustainable tourism criteria across India and now, we’re going to implement it through certification. We have been doing a lot of groundwork and apart from generating more memberships, one of the key things that we are going to do is speeding up the process of segregation. Once the bans are lifted, we are going to be more proactive even among the members making these activities happen.
How are you personally coping up with the quarantine?
Personally, I have had a great opportunity to spend a lot of time with family. I have got free time to enjoy myself, organise myself for the days to come, sort out my stuff at home. I am taking out time particularly to separate books and other things that I can donate. Currently, I am working on my trunk-full of old photographs and sorting them out into albums with my granddaughter. Being at home, in some ways, has turned out into a bliss.
Any message for travel enthusiasts and tourism professionals?
Just that we must include the environment as an integral part of our life’s DNA. Let us all take this time to redefine ourselves and develop new skills that can help us to learn to live with the new normal while keeping sustainability in our minds. Also, do not be disheartened—just like all the other times, we will bounce back and soon.