The pandemic pause is slowly losing its grip on human activity. Posts about birdsongs and blue skies have dwindled. How then do we keep the conversation on sustainable tourism going? Founder of RARE India and our A-list member, Shoba Mohan, elucidates. By Shoba Mohan
It was nearly ten years ago when Sarai at Toria, a small retreat on the banks of River Ken, first vocalised its no-bottled-water policy. I remember the look of disbelief on the travel consultant’s face. We have come a long way since then, and the conversation around single-use plastic and other issues on the responsible tourism front has gained momentum. Now, the pandemic has given us an opportunity to reboot, to encompass all aspects of sustainable travel into a robust strategy, which puts the onus on everyone—from the government to the traveller.
The endeavour for responsible tourism has always been at odds with state tourism boards and the Ministry of Tourism. Few states can show a forceful strategy to work on a thorough policy for sustainability. The Ministry of Tourism, under the aegis of the Incredible India campaign, put out a 44-page document for Criteria and Indicators under STCI (Sustainable Tourism Criteria for India) back in 2010. Some interesting ideas like carrying capacity indicators, preserving intangible cultural heritage, polluter pays, social equity, and local prosperity were proposed. The implementation of these ideas, listed with the help of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), is yet to find enthusiastic support. But in the wake of the COVID-19 disruption, a series of webinars titled Dekho Apna Desh (literally, see our country) by the ministry has ensured that over-tourism is addressed by putting the spotlight on lesser-known Indian destinations.
Speaking about robust strategies, there are successful models all over the globe. Small countries like Costa Rica, Slovenia, New Zealand, and closer home, Bhutan, are leading the charge. To preserve its extraordinary biodiversity, Costa Rica has protected almost 25 per cent of its national territory, comprising volcanoes, beaches, and rainforests. This has ensured pristine nature experiences for travellers while also educating them about the importance of preservation. With 93 per cent of its electricity production from renewable resources, the country has set a goal of being carbon-neutral by 2021, an attitude that reflects in its tourism policies.
Slovenia and New Zealand are close behind, building a strategy that takes advantage of their natural resources, protecting them and ensuring that every stakeholder is motivated to operate sustainably. Innovative strategies that include certifications like GSST (Green Scheme for Slovenian Tourism) aim to include service providers and destinations in their objectives for sustainable development that encompass social, economic, cultural, and environmental preservation.
New Zealand has a detailed plan to ensure that every tourism business is committed to sustainability by 2025. An agenda of 14 points covers economic sustainability, visitor experience, and sustainability of host communities and the environment. Their Qualmark symbol is an identification for service providers who have been assessed for best practices in tourism, while the Tiaki Promise seeks to educate visitors in preserving and protecting New Zealand. Bhutan’s simple strategy of promoting high-value and low-impact tourism, coupled with strict entry restrictions, has mitigated mass tourism while keeping the destination pristine.
THE INDIAN PLAYERS
In the Indian industry where entry barriers are vague, sustainability has largely come about due to initiatives based on individual exposure and personal inclination. Often, the move to sustainable operations is led by demand from the travellers or operators one works with—this is especially true for inbound operators who evolve based on the inflexibility of the queries they get.
In medium to large brands, there has been a considerable effort. In fact, it came as quite a surprise to me that some agencies have been on this path for over a decade and continue to fine-tune operations to include more areas that can be sustainably handled.
A brief chat with Dipak Deva, MD of SITA, a large corporate travel company with offices worldwide, was a revelation. “We have been working on responsible tourism initiatives for over 16 years now, introducing ideas like slow travel and real travel long before they became buzzwords.” Programmes are designed with experiences that highlight women empowerment and environment protection. Gender equality and a safe working environment for women are taken very seriously at SITA and enforced in their offices.
Quietly, several independent companies have been working to set an agenda that ropes in planet-and people-friendly initiatives. Mohan Narayanaswamy, MD of Travel Scope India Pvt Ltd, has made it his mission to cultivate a socially, environmentally, and economically aware policy for his company that organises bespoke programmes for world travellers from USA and Australia. According to him, “The last five years were important in taking small significant steps, such as offering alternatives to single-use plastic, eliminating activities that involved working animals, and supporting projects that focus on community development and sustainable living.”
Vish Gopalakrishnan, MD of Footprint Holidays, a Chennai-based luxury tour consultant, sums up the industry’s new outlook, “We directly influence all three stakeholders—the actual traveller, the supplier of various products and services, and the destinations itself. As influencers, we have a part to play in evangelising sustainability. We are aware that an intact destination is essential for long-term survival.”
Adapting the workspace to inspire change is something that Creative Travel, a midsized, multi-market, full-service organisation operating out of Gurugram, has done over the years. The joint managing director, Rohit Kohli, shares, “We have mandated local community engagement in all of our programmes. Especially with wildlife, we focus on using conservation-based lodges and have planned innovation sessions for our team members.”
Associations like The Responsible Tourism Society of India (RTSOI) and TOFTigers have long been advocating responsible travel and have now upped their game with engaging conversations on video conferencing. The lockdown has been a time to reinforce these ideals—RTSOI recently organised a webinar on the care of elephants in tourism.
The tourism sector grapples with a peculiar strategy that targets inbound numbers to showcase India and offers outbound aspirations to the Indian traveller. In the face of a disruption where air travel for leisure seems to be suspended for some time, we have no fall-back strategy to deliver Indian travellers to regional destinations at a value. Meanwhile, hundreds of quaint destinations lie waiting with countless retreats that have always boasted sustainability practices.
A good way to measure sustainability and its value in the industry is to study every stakeholder’s rebound strategy—if their health and safety protocols extoll use-and-throw masks and plastic bottles. The overzealous use of chemical sanitising is another indicator. This is the time to choose wisely and change for good. What rationale advocates that we save ourselves from a virus while setting up another crisis of waste and chemical pollution?