The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the United Nations agency responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism, defines sustainable tourism as tourism which should:
‘–Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.
Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.
Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.’
They also suggest that ‘Sustainable tourism should also maintain a high level of tourist satisfaction and ensure a meaningful experience to the tourists, raising their awareness about sustainability issues and promoting sustainable tourism practices amongst them.’
What is the status of sustainable tourism in India in the present day? Is the demand for sustainable tourism increasing? What are the challenges towards practicing sustainable tourism in our country? In an exclusive conversation with The CSR Journal, Saibal Pathak, Owner and Director of Kolkata-based tour agency ‘Nature Camp Travels’, answers all our questions.
What is sustainable tourism
Saibal Pathak told The CSR Journal, “We started promoting sustainable tourism since 2011. At that time many people did not know the difference between normal tourism and sustainable tourism. However, awareness is increasing these days but still many people do not understand the concept, especially in the eastern part of India. In Southern states like Karnataka and Kerala, you can see a several good sustainable tourism destinations.”
“Using minimal fuel, saving on electricity these are important. Conservation of energy and resources is a major part of eco-tourism. Rain water harvesting has been started in several properties of India, especially in hilly areas and several places in Kerala. People are also installing solar at their properties. But not many people understand this concept,” he explained.
‘Eco’ in name, marketing gimmick?
Sustainable or eco-tourism does not happen just by including the word ‘eco’ in a property’s name. Explaining the same, the travel expert said, “We have observed a trend these days that several hotels and resorts include the word ‘eco’ to their name, for example, ‘xyz eco resort’ or ‘abc eco hotel’. However, one needs to understand that you cannot offer sustainable tourism just by adding the word ‘eco’ to your name.
I have seen several such resorts which have an ‘eco’ in their name but do not have any eco-friendly features or services. Many of them do not even know what it means. For them, it’s just a marketing gimmick. But this way, you are misguiding the tourists.”
Lack of awareness among tourists
A lot of tourists at the same time do not know much about the concept of sustainable tourism. Elaborating on that, he shared, “Many travellers who visit such properties are unfortunately not completely aware of what ‘eco-tourism’ actually is. The things which they ask for while staying in a property, do not always match with the concept of eco-tourism.
For example, normally when tourists visit a guest house or home stay, the first things they look for are AC, generator service, television inside the room, all these do not go with eco-tourism. Many tourists even go to the washroom and start washing their clothes wasting a lot of water.”
“You cannot blame anyone here. It is just the lack of awareness on behalf of hoteliers, home stay owners, resort owners as well as tourists.,” he regrets.
Taking a bold step
Pathak, who has an experience of 15 years in the travel and tourism industry, says sustainable tourism choices may not impress every kind of tourists (people who are less aware about sustainability) but it is the task of the tour agencies to spread that awareness among them.
He expressed, “If you want to transform your property into a sustainable tourism destination, then you must take the plunge without thinking whether some tourists will like the concept or not. If one set of tourists are not attracted by the concept, it will surely impress many other groups. Think like this, I have come to enjoy the natural beauty of this destination. I don’t need a television inside my hotel/resort/homestay room. We all have television at our homes. Why not enjoy the natural beauty of the surroundings from your window instead or chitchat with your family or friends if you’re travelling in group?”
Work from travel
With increasing digitization in the current age, many tourists have started carrying their work to their travel destinations. Talking about the same, the tour planner said, “Just like the concept of work from home became popular since the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of people who like to combine their work and travel prefer to work while they are travelling in mountains and jungles. This trend is gradually setting in. However, we do not completely support this concept, because in hills and mountains there is network connectivity issue for phone and internet. If this trend starts growing, then more and more service providers will try to install mobile towers and work on boosting internet connectivity in such peaceful places close to nature thereby disturbing the natural peace of the region, cutting down trees and disturbing the wildlife.”
“If you travel abroad, you will see many national parks with jammers installed because they don’t want the wildlife to get disturbed by mobile phone noise and too much talking. Unfortunately, in our country, we still cannot think this way,” he said with a tone of regret.
Littering tourist destinations
Littering is a hindrance for sustainable tourism practice. Talking about the same, Pathak expressed, “Littering in beautiful tourist destinations is still a practice with a certain section of tourists and the highest amount of waste you will find is plastic, in the form of food wrappers, soft drinks or mineral water bottles. Some destinations like the Sikkim silk route, Sandakphu etc. were gradually turning into a garbage dump.
Thankfully, with increased awareness, due to awareness programs and social media shaming, this practice is reducing as compared to what the scenario was even 10 years ago. The government and local governing bodies of a certain place, especially a place that thrives on tourism, should ensure that their tourist destinations are free from litter, which Meghalaya has done.”
“However, no amount of effort can bring the change unless the tourists themselves are conscious and aware that I will not throw waste here and there,” he observed.
“We had started our sustainable tourism journey from the mountains. Our aim was to boost sustainable tourism in small villages in the Eastern Himalayan region, villages belonging to communities like Rai, Limbu, Gurung etc. We started by collaborating with these communities and train them about sustainable tourism and how to make their home stays sustainable. At that time, most of these villages were unexplored, but they have started gaining popularity in the recent times,” the Nature Camp Travels Founder recalled.
“Nowadays we suggest a lot of property owners to plant a small jungle around the property instead of a garden, which will attract birds. It is important to understand the basic eco-system. We also keep spreading awareness about sustainable tourism via social media because this is the future,” the tour operator informed.
“The pandemic has brought out our inner frustration for not being able to travel, for not being able to breathe in the midst of nature. You are going to spend some time in the lap of nature because you are tired of the suffocating life in the city and you need a temporary break from the rat race. So just forget television, mobile phone and internet for a few days and be one with nature!” he signed off.
Ahana Bhattacharya can be reached at email@example.com