Last month, I had an opportunity to attend a ‘Workshop on Ecologically and Socially Sustainable Tourism’ at Sambhaavnaa Institute of Public Policy and Politics in Himanchal Pradesh, India.
It was a unique experience to attend this workshop even before the program started as I traveled across Nepal to India by bus, train, jeep, and tempo to reach the venue. My love for traveling and interest in the tourism sector brought me to Himanchal Pradesh and the Sambhaavnaa Institute.
The institute lies in the foothills of the Dhauladhar Range in Kandra District, one of many ranges that create a great Himalayan barrier. The terrain of Himanchal Pradesh is similar to hilly regions of Nepal, so I felt the comfort of home in the mountains.
One striking observation for me, as a person coming from a country which has no government run public transportation, I was impressed by the public transport infrastructure in India, particularly the train network and state bus service. Most of the places were connected by either train or bus and the service ran 24 hours a day.
The workshop was curated by Sambhaavnaa Institute and Equitable Tourism Options (EQUATIONS), a research, campaign and advocacy organization. Thirty-five participants from different regions discussed contemporary issues relating to sustainable tourism and looked at tourism policies of various states in India, Nepal, Laos, and Canada.
The workshop lasted for three days where participants shared their experience from tourism practices to policy formulation. Being an undergraduate student, I met my counterparts from leading Indian institutions in the field of Social Sciences; Tata School of Social Sciences (TISS) and Azim Premji University. We had plenty of time to network and learn about issues inside and outside the college.
Personally, the learning curve from the workshop was the realization of the importance of justice, equality, and sustainability in the equation while formulating tourism policies and implementing ecological and sustainable practices. However, the lapses in tourism policies were clear. Current national policies and tourism policies of various states and union territories in India prioritize infrastructure-driven tourism, and rarely address issues of impacts, regulation and management. The scenario is not very different with environment and forest laws prevalent in India today. Environmental regulation in tourism is weak, and even what exists is flouted with impunity by both policy makers themselves and the tourism industry.(1)
Rajendra P. Gurung, a participant at the workshop who co-runs the organization Ecotourism & Conservation Society, helped in formulating the Sikkim Tourism Policy in 2015, and he did accept the fact that the reality is different from what is written on the paper. He admits that the power tensions between the Tourism Ministry and its departments have led to poor implementation of policies. Regulation such as ‘Sikkim Registration of Homestay Establishment’ failed to regulate the 700 newly establishment homestays.
Also, the topic of discussion was how political and natural calamities affect the tourism sector. The devastating April 25, 2015 earthquake and subsequent petroleum shortage that has prompted foreign tourists to cancel their trips to Nepal has severely affected the tourism industry of India’s north-eastern state of Sikkim. Of the total adventure enthusiasts coming to Sikkim, 70% travel via Nepal.(2)
Participants shared the opportunities and challenges in the tourism sector from their experiences from areas such as Sundarbans in India, Annapurna region in Nepal, to the Mekong River. The main challenges faced by most of these regions is the sustainability of existing mainstream tourism models and the need for inclusive development taking the indigenous community to maintain an equity and ecological balance.
Also, the next achievement from the trip was to initiate educational and cultural partnership between two institutions. As a Research and Development Officer at The Student Society, National College, I led the signing of Memorandum of Association between Sambhaavnaa Institute and National College to initiate educational partnerships like student exchange services in the near future.
My observation of people and community while running (which I love to do!) in villages taught me the cultural and economic similarities between Nepal and India. For the next ten days I traveled through Himanchal Pradesh exploring people and places. While doing so, I spent nights in buses, trains, in a tent, and in Dharmashala at a homestay and hotels.
1. Equations, E, 2008. Who Really Benefits from Tourism: Working Paper Series 2008-09. 1st ed. Bangalore : Equations.
2. The Kathmandu Post. 2015. Disturbances in Nepal ‘hit’ Sikkim tourism. [ONLINE] Available at: http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/printedition/news/2015-10-18/disturbances-in-nepal-hit-sikkim-tourism.html. [Accessed 23 April 2016].