February 2016 By Punya Srivastava The emerging trend of eco-tourism involves travelling to natural areas while conserving the environment, sustaining the well-being of locals, and imbibing a fresh educative perspective, says Punya Srivastava The central hut at Apani Dhani that combines both beauty and eco-friendliness As I lay on a spotless patch of white sand on the banks of the gushing Ganga, I couldn’t help but marvel at the conspicuous absence of the otherwise ubiquitous trash found at tourist destinations. I had gone for a one night camping and rafting trip to Rishikesh around three years back. Despite the teeming people, the campsite was pristinely clean. The debris of liquor bottles and plastic wrappers from the previous night of bonhomie and merry-making around a crackling bonfire, was put away in a carry bag and taken back for proper disposal by our tour facilitator. That was my first experience of a pro-environment vacation. I simply loved the feel of living under the skies, in movable tents. The meals were made of locally sourced ingredients. We used a measured amount of water for our ablutions and saw to it that we didn’t leave our traces behind. It was one of the most enriching travel trips of my life, cradled in the lap of nature. I also was at an eco-resort on a recent trip to Goa which adhered to many of the guidelines of eco-tourism. The more I travel, the more I discover such places. Just like other spheres of life, the travel and tourism sector too is reinventing itself in the New Age – getting more conscious about its impact on earth and its depleting resources. It is heartening to come across ventures that are not merely profit-oriented but also strive to replenish what they take. Eco-tourism is much more than visiting a natural vista; today it is about making efforts to keep that vista unpolluted and maintaining its indigenous flair. According to the International Ecotourism Society (IES), eco-tourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education of both staff and guests.” Many enthusiasts have started thinking holistically and have come up with resorts and home stays that offer you lavish hospitality without leaving behind humongous carbon footprints. Moreover, you also get to mingle with the locals and enrich yourself with exciting experiences, which you can relate to your children or grandchildren on cozy Sunday afternoons. Eco-enthusiasts Kerala-based Praveen Muraleedharan is one such enthusiast. “I have been an environment aficionado since childhood. Moreover, I had a tour company by the name of Eco Ventures India which conducted leisure, adventure, photography, educational, cultural and special interest tours with a focus on nature and wildlife conservation,” he says. Since 2014, Praveen and his business partner, Manoj, have been running Ecotones Camp, a boutique resort, in Munnar. According to him, Ecotone is a transitional zone between two distinct natural communities. A Youtube video of this gorgeous resort on his website takes you on a virtual tour of this estate and is breathtaking enough to seed a longing in your heart. Praveen was motivated to start Ecotones Camp because of a lack of pro-environment hospitality options in the country. Serendipitously, he found a perfect piece of land in Munnar, a prime tourist destination, which he then converted into a property boasting of ethnic mud huts built by the local Muthuvan tribesmen and a plantation walk consisting of indigenous flora. The resort offers a multitude of activities which are bound to entice weary city folks, like photography, birdwatching, nature trails, and mountain biking. A faultlessly aesthetic tent at Atithi Parinay. Inset: Medha Sahasrabudhe Medha Sahasrabudhe is another young entrepreneur who, along with her mother, runs an eco-homestay in the verdant lap of Western Ghats on ecotourism principles. An interior designer by profession, Medha studied ecology and environment from the Ecological Society, Pune, and thus made her foray into pro-environment hospitality with Atithi Parinay in 2010. The homestay, situated in Kotawade, in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra, offers ethnic mud and tree houses, traditional food made by local women inducted as kitchen staff, the warmth of a home away from home, and an abundance of natural beauty to soak into. The guests are welcome to share tea and stories with her and her mother, Vasudha Sahasrabudhe, any time of the day. Goodness on the menu For a property to qualify as an ecotourist place, it needs to follow certain guidelines; the first and foremost being minimal physical, social, behavioral, and psychological impacts on the place and the local people. A delightful treehouse at Atithi Parinay “I serve only authentic traditional Konkani food in my homestay. This ensures manifold benefits – reduction in the amount of energy and resources spent on sourcing non-local food items, inclusion of local community members as cooking staff, traditional and cost-effective organic meals with raw foods procured from our very own plantation,” says Medha. She doesn’t provide bottled water, as is the norm, to her guests. “We also have a water treatment system to use the recycled water for our vegetable patch. And I make sure that the guests take back all the plastic trash with them as I do not have the required facility to recycle plastic waste,” she adds. Ramesh C Jangid, a pioneer in sustainable tourism in Rajasthan, shares how his venture Apani Dhani Eco Lodge, Nawalgarh, imbibed the guideline of ‘delivering memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to the host countries’ ‘political, environmental, and social climates’ as laid down by the IES. Started in 1990, his eco lodge is a family-run project which offers eco-friendly accommodation to individuals and small groups through seven bungalows, a family room and a small independent house for rent. “We serve home-made vegetarian fare. Most of the ingredients come from the two hectares of farming land where we do organic agriculture. We grow cereals, lentils, and seasonal vegetables,” says Jangid. The guests are offered different activities with locals to discover the area and its culture through walks, guided visits, excursions in the countryside, and workshops on art and handicraft. “These activities are designed to bring extra revenues to the local community,” he says, adding, “Five per cent of the turnover from the room rent is invested in local projects in education, environment and local heritage conservation.” “We have opened our kitchen to the guests. They are welcome, and often encouraged to go vegetable picking in our organic plantation, come back and cook on their own with assistance from our cooks. This ensures a very healthy give-and-take of cultural knowledge between the local community and the guests. The increased bonhomie is a big bonus,” says Praveen. Moreover, like Medha, Praveen too doesn’t offer packaged drinking water to guests but uses RO system to purify groundwater. This saves a lot of precious resources that would have gone into packaging a one litre bottle of mineral water; in the long run lightening the individual carbon footprint. “We make the guests understand our motive behind not using packaged water,” he adds. Ecotones also suggest that their guests use their mountain bikes to commute locally while staying with them. This builds a proximity between the guests and their environment which includes the local community too. “They learn to ‘sightsee’ on an altogether different level,” remarks Praveen. Motivated lives For Mumbai-based Vinod Sreedhar, Founder, Journeys with Meaning travel company, journeys are more of’learning experiences through the medium of travel as opposed to the more mainstream tour-packages. He feels that learning occurs far more deeply when one spends time in places and with people who are a part of one’s travel destination. His travel packages are more about igniting discussions on ecological issues. “We could sit in the city and watch a powerful film about glaciers melting due to climate change. But consider the impact when you actually see a glacier in the Himalayas, sit on the banks of a raging mountain stream flooded with glacial melt water, and have an insightful conversation with village elders about the changes they see today in their environment compared to their experiences from 50 years ago,” says Sreedhar. His company provides the experience of eating fresh organic vegetables plucked from the kitchen gardens in homestays, spending time in some of India’s most beautiful forests, understanding their role in our survival, learning from inspiring people and organisations, having stimulating conversations over a range of issues and ideas, and most importantly, reconnecting with parts of ourselves and the planet that we have lost touch with. The monopoly and unfair distribution of tourism income in the Rajasthan of the 1980s, as well as the negative impact of mass tourism in the region pushed Jangid to start a different type of tourism in the state. According to him, luxury hotels and resorts with bath tub and swimming pool facilities as well as lush green turf were exhausting the scanty natural resources of the Shekhawati region; a lot of plastic garbage was produced by the travellers; luxury AC buses and cars were plying through Shekhawati increasing the air pollution in the area and the prices of commodities. Somewhat similar is the story of Himanshu Pradeep Kalia, a social entrepreneur who set up Katernia Eco Huts in the lesser known Katernia wi
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