Sustainable Tourism in India: Policies and Practices

From spectacular beaches to lofty mountains, parched deserts to marshy rainforests, India is a multiple-interest, all-season destination. The assorted mix presents a range of opportunities for Sustainable Tourism to take root, more so in a land where harmonious human-nature relations have been a cornerstone of indigenous customs and folklore. By Prerna Shah

Singapore, 6 October 2016. With quicker access to distant locations, larger disposable income and rising lifestyle aspirations, the number of international tourists alone have grown by about 33% in the past five years in India (World Bank, 2016). It is the largest service industry in the country that contributes to roughly 7 % of GDP and 9 % of all the jobs (Lalnunmawla, 2016) demonstrating the need for providing not only luxurious, safe and authentic experiences to tourists but also protecting the social, cultural and environmental integrity of destinations.

In August 2014, rising to the opportunities of Sustainable Tourism, the Union Minister for Tourism Shri Shripad Naik launched the Comprehensive Sustainable Tourism Criteria for India (STCI) for Accommodation, Tour Operators and Beaches, Backwaters, Lakes & Rivers sectors. Speaking on the occasion, he urged all the stakeholders in the Tourism industry not to over-exploit natural and other resources for short-term gains. “When we talk about sustainability we should not only talk about conservation of resources but also our culture and heritage”, he said. Although the implementation of STCI is voluntary and incentive-based, the government’s intent and future policy direction seems to be guided by resource conservation and growth of a more just and fair social order.

In line with the goals of Sustainable Tourism, there are some ‘early bird States’ that have already taken the leap and also received numerous accolades for their efforts. Through innovative means and political will, they have not only invigorated local cultures and fragile ecosystems but also boosted local incomes through alternate livelihood generation.

Leading the way: Kerala Tourism

Kerala - aptly called 'God's own country' and voted as one of the must-see places on Earth by National Geographic in 2012 (Pic courtesy: Thinkstock Images)

Kerala - aptly called 'God's own country' and voted as one of the must-see places on Earth by National Geographic in 2012 (Pic courtesy: Thinkstock Images)

Kerala is the first state in India that has been conferred upon the top United Nations Award, UNWTO Ulysses Award for Innovation in Public Policy and Governance, the highest honor given to government bodies for shaping global leadership and creating innovative initiatives for sustainable tourism. Located in the southwestern coast of the country, bordered by the Arabian Sea on the west and Western Ghats on the east, Kerala is famous for its beautiful backwaters, pristine beaches, lush tea gardens, cultural extravaganza and traditional healing practices.

The path-breaking 'Responsible Tourism' (RT) project in Kumarakom has successfully linked the local community with the hospitality industry and government departments, thereby creating a model for empowerment and development of the people in the area while sustaining eco-friendly tourism. This was achieved through a three-pronged strategy encompassing:

Economic responsibility: Activities undertaken were designed in such a way that all stakeholders get an equitable share in the economic benefits of tourism. In order to revive agriculture in the region, the Kumarakom Panchayat (local self-government) established a link between local farmers and hotels for the uninterrupted supply of vegetables. Despite the agreement, hotels and resorts refused to buy local produce expressing concerns in price, quality and regularity of supply. This necessitated the establishment of an RT Cell to enable continuous dialogue between concerned parties. Eventually, after prolonged efforts the stakeholders were convinced about the importance of the RT initiative and supply-chain mechanisms were strengthened to alleviate their looming concerns.

Tourists engaging in Village Life Experiences at Kumarakom, Kerala (Pic courtesy: Kerala Tourism)

Tourists engaging in Village Life Experiences at Kumarakom, Kerala (Pic courtesy: Kerala Tourism)

Social responsibility: A detailed study was conducted to identify the local art and culture of the area; women and children were involved to form cultural groups and perform in hotels and resorts with the support of the RT Cell. An innovative package was developed under the RT initiative called the Village Life Experiences (VLI) Packages - a day with farmers, a day with fishermen and beyond the backwaters - to showcase rural life and sustain traditional occupations.

Environmental responsibility: The RT Cell collaborated with the local Gram Panchayat in organizing and training for the program called ‘Zero Waste Kumarakom’ and a subsequent one on vermicomposting for proper waste disposal and treatment in the area. Additionally, mangrove regeneration programs were organized in which seeds were distributed to resort owners to plant in backwaters and local clubs, students, activists were roped in to create awareness.

The Kumarakom Initiative won the National Award for Best Rural Tourism Project and also the PATA Grand Award for Environment.

In order to ensure the sustainable growth of tourism in the state, Kerala adopted a “high value, low volume” perspective (Banerjee, 2013); a tourism management strategy that aids in controlling the overall impacts of tourism while ensuring that the industry remains one of the top economic performers for the region. Through this policy, Kerala limited the quantity of tourists entering the state while monitoring the quality of tourists to ensure that they are culturally sensitive, environmentally friendly and economically viable.

Taking lessons from the success of other destinations around the World that have minimized the negative impacts of tourism while maximizing the profits, Kerala required all potential tourists to go through registered tour agencies that follow the sustainability requirements and have an annual set quota barring independent travelers from visiting the state without prior approval. While limiting the number of tourists might not be a viable or even advisable option for all destinations, this approach strives for a balance and can serve as a good starting point for certain places.

The Homestay Scheme: Himachal Tourism

The Indian State of Himachal Pradesh is nestled in the Western Himalayas amidst a majestic, almost mythic terrain famous for its beauty and serenity. Forests cover two-thirds of the geographic area of the state and are crucial for the economic, social and environmental well-being of the region; they are a storehouse of rich biodiversity and a primary source of livelihood for the rural communities.

Owing to the fragile Himalayan eco-system, unplanned or lack of infrastructure has always been a valid concern. As accommodation is an important tourism component, the government of Himachal Pradesh came up with a novel scheme that not only promises authentic experiences to tourists but also ensures that host communities reap maximum benefits.

Aira Holme - one of the many homestays in Himachal Pradesh with heartwarming hospitality and unusual stories (Pic courtesy: CN Traveller)

Aira Holme - one of the many homestays in Himachal Pradesh with heartwarming hospitality and unusual stories (Pic courtesy: CN Traveller)

The ‘Home Stay’ Scheme seeks to draw tourists away from posh and crowded urban areas to the rural hinterland replete with natural surroundings, by providing them clean, comfortable and budget-friendly accommodation and food. The scheme helped divert the tourist traffic to new untapped places while also ensuring an alternate source of income generation for rural folks. The Himachal Pradesh government provided several incentives to promote this scheme such as exempting home stay units from luxury and sales tax and charging domestic rates of electricity and water. The Department of Tourism lists the registered Home Stay houses  on its website, free of charge. It also includes them in the online Reservation system, on payment of commission, as fixed by the department from time to time, which automatically generates clientele for the stakeholders.

Rukmini Kund, a village selected for Har Gaon ki Kahaani Scheme, named after Rukmini who sacrificed her life to end the drought problem in the region. As per the village folklore, the region has not suffered a water crisis ever since (Pic courtesy: Government of Himachal Pradesh)

Rukmini Kund, a village selected for Har Gaon ki Kahaani Scheme, named after Rukmini who sacrificed her life to end the drought problem in the region. As per the village folklore, the region has not suffered a water crisis ever since (Pic courtesy: Government of Himachal Pradesh)

With a focus on rural tourism to generate income and promote alternate tourist destinations showcasing the unique heritage and culture of the hills, the Himachal Pradesh government came up with another scheme called ‘Har Gaon ki Kahaani’ (the story of every village). The villagers were asked to come up with fascinating tales, folklores and anecdotes related to their villages to lure tourists. Selected stories were compiled into a book and spread across various marketing channels; the funds thus raised were  used to improve rural infrastructural facilities of the state.

The unconventional schemes received overwhelming response from local communities and international tourists. In the course of three years there were a total of 891 rooms and 332 units registered under the Home Stay Scheme. It also received 25 awards including the National Level Award for Rural Tourism Promotion.

Growth in the tourism sector is one of the five major priorities of the incumbent government led by Shri Narendra Modi. Weeks after taking oath, he stressed on the importance of tourism to provide employment to the poorest of the poor. Hence, anticipated growth in this sector warrants a comprehensive Sustainable Tourism strategy that builds the capacity of the rural poor and enables them to act as owners and decision makers in tourism based on their natural and cultural heritage.

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