By Arushi Gupta, researcher from Ambedkar University, Delhi
Summers are for exploring oneself, taking up a hobby, learning a sport or an instrument or just doing something new.
For summer 2019 I was working on the role of community in Community Based Ecotourism (CBET) for my summer research project as a part of Masters of Arts in Global Studies. This project brought me to the ecozone of The Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP), a UNESCO World Heritage Site where ecotourism was suggested as the best form of tourism since the inception of the National Park.
I joined Himalayan Ecotourism (HET) as an independent researcher/ volunteer in June 2019.
This social enterprise with Cooperative Society model attracted me at once since it is most closely linked to the ‘community’ and empowers them directly. It gave me access to people and places and enhanced the learning experience.
As part of my research I studied the actual and versus the ‘green washed’ side of ecotourism.
I chose the village of Pekhri in the ecozone of GHNP and studied community involvement in sustainable tourism and conservation. I interacted with numerous people from HET Cooperative Society and it was heartwarming to see how closely they are connected among each other, to Himalayan Ecotourism and to nature. They respect it because they’ve been surrounded by it all their lives. Nature gives them everything including the budding tourism industry they are a part of in some way or the other.
Few members were kind enough to welcome me to their homes and shower me with unmatched hospitality and family-like environment; ‘The Himachali Way’. I spent a month with them and conducted my surveys and interviews with locals, tourism operators, government officials, Forest Department, NGOs, domain experts and other stakeholders. The support of people from HET made this relatively unfamiliar place so much easier to work in.
I would like to thank Sanju Negi, Keshav Thakur, Neel Chand Thakur, Jeenu bhaiya, their families and others for unending support and consideration.
During my stay, I witnessed a local festival where ‘Devtas’ or local deities from three villages were welcomed at one place and there was grand worship and celebration followed by ‘Dhaam’ or feast. It was a spiritually uplifting experience. The real indulgence into local cultures and belief systems. The people here are so devoted to their gods and perform all the rituals together. You cannot get such experience everywhere, and I am grateful to have experienced it here!
Work wise, in HET I contributed to a few projects which highlight the spread of issues Himalayan Ecotourism has under its wing. I helped to build forward the ‘Stop Forest Fire’ Campaign. Along with the fellow interns I visited various villages including Kalvari, Siri Kot and Kulthi.
We carried out awareness drives and workshops. I conducted a workshop in a government primary school in Pekhri where I educated students from Class I to V around forest fires, its impact and preventive measures. It gave me great satisfaction when I saw those kids talking to their parents and grandparents about it and taking the cause forward.
That showed the success of our efforts.
I helped in planning and coordinating the ‘Tree Plantation Drive’ in Nohanda Panchayat. It is a great crowdfunding based initiative to increase the forest cover and mitigate the destruction caused by forest fires.
During my field work I spoke to people about sustainable tourism and how they can contribute to it by taking simple steps like traditional construction methods, using lesser processed products, trying to move to organic farming etc.
I also helped in laying the foundation of transformative ‘Education Project’ for school kids. The aim of this project is to enhance their learning experience, inculcate in them social values, personality development, love and respect for nature, better understanding of basic concepts and a more wholesome educational experience that helps them in practical ways and improve their soft skills.
As one part of my project, I studied HET in the rubric of sustainable business and observed that the triple bottom line of People, Planet and Profit are closely knitted together here. The practices of democratic decentralisation, profit-sharing and participation of Cooperative members in decision making strengthens the base of this enterprise. Customer feedback is taken very seriously and changes are made for continuous betterment which has helped in growth of business and expanding the clientele every year. The staff takes care of minute details and provides top-notch service to the tourists. High quality equipment ensures safety and comfort.
The treks are conducted in ecofriendly manner where tourists are educated along the way. They are encouraged to carry trash bags with them and collect their waste during treks and hikes. They are advised to not play loud music in the forest and are given knowledge about nature and its myriad aspects giving them a wholesome, informative, engaging experience. These treks provide a learning experience to both the tourists and locals. The locals get exposed to different cultures that tourists bring with them and ensures steady income during the season.
When community, environment and business work hand-in-hand, the results are bound to be good. Himalayan Ecotourism is one such organisation which has been trying to do just that. The awards and recognition highlight this fact.
For me, it was a pleasure being part of this organisation. It was a summer I will never forget.
I hope to see HET scaling greater heights in future!
KUDOS TO THE TEAM!