World through my eyes
Well! To start with, how many of us would like to have a visit to a slum during our next trip? Tough question and may sound quite illogical to some. What if I say that a few tourists coming to India actually have Dharavi slums of Mumbai in their travel itinerary? Still many will be sceptical, dismissing it as a gimmick of selling India’s poverty to the West. But it isn’t so. It is an increasing trend of Social tourism which takes tourism for a cause. To give it back to the society and to engage all those in tourism, which have kept out of it so far.
These efforts are also recognised by World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC),which gives away Tourism For Tomorrow Awards every year. Awards are open to any tourism organisation that is working to improve the lives and opportunities for communities where it operates. The award aims to celebrate the force for good tourism can be for local populations, and is made to the organisation that has strived to enhance the capacity of the community, providing health and education, empowering local people and increasing the spread of benefits. Those who demonstrate exceptional community engagement; board level commitment to community issues; policies embedded across the organisation, evidence of investment in creating and maintaining community projects; preservation of cultural heritage; and support for direct local employment and local supply chains.
This year India’s Reality Tours and Travel was winner in the Community Award category. Ask most tourists what’s on their bucket list for India and they will probably mention temples, tigers and the Taj Mahal. Few will include a visit to Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums. Yet a trip here with Reality Tours & Travel will provide more of an insight into the ‘real India’ that so many seek. Reality Tours & Travel’s 2.5 hour walking tour aims to give visitors the most accurate picture possible of Dharavi and life in this vast slum. Guests interact with locals as much as possible without disrupting their lives or work.
These trips have two key goals. The first is to break down negative stereotypes. Local slum residents are employed as guides and staff to show visitors how Dharavi is the heart of small-scale industry in Mumbai. Guests get to see recycling, pottery making, embroidery, bakery, a soap factory, leather tanning, poppadum-making and much more. And because groups are kept small, a strict dress code is observed, and photography is not allowed, the tours avoid disrupting the residents’ lives or treating them as attractions. The second goal is to support the inhabitants of Dharavi, and 80% of Reality Tours & Travel’s profits go to development projects in the communities it visits. Run by its sister NGO, Reality Gives, projects range from computer, English and soft skills classes for 16 to 30 year old students, a girls football program, an art room and a ‘Barefoot’ acupuncturists clinic, to the neatly named ‘I Was a Sari’, a women’s empowerment scheme that turns old saris into designer products.
Reality Tours & Travel’s success is growing by the year. In 2006, it hosted just 397 guests; by 2013 that number had risen to 16,265. It has so far spent US$134,000 on Reality Gives activities over its seven years of operation; and it recently expanded to working in New Delhi with the Sanjay Colony slum. All together this means many more people are returning home from a holiday in India with an original story to tell. In the community award section two other finalists were Jordan’s Feynan Ecolodge and South Africa’s Grootbos Nature Reserve.
India’s another organisation Mountain Shepherds Initiative was finalist in People Award category. The mountain of Nanda Devi was once the second most popular summit to attempt in the Himalayas after Everest. However, such popularity brought heavy environmental pressures on the surrounding region, and in 1982 the Indian government created the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve and shut the whole region to human access. This may have helped the natural environment, but it was a multiple tragedy for the local people, an Indo-Tibetan ethnic group known as the Bhotiya. In one go they lost access to their prime alpine pastures, to their source of medicinal herbs, and to the tourist trade that sustained them. The irony is that a few years earlier these same communities had given birth to the Chipko movement, whose activism to save the region’s forests is one of the most celebrated stories in the history of Twentieth Century environmental activism.
In recent years, however, the state government of Uttarakhand has begun to reopen the park to limited ecotourism. In response the Bhotiya have worked to develop sustainable, community-based tourism around Nanda Devi. The pinnacle has been the foundation in 2006 of the Mountain Shepherds Initiative. Since its foundation, more than 70 youth, both boys and girls, have been trained. Some now work with other groups, although a core group manages the company itself, while also working as cooks, housekeepers, nature guides, or mountaineering and ski instructors. They are incentivised by the chance to own shares in the company should they stay and work hard. So far 12% of the total equity is owned by the youth, and the percentage is growing each year. Recently the group has begun to share its model with other similar communities spread across the Himalayas. They have visited five locations in north east India to showcase their experiences and to encourage these communities that they too could develop responsible tourism. In so doing they are helping sustain these remote and inaccessible villages, while also ensuring the preservation of the natural heritage that surrounds them.
Winner in this category was Confortel Hoteles of Spain while other finalist was Global Travel and Tourism Partnership of USA. In the Destination category winner was Ljubljana in Slovenia, while two other finalists were Northeast and Milan Coast of Taiwan and Sozopol of Bulgaria. In the Environment category winner was The Soneva Group working in Maldives and Thailand. Two finalists in this category were Laguna Lodge Eco-resort & Nature Reserve in Guatemala and Rivers Fiji in Fiji. In the Innovation Category TripAdvisor GreenLeaders of USA was the winner while two finalists were ABTA Welfare Guidance for Animals in Tourism of UK and Red Sustainable Travel of Mexico.