The heart of Tibet, which transplanted itself during the 1959 failed uprising against Chinese occupation, still beats in a small corner of India. McLeodganj, perched on the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas, 6,000-odd feet above sea level, is called Little Lhasa or Dhasa for a reason — it is home to numerous Tibetan refugees who have settled here, including Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.
Live like the locals
Swathed in cedars, pines and spruce, the place resounds with the complex amalgamation of dung chen, cymbals, chants and drums. But it also holds the echoes of tranquillity. Nawang Chugh, a sports writer, who visited last year, admits as much. “It was so clean and peaceful,” recalls Chugh, who chose to stay in a homestay to “experience” the place better. “I wanted to live the lifestyle of the people here,” he says.
So he used local transport to explore the temples, bazaars and food joints, hopping onto the buses and minivans that trundle down the winding roads all day. “I got to interact with people who actually live here.”
Travelling to places whose prime attraction is Nature and cultural heritage is becoming increasingly popular among millennials, points out Aurvind Lama, co-founder and CEO of Bengaluru-based travel platform, Travelyaari. According to him, India, which is among the top five destinations for individual travellers among 134 countries, has a geographical, ecological and cultural diversity that really lends itself to the concept of eco-tourism. “The core idea is choosing to be more responsible travellers and enjoying the natural beauty of the place,” he says.
When you choose destinations close to Nature and eschew swanky hotels for homestays, you “can drastically help improve the economy of India,” he says, adding that the main appeal of an eco-holiday is that it allows a traveller to enjoy a space in its truest sense, without the frills and trappings of a regular run-of-the-mill holiday experience.
Instead, they are opting for experiences that have a minimal effect on the environment, which include bike tours for exploring cities, camping tours and Nature trails/walks, says Amit Taneja, Chief Revenue Officer, Cleartrip. “Travellers actually want to break free from the daily humdrum of their lives by immersing themselves in the local culture and exciting activities. They want to go hiking on mountain trails, fish in nearby streams, and camp out in the open,” adds Mukesh Thapa, Business Strategist, Travel Triangle. According to him, some of the popular eco-travel destinations include Kerala, Coorg, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Sundarbans National Park, Prashar Lake, Binsar and Himachal Pradesh.
The other side
It started off as a small three-room seasonal place doing excellent conservation work, remembers intrepid traveller Kavya Saxena, who first stayed at this now-famous eco-lodge in Uttarakhand five years ago. When she revisited it recently, however, everything had changed. “On the back of beautiful setting and effective branding, the place has established itself as a popular destination for all Nature wannabes,” she says. It is now a 16-room property with all the modern amenities and impeccable service.
That changed everything, she says. And while they still claim to invest in conservation and carry day trips to show the same, “the solar panels now can’t cater to a fully-occupied lodge; gardens have made way for staff quarters; and waste management is a major issue,” says Saxena. According to her, the word eco-tourism itself is a misnomer when it is offered by a purely commercial business enterprise riding on an interesting fad. “Travellers really need to differentiate between an honest concept and a lucrative interpretation of it,” she says.
Another issue with eco-tourism is the somewhat lackadaisical attitude of travellers towards preserving the sanctity of the places they visit, believes Divya Ravichandran, founder of Skrap, a Mumbai-based waste management enterprise. A travel junkie herself, Ravichandran says that while eco-tourism is a great way for city folks to establish a connection with Nature and explore indigenous cultures, “we also need to be more sensitised tourists”. Even the most pristine locations end up getting trashed once they become tourist destinations, she says. “Biscuit and chips packets, bottles, straws, plates and spoons have to either be buried or burnt, as many of these places don’t have the infrastructure to deal with this sort of waste.”
Of course, there are enterprises that are making active efforts to ensure that travel is truly eco-friendly. Gauri Jayaram’s Active Holiday Company is one of them. On principle, they do not promote motor biking or driving holidays, teach travellers to travel light and recycle as much as possible, and use modes of transport that are eco-friendly. They also insist on frequenting hotels and restaurants owned and run by locals. “If there is no support for smaller authentic establishments, how will the stories and unique cultures survive,” asks Jayaram.
(For a story on eco-friendly water bottles, see page 2)