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Involving local communities in Responsible Tourism

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Travellers and destinations hosting them are growing increasingly aware that tourism is not just about taking photographs, enjoying hospitality and taking back memories; it is about putting something back into conservation efforts and into local communities.

Speaking at the International Conference on Responsible Tourism (RT) in Kumarakom, Kerala recently, Dr Harold Goodwin, a professor at Leeds Metropolitan University and the director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism, said it is time to turf out ‘freeloaders’ who add no value to the places they visit; and attract people who contribute something to the community by way of employment and revenues, cause the least pollution, contribute to the conservation of heritage and who will enjoy, repeat their visit and recommend it to others.

The aims of RT must include sustainability, improved living standards of local people, lower carbon emissions and animal welfare. The goals for achieving the triple bottomline – economic, social and environmental – should be set locally with the complete involvement of the local people, he said.

“Kerala has managed to achieve so much in responsible tourism in so short a time due to the strength of its local bodies, the Panchayats, which are taking and exercising responsibilities” he said today while speaking on the challenges of achieving RT. “While Kerala has made a lot of progress in the economic development of villages through responsible tourism, it is time for it to set a ‘stretch target’ and take it to the next level.”

On the first day of the conference, which was organised by Kerala’s Department of Tourism in association with [email protected], Goodwin detailed the developments in RT over the past five years at the plenary session themed ‘Looking Back, Moving Forward’. Suman Billa, secretary, Kerala Tourism, moderated the session.

Speakers from other parts of the world provided examples of successful RT practices. Dr Adama Bah, the Travel Foundation project for The Gambia and founder of the Association of Small Scale Enterprises in Tourism (ASSET), explained about the RT campaign in the West African nation to protect the interests of small, local businesses and ensure that they benefit from tourism. He said members of ASSET are mainly craft market vendors, local guides, fruit and juice sellers on the beach, small guest houses, tourist taxi drivers, etc, who have now been classified by the Gambian government as formal businesses and given operational licences.

Other support measures include training, microfinance, product development, linking of horticulture with tourism that has benefited women farmers, improved access to markets and promotion of indigenously made products.

Dr Karma Tshering, the chief for Nature Recreation and Ecotourism in Bhutan, spoke about the Himalayan kingdom’s tourism policy that aims at “high value and low impact” and a revenue generation mechanism that ensures relatives high earnings for low tourist arrivals.

He said Bhutan’s tourism policy that draws influential and socially responsible tourists has helped preserve the pristine natural landscapes and culture and traditions unique to the region, at the same time generating revenues and employment.

Models of RT followed in post-war Sri Lanka were detailed by Srilal Miththapala, an experienced tourism professional, who said sustainability was not just about the environment but made good business sense too. Concerns have been raised about overexploitation of resources and the negative impact of eco-tourism on the island nation which is blessed with abundant natural resources. Sri Lanka has now drafted policies that aimed at regulating exploitative practices, involving local people in tourism and its hotels are increasingly adopting greener measures, he said.

Mason Florence, executive director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MTCO), explained the difference RT had had made to tourism along the six-nation Greater Mekong Sub-region. Member nations of Mekong Tourism – Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam – have benefited greatly from the common marketing of travel experience along the stunningly beautiful river along nature and cultural trails.

Field experiences on RT in India were shared by hotel groups that have been recognised for adopting sustainable tourism practices, including the Bengaluru-based Our Native Village, Uravu and Vythiri Resorts in Wayanad, Coconut Lagoon of CGH Earth Group at Kumarakom and Basis in Athirampuzha.

On the second day of the conference a panel discussion was held on RT classification system introduced by the Kerala Government. U V Jose, addl. director (planning & projects) Department of Tourism, explained the basis of Platinum, Gold and Silver classification of hotels and the criteria on which the points are awarded.

Panelists included Jose Dominic, managing director, CGH Earth and Baby Mathew from the Somatheeram Group. Harikishore S, director, tourism, chaired the discussion.

Dominic proposed the idea of a ‘mentorship clinic’ where industry experts could come, hear out ideas from entrepreneurs wanting to set up micro enterprises, and provide them with advice on how to start the business.He said sustainable and innovative ideas such as ‘eco-camping’ could also be promoted. “This requires very little land, maybe an acre and a half. Guests can come with their own camping gear. All you need to do is provide them with basic facilities like water, toilets and some lights; attach Kudumbashree to that and maybe they can provide a simple meal too,” he said.

Jose said the Department of Tourism was fully supportive of eco-friendly projects. In Kumarakom, the department plans to develop six kilometre of cycling track along the canals this year, he informed. “We have identified the locations and it is a testament to the strength of responsible tourism that the local people are happy to open up their land for this initiative,” he said.

B K Saroop Roy, state project co-ordinator, Responsible Tourism Initiative, KITTS, who summed up the discussions at a session held on the environmental responsibility of RT, said experts, specialists groups and organisations must come forward and contribute ideas on carrying out reliable impact assessment of tourism and capacity studies on destinations – an exercise that is vital for planning strategies for sustainable and responsible tourism.

Among the key recommendations at the session was the need for a pool of ideas and resources that can be accessed by all stakeholders in RT and better documentation of best practices from the tourism industry, case studies and reports that can be learning tools for practitioners. He said the official RT website of the Kerala government could be a resource to post these ideas and reports for all stakeholders to access.

“We also need to develop best practice guidelines for tourism construction, how energy and environment friendly the buildings must be. And we require more experts and organisations to assist us with carrying out reliable carrying capacity studies,” he said.

There was also a suggestion to set up a specialised Sustainability University in Kerala to focus on academics and research related to the subject. The inclusion of RT as part of the curriculum or as an extra-curricular activity carried out through tourism clubs in schools and colleges was an idea supported by a number participants at the conference. Roy said KITTS will soon introduce a certificate course in RT specifically for practitioners. A number of similar suggestions were put forward at the session focused on economic responsibility. Dr B Vijyakumar, principal, KITTS, said there was a need for support mechanisms for micro enterprises started by women in RT destinations.

Also, existing marketing strategy for RT had to be strengthened and promoted so small businesses linked to it could earn a sustainable income. “Innovation should be linked with RT initiative, particularly in developing niche products and entering into niche market areas. Such innovators must be given support,” he said.

A number of entrepreneurs are interested in entering into and investing in production, marketing and other areas of tourism; but they require technical support for preparing projects and implementing them in a feasible manner, he added.

Among other major recommendations were, public-private partnership in promoting investment at the local level; and ensuring public health, safety and security systems at tourism destinations for sustainable growth.

The issue of ‘restructured ethnicity’, the cultural adaptation for the purpose of tourism, was a major discussion point at the session on the socio-cultural aspect of RT.

As a result of this adaptation locals lose their individual and cultural identities and it causes the public to become annoyed with tourism, said M S Venugopal, deputy director, Department of Tourism, who led the talk. “This irritation may lead to protests and eventually the loss of the destination. A collective effort involving hosts, locals as well as the guests has to be made to minimise cultural deterioration,” he said. Delegates participated actively in the conference’s open forum on the last day with suggestions including focus on ‘geriatric tourism’ as part of RT in view of the changing demographics around the globe; including transport modes such as flying into the sustainability scheme and encouraging group travel to reduce pollution; training for RT guides; setting targets for and reporting on carbon footprint of tourists at RT destinations.

An exhibition was held along the sidelines of the conference featuring handicraft and indigenous products made at RT destinations across the state.

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