|Linking livelihoods to nature and culture conservation
Spiti opened up to the outside world only in 1992 and it is only since then that tourism has set foot into the valley. Largely untouched, Spiti’s rich culture and unique landscape hence makes tourism a very viable livelihood option for the local community. However from examples of conventional tourism in other areas it has been found that while tourism provides basic income generating activities for the local populace, the chunk of the revenue usually flows out of the region as tourism and its associated activities are largely managed and controlled by outside entrepreneurs. Moreover conventional tourism usually has a negative impact on an areas culture and environment.
In Spiti, Ecosphere’s ‘responsible eco-travel’ initiative endeavours to make tourism profitable for the traveller, local community, their culture and environment. The objective of the initiative is to develop unique and meaningful travel experiences and activities for travellers, link them to community livelihoods and conservation of culture & nature. This not only provides the community with a sustainable source of income but also serves as an incentive to conserve their unique natural & cultural heritage and environment.
In order to achieve this, various experiences and activities have been carefully
planned and designed to ensure economic benefits to the locals and linkages
to conservation on the one hand along with enhanced and rewarding visitor
experiences on the other.
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The activities undertaken have encompassed:-
- Awareness generation and mobilisation of the local community.
- Training of village youth in activities such as nature guiding, mountaineering, adventure sports, hospitality, and other tourism related services to create a linkage of their livelihoods to the regions natural & cultural surroundings and prevent out-migration.
- Generate equitable benefits for larger number of beneficiaries by developing a multitude of products and activities such as homestays, yak safaris, trails (based around the wildlife, flora, culture, etc.) and other specialised products.
- Linking these products to viable markets.
- Directly linking communities to conservation by ensuring their participation in village conservation activities.(through channeling a percentage of their incomes generated to village conservation funds).
- Sensitisation and development of adequate interpretation for visitors about the region both for an authentic experience and learning.
- Garbage management – Following the principle of the 3 R’s (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle). Developing proper waste management and disposal mechanisms.
- Development of an appropriate and contextual policy for the region to ensure adoption of responsible practices.
The promotion and development of Spiti as a responsible travel destination is critical as it will not only assist in the preservation of the areas fragile ecology and unique culture but also contribute in providing a sustainable source of income to the local populace.
A key concern of the initiative was the long term impact of tourism on the ecology and social fabric of the region. It was felt that a planned and strategic approach could help conserve the ethos of the region while providing a memorable experience to the traveler and generating income for the local community.
One of the initial attempts undertaken for the realisation of the objectives for promoting responsible eco-travel in Spiti was the development of homestays as an alternate accommodation option for the visitors. Homestays have been established in 6 villages (Langza, Komic, Demul, Lhalung, Dhankar and Mikkim) with the following objectives:-
- Conservation of natural & cultural heritage
- Linking livelihoods directly and indirectly to conservation based activities
- Creating employment opportunities for youth and women to reduce rural to urban migration
- Creating a distinctive, authentic, reliable, tourist accommodation and experience.
- Minimise negative impacts and maximize gains from tourism
The homestays soon diversified into a range of allied activities around the homestay villages to ensure greater visitor experience and larger equitable benefits for the village as a whole. Village youth were trained as nature guides to create additional tourism related livelihood options. Mechanisms ensuring rotation and equal opportunities for all, have been developed for equitable benefit sharing. In the first year itself over 50 households in 5 villages had benefited from community based tourism. Currently Ecosphere is working throughout the valley and is attempting to benefit maximum families from the activities being undertaken as part of the initiative. To ensure sustained visitation, easy accessibility of visitors to these activities and maximum benefits to the local communities and their culture and environment, Ecosphere has now developed various trails that showcase Spiti’s culture and nature with direct and indirect linkages of the community and visitors to its conservation. For instance a trail around the Himalayan Wolf has been developed to create a livelihood linkage of the local community with the wolf to enable a positive attitudinal shift and thereby address the issue of human-wildlife conflicts in the region. This has been clubbed with research on the grazing practices along with support to enhance these to reduce the depredation of livestock.
Conservation efforts have been undertaken by the community through the formation of conservation funds which flow directly as a percentage of the revenue generated by them from community based tourism or in kind. At the same time all the funds generated by Ecosphere from its income generation activities are ploughed back into development and conservation activities. Some of these conservation activities (proposed and executed by the community) are garbage management, preservation of the natural heritage such as fossils through formation of a fossil center, development of fossil replicas, adoption of better grazing mechanisms, construction of green houses, promotion of renewable energy(such as solar cookers, water heaters, lighting, etc). Resolutions were passed by Panchayats (village governments) to prevent sale and purchase of natural and cultural artifacts by imposing fines. It was also decided to levy fines on tourist for improper garbage disposal along with camping and grazing charges for donkeys/ horses brought in from out of Spiti. This on the one hand discourages the practice of bringing in pack animals from outside and on the other hand enables the community to supplement their income and receive a payment for the valuable grazing lands being used by these animals. In the event of there being a shortage, the community can then purchase fodder.
Visitor sensitisation and interpretation has been one of the key focus areas for Ecosphere. Literature to educate and sensitize the tourists about Spiti, its culture and nature have been developed and set up at various key locations as well as in homestays. An English to Spiti dictionary has also been developed to enhance visitor and host communication and experience. This dictionary has further been translated into German, French, and Italian. Ecosphere is also working on the development of a Green Guide book for Spiti which would enable tourists to make their journey to Spiti more responsible.
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