The bulk of tourists in the Himalaya do it the way the others do it. But there is a breed that marches to a different beat. They do “alternative tourism”, variously also know as “discerning tourism”, “gentle tourism” or “tourism with insight”. The are a motley group of crusaders, made up born-again tourists as well as local “tourism activists”, be it in Goa, Garhwal or Gangtok.
Paul Gonsalves, who runs the not-for-profit group Equitable Tourism Options (EQUATIONS) in Bangalore, says alternative tourism promotes “a just form of travel between members of different communities and seeks to achieve mutual understanding, solidarity and equality among the participants.”
EQUATIONS believes that people are primary to any social process and, therefore, ‘Tourism development must consider the interests and rights of those living in tourist areas as at least as important as those of the visitors.” Says Gonsalves, “Tourism must be developed in ways consistent with civil rights as well as promote justice and the distribution of wealth and resources.’
EQUATIONS has published an operations manual on alternative tourism for groups in the Third World “interested in working out new patterns of tourism.”
In 1987, students in Leh launched a movement named Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) in order to give direction to the younger generation of Ladakh, “which has been susceptible to outside influences indiscriminately”, according to a SECMOL brochure.
Sonam Wangchuk, one of group’s founders, says “SECMOL is not against economic growth or progress, or tourism, for that matter. All we want to do is to take carefully from the outside world the best of what it has without losing our own values.” SECMOL fulfills its goals primarily through educational activities, counselling, and cultural programmes designed to instill pride in Lad akhi culture.
Aavishkar (“Discovery”) is what one might call an alternative travel agency. Run by organisers who have worked in development, the Bangalore-based agency offers itineraries for tourists who want to “combine leisure and a meaningful experience of India.” A typical group, says an Aavishkar pamphlet “will be exposed to the issues of the Indian rural dynamics, health and nutrition, environmental concerns, education, religion, women in Indian society, tourism, and traditional crafts, interspersed with sight-seeing and relaxation.
“The Working Group for Tourism with Insight comprises 28 groups from 11 countries, primarily from Western Europe. Many of the group’s founders have themselves been thoughtful tourists in the Himalaya. The Working Group promotes “gentle tourism” and considers itself part of the ecological movement. According to West German author Ludmilla Tuting, “the group does not believe that tourisms benefits should be denied to any of those involved, be they tourists, tour operators, local business-people or the local population. However, tourism should not be associated with social disadvantage, cultural destruction or with damage to the natural world. Gentle tourism is one that is environmentally compatible and socially responsible.” The Working Group has produced a brochure that lists the responsibility of the host population, that of the tourist, and that of the travel business.
In Garhwal, there is another organisation headed by Shankar Kala, a professor, called Stop Exploitative Tourism (SET). Rather extravagantly, SET calls itself the “first global movement against modern tourism.” The group stands for “a return of tourism to original principles and philosophy.”