Sustainable tourism – which includes eco-tourism and community-based tourism – is the need of the hour in India. Sustainable tourism in India is being driven by social enterprises and offbeat travel companies, which not only offer sustainable holidays in India, but also meaningful travel experiences that can elevate your “Incredible India” experience. This post looks at responsible tourism in India, based on my travels over the past five years.
There are many ways to experience India. You can stay in a generic hotel or backpacker hostel, hire a car for sightseeing, have casual interactions with people working in the hospitality industry, take some colourful photos and call it a trip.
The real India though – the India that inspires and humbles, the India that is artistic yet genuine, the India that is simultaneously incredible and heartbreaking – takes a little effort to find.
Although I grew up in this country, it’s only in the last five years of travelling that I’ve discovered a more unique way to experience it. Away from the chaotic tourist towns and pages of the usual guidebooks, I’ve interacted intimately with an India that has put everything I know about life in perspective.
And much of this India, I’ve found by travelling with – or seeking suggestions from – sustainable tourism companies across the country, run by inspiring individuals, in fair partnership with local communities and conscious of their impact on the local environment.
If you seek to experience India (and give back to it) meaningfully, consider travelling with these responsible travel companies:
Locations: Nag Tibba (near Mussoorie), Kanatal and Raithal (near Uttarkashi) in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand
Who knew that tiny obscure mountain villages in Uttarakhand, cradled by the snow-capped Garhwal Himalayas, are home to some of the world’s most expensive and wanted superfoods? Think amaranth, goji berries and foxtail millet, among others.
And yet mountain dwellers are abandoning their farmlands for basic jobs in cities – unaware of the value of these superfoods. Out of this tragic situation was born Green People, an organisation that aims to encourage the reverse migration of farmers – by creating supply chains for the superfoods they can grow, and more importantly, by instilling pride in them for their unique culture and way of life. To facilitate the latter, Green People has set up “Goat Villages” – rustic ecolodges – near Nag Tibba, Kanatal and Uttarkashi in the Uttarakhand Himalayas. They’ve hired locals, trained them in hospitality at luxury resorts and entrusted them with independently hosting travellers from around the world, in aesthetically built Garhwali-style houses.
I’ve spent a week each at the Goat Villages near Nag Tibba and Uttarkashi – blissfully away from civilisation, electricity and technology – for some of my most rejuvenating and inspiring escapes amid the wild beauty of these mountains. The locations are spectacular, the local interactions heartwarming and the food – amaranth porridge, mandava-tofu sandwiches, Hersil rajma, barnyard millet to name a few – will make you rethink your organic and local choices.
The superfoods grown in the Garhwal Himalayas are being sold by Green People under the brand name “Bakri Chaap” in supermarkets in big cities across India. Isn’t it ironic that while we’ve taken to consuming quinoa and couscous – which travel from halfway across the world – we’re mostly unaware of the delicious, nutritional food that grows in our own backyard?
Locations: Kabini, Coorg and Hampi – Karnataka
I learnt early on in my travels that it is possible for an accommodation to be incredibly luxurious and environmentally responsible at the same time. But I didn’t realise to what extent, until I spent time at Evolve Back – a chain of eco-luxury resorts across Karnataka.
Evolve Back Coorg (previously called Orange County) was perhaps the first of its kind in India – a sprawling 300-acre coffee plantation, interspersed with grand silver oak trees and plantation-style bungalows – built in local red brick and thatched or tiled roofs – to pamper travellers yet immerse them in the wild ways of nature. Each bungalow is fitted with RO water filters, eliminating the need for plastic bottled water; in other ways too, the plantation (and other Evolve Back properties) are pretty much plastic-free zones.
Rainwater is harvested and its consumption in each cottage digitally monitored; wind electricity is generated at another site and fed into the state’s electricity grid; all waste is either composted or recycled; education in local schools is supported and monitored. And it is perhaps India’s only hotel chain to have an entire team dedicated to responsible travel.
Yet, these sustainability initiatives are not the only reason to indulge in an Evolve Back experience. In Kabini, I was enchanted by majestic sunsets and high tea under an old fig tree; river and forest safaris with passionate naturalists who made me fall in love with India’s fascinating forests; a meal selection dedicated to sumptuous organic and locally grown food; and night skies that shimmered endlessly with stars.
And although I haven’t personally travelled to Evolve Back Hampi yet, I hear it is styled after the royal extravagance of the ancient Vijayanagar Empire…
Also read: 6 Offbeat Experiences Near Hampi
Locations: Kumaon, Uttarakhand
When I finally decided to travel to the remote Himalayan region of Munsiyari, eleven hours by road from the nearest train station and flanked by the spectacular snow-capped Panchachuli range, I had no idea how much it was going to change my perceptions of Indian women and the patriarchal culture that plagues our society.
Across the small mountain villages of Munsiyari tehsil, the social enterprise Himalayan Ark has aided local women to set up homestays, some in old and charming Kumaoni houses, others in aspirational homes with large glass windows overlooking the mountains. The warmth of the experience remains the same across the homestays though. Although most women in rural India seldom have land ownership rights or independent incomes to run their households, Himalayan Ark’s approach has enabled the women of Munsiyari to directly earn revenues from their homestays, and to step out of the kitchen to train as trekking and birdwatching guides.
Himalayan Ark also offers mountain treks and expeditions, employing local guides, sourcing local produce and offering eco-conscious insights into this relatively undiscovered region. In May every year, the unique Himal Kalasutra festival brings out a different side of this region – featuring high altitude marathons, yoga workshops, photography workshops, birdwatching, celebration of the indigenous cuisine and a traditional carnival. Unlike most fusion mountain festivals, it is organised by locals and attended by locals, but discerning travellers are welcome to join!
Locations: Across Northeast India
The northeastern states of India are full of fascinating, unexplored, uncharted territory, and while tourism is still in its nascent stage, it is incumbent upon us travellers to ensure that it isn’t spoiled the same way as India’s scenic but garbage-filled hill stations. Consider Kipepeo, an organisation that partners with local homestays to offer trips (and custom tours) in the most natural way possible.
On my first trip with them, our group wandered off the usual Arunachal Pradesh map and landed up in a village of the Galo tribe to celebrate their indigenous Mopin festival. Amid Shamanic chanting, hypnotic local dances and being offered rats for dinner at a village gathering (gulp), I felt like I had skipped a few decades and gone back to the India of yore – a most intriguing world!
Also read: In Photos: Majuli Island, Assam
Locations: Koraput, Odisha
The fascinating tribal world of Odisha is threatened by many challenges: interference by local authorities, pressure on the youth to ‘modernise’, decreasing forest cover, and most of all, insensitive tourists wanting to photograph local tribes without learning a thing about their culture or way of life.
I was happy to resolve my internal conflict – between discovering a fascinating culture and irresponsible travel – when I stumbled upon Desia Ecotourism, a company founded by a local of eastern Odisha with a keen interest in the tribal culture of the southern Koraput region. Our modes of exploration included cycling through mango orchards to nearby tribal villages and riding pillion on motorbikes to further ones; our interactions with local tribes at their weekly haats (tribal markets) felt genuine and unobtrusive; and living at Desia Ecolodge, run largely by a mix of local tribes, made me feel at home in such a different part of the world.
As a New York Times story recently expounded, sustainable travel is as much about environmental impact as it is about being inclusive and respectful of local communities.
Locations: Purushwadi, Dehna and Walvanda – Maharashtra
I remember wandering about the quiet streets of Purushwadi, a village in rural Maharashtra, on a dark moonless night, watching millions of fireflies communicate with potential partners through light beams, magically lighting up the earth in perfect symphony with thousands of stars in the skies above.
There was a time when locals, unaware of this beautiful phenomenon, didn’t hesitate to kill (or at best, ignore) fireflies that came to their village to mate every monsoon.
But using a unique business model where the local community is an equal partner in tourism, Grassroute Journeys has co-created the “Million Fireflies Festival” and other humbling travel experiences across rural Maharashtra. Besides playing an active role in protecting their luminescent visitors, the locals are now able to supplement their erratic agricultural incomes by hosting travellers in their homes (or in tents), and keep their traditional way of farming and life alive.
And travellers like you and me, wandering in search of unique customs, exotic natural phenomena and joyful countryside living, can rejoice in both, finding such experiences not far from chaotic Mumbai and supporting rural village communities in the process.
Locations: Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh
Volunteer-travelling for a month with Spiti Ecosphere in the high altitude Spiti Valley, back in 2011, was my earliest introduction to responsible travel. It was the first time I learnt about community-run homestays and how tourism can supplement meagre farming incomes, how the money we spend on travel could be used to light up someone’s home with solar energy, and how different our travel experiences can be when we stay with locals and interact closely with their culture, food and way of life.
Spiti Ecosphere believes in an equal emphasis on the planet, people and profits – and after all these years, I’ve realised that this is the only way for a tourism organisation to be truly sustainable.
As for my experience – volunteering with them, exploring those stark barren mountains, lying under millions of stars at night, spending time with monks and nuns, it changed everything I thought I wanted from my own life. It made me quit my job at the Singapore Tourism Board, and gradually paved the way to this blog where I try to write about the joy of travelling meaningfully.
The Blue Yonder
Locations: Kerala, Pondicherry
I thought I had already explored pretty ‘offbeat’ parts of Kerala independently – until I went on a journey with The Blue Yonder, a social enterprise started by a Kerala local, to learn about how the River Nila has inspired life along its shores. We met local musicians and artisans – some of who are the last in a lost generation of artists keeping a dying tradition or craft alive; we ended up watching a soul-stirring, solo Nangiar Koothu performance alongside village locals; and even felt entranced by an Oracle, supposedly possessed by the local deity.
During my travels with The Blue Yonder, I began to perceive our impact on local communities differently. Many organisations only compensate the locals we meet along the way for the services they offer – mainly homestays and guides. But TBY professes a different philosophy – valuing (and hence compensating) the time that local artisans spend interacting with us as travellers, answering our many questions and being photographed by us. And if we really think about it, that is exactly how us urban creative people (aka freelancers) want to be treated too.
Locations: Across India
I co-founded India Untravelled back in 2012, hoping to bridge the digital marketing gap between small-scale sustainable homestays and discerning travellers looking for authentic experiences within India. The two-year long journey taught me a lot about running a business (we sold in 2014), but also helped me appreciate a different way of exploring India – one that I have never stopped swearing by.
The current owners of India Untravelled have strived to keep our original dream alive – and now offer curated homestay experiences across India, including Uttarakhand, Ladakh, Kerala and other states.
Responsible tourism companies in India I’m eager to travel with:
Roots Ladakh (Kargil): In the valleys and mountains around Kargil, where tourism infrastructure is still pretty underdeveloped, Roots Ladakh – set up by locals – promises respectful interaction and understanding of local communities.
Health Nut (across India): As the vegan movement catches on in India, Health Nut, run by a health coach from my hometown Dehradun, offers eco-conscious retreats that focus on health, nutrition, reversing diseases and reconnecting with the great outdoors.
Native Folks (Goa): We’re all familiar with the tourist-infested beaches of Goa, but Native Folks promises a different experience, living with locals on the laidback Divar Island.
Rural Pleasure (Gujarat): While exploring Gujarat, I fell short of days to join Rural Pleasure to learn about the way of life of the fascinating Dang tribe.
Kabani (Kerala): Amid the scenic rice paddies and backwaters of southern Kerala, Kabani – run by Kerala locals – works with local communities to offer homestays, travel programs run entirely by women for women and a chance to delve deeper into the offbeat side of this popular state.
Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company(Ladakh): In the Indian Himalayas, where its still taboo for local women to train as mountain guides, the Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company – started and run entirely by local Ladakhi women – is challenging cultural stereotypes. I’ve heard great things about their trips in this spectacular region, which is being ruined by irresponsible tour operators.
And you, have you travelled with responsible travel companies within India – or elsewhere?
I’d love to grow this list and my own understanding of sustainable tourism.