It may not be feasible for us to indulge in astro-tourism in many of our crowded cities, but Paras Loomba, Founder, GHE, finds the Ladakh night skies perfect for this. With little or no light pollution, one can identify numerous stellar objects. Paras says his company saw this as a huge opportunity for creating additional livelihoods for the communities, and so developed it into a unique concept of astrostays in various villages of Ladakh by installing auto tracking telescopes powered by solar energy. The local women who run these homestays have been taught the basics of astronomy and are trained to operate telescopes and showcase the night sky to tourists. He goes on to talk about what GHE has been doing in the Himalayan region. Excerpts from an interview:
ETTravelWorld (ETTW): For starters, please tell us what Global Himalayan Expedition does and how do you leverage tourism into this?
Paras Loomba (PL): Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE) is a social impact enterprise that leverages tourism and technology to bring clean energy access, livelihood generation and digital education opportunities for remote Himalayan communities. GHE has been recognised by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) as the first travel company to conduct Climate Positive Traveler Expeditions. Our expeditions involve travellers from diverse backgrounds and different countries to come together to bring solar energy to the remote unelectrified villages in the Indian Himalayas. The capital cost for the solar grids is paid for by the travellers as part of their expedition fees. Through its ‘Impact Expeditions’, GHE is able to leverage tourism as a force for holistic development for the remote mountain communities. The expeditions have created an everlasting impact on the communities and at the same time have been a life-changing experience for the participants. More than 131 villages in the remote Indian Himalayas now have access to clean and renewable energy which has impacted the lives of 600,00 people in the Himalayas. In the process 1,300 travellers from over 60 different countries have been part of the impact adventures. Through solar energy, the project has displaced 9245 Tons of CO2 emissions annually and enabled the cultural and environmental preservation of the fragile mountain ecosystems.
ETTW: On October 27, you won the 2020 United Nations Global Climate Action Awards. What does the win mean to you and your team?
PL: The award is a testimony to the hard work and effort being put in the entire GHE team, along with our partners, stakeholders and travellers, to create a unique model for financing climate mitigation solutions using tourism as a tool. Working in the remote regions of India requires a lot of commitment and coordination between different players who need to come together to work in a seamless manner.
ETTW: How do you explain the reality of climate change to naysayers?
PL: Scientific approach cannot work for people who do not understand or deny the fact of climate change. Evidence-based study and relating those facts to daily changes happening around us can be a fairly convincing discussion. The planet’s average temperature rise of about 2.05 degrees Fahrenheit (1.14 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, oceans showing warming of more than 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit (0.33 degrees Celsius) since 1969, Antarctica losing about 148 billion tons of ice per year, global sea level rising about 8 inches in the last century are all instances that need to be linked with the reasons and the effects of it. Along with gathering evidence of the changes in our environment, it is high time we did an empirical study of the direct impact of climate change on people’s lives across the globe. The discourse would only be convincing if evidence of adverse impacts as well as evidence of positive impact of actions combating climate change are gathered. Through our expeditions, we take people to the remote Himalayan regions where they get to witness first-hand, the impact of climate change on our planet. The travellers get to have a discussion with the local communities who share the impact of global warming and how the village that used to have 8-10 water streams is now managing with just one. The villagers also share their stories of displacement from their earlier locations due to the low level of glaciers, contributing to them becoming climate refugees. Through evidence based on ground reality, we are able to bring the reality of climate change to naysayers. ETTW: How niche a subject is sustainable tourism in India?
PL: There are clearly two distinctive categories in Indian tourism market – People who simply visit a place and then there are some who are conscious towards the environment and local economy when they travel. The approach on the supply side also distinguishes accordingly and falls under two categories – Those who focus on catering to each and every demand of their travellers and then there are those who prioritise not harming the local environment and communities while offering their tourism services. Sustainable Tourism, both in demand and supply side, is limited. Responsible travellers do not have multiple options when they travel, and responsible travel businesses usually fall short of guests to cater to. The important point to note is that the concept of sustainable tourism is often understood as not harming the local environment and encouraging services offered by locals. The term sustainable tourism is still unheard of by the masses.
ETTW: How can Indian travel and hospitality companies as well as tour operators contribute to responsible travel?
PL: Travel and hospitality companies and tour operators can be the biggest contributors to bring responsible travellers into mainstream travel practices. Instead of waiting for travellers to start demanding sustainable travel products and services, practitioners can weave the concept of sustainability into each of their offerings. Offering locally produced amenities in hotel rooms as a luxury service, bridging the gap between local communities and travellers by offering a platform for locals to authentically perform their traditional skills and art forms, setting up rules/guidelines for travellers to use the local resources wisely, promoting stories of local community and environment to set the expectations for travellers so that they behave responsibly are some easy practices any travel company can inculcate. Instead of waiting for authorities to come up with rules and regulations for responsible travel, travel and hospitality companies and tour operators can use their power of setting up right practices in place.