CWH has been shortlisted for the World Responsible travel awards in 2010 and 2012 and finalist in Indian Responsible travel awards 2016, and each time I had to fill a detailed questionnaire on how we are doing things differently from the rest. This section is a summary of all those answers. As usual I will give you an option of reading through all the text below or just understand these two points about CWH:
A. There is a stat that says 90% of tourists visit the same 10% places in the Indian Himalaya. We are interested in and actively seek places to go in the remaining 90%.
B. All CWH trips exclusively use local resources of the place we go for our trips – people, supplies, transportation and stay. We believe ‘Inclusive tourism’ or more commonly ‘responsible tourism’, is not just a way to travel in the Himalaya, its the ONLY way.
To know more, read on….
Economical impact - Local staff & supplies
Every single person employed on any CWH trip is a native of the region in which the trip is being conducted. Family guesthouse owners, drivers, guides, cooks, porters, everyone is hired from the region. Education opportunities are at best limited in rural India and especially in the remote Himalayan places. Logistic, social and financial compulsions lead to a very low literacy rate. However, lack of education in no way means lack of knowledge about the native place, its culture, history, myths, weather phenomenon, trek routes, flora and fauna, etc, the exact qualities required for someone working with CWH and locals are hired exclusively for these. Inability to read or write (in English or in their own language) has never been a disadvantage.
Also, entirely everything (>95%) of our supplies are sourced locally. The three main components of our trips and how we involve locals for each one of these is given below:
- Stay and food: We never carry food or any supplies from outside. Its all locally sourced. We take up accommodation based on the following list of preference –
Not only does this ensure a contribution to the local economy but also a more authentic experience for the visitors.
- homestays are always the first preference,
- followed by family run guesthouses,
- and then, Govt. guest houses. (because they hire local staff).
- Transportation: Again, local drivers and vehicles are hired. We never bring in vehicles from a big city. Sometimes this means not getting the best or most comfortable transportation but the clients understand the reason behind that.
- Treks and adventure activities: The entire trekking staff (i.e guides, porters, cooks, horsemen), equipment and food is localized. We don’t have permanent staff or equipment because the entire idea is to hire locally and utilize the local know-how. Even within the same state, for example Himachal Pradesh, we work with a separate staff in each of the distinct regions, like Spiti, Kinnaur, Chamba, etc.
You can take a look at the Partners section to know more about the local organizations we collaborate with.
Growth initiatives for local employees
Probably the initiatives can best be described through the following examples:
- Drivers: We will hire a driver who has the skill and experience driving in a specific region. He will then be groomed to interact with the clients and share his local know-how, understand the itinerary and places we are covering, etc. After couple of trips he will then be hired as a driver and local guide while on the road. Next step for him will be handling the travel logistics for his region. Since all our employees are freelancers, he is now enabled to expand his “business” without any bounds.
- Family guesthouse owners: Chosen initially for their location, they become the vital cog in all CWH operations. This is because of their fixed location in that region and also their business aptitude (because of which they decided to start a guesthouse in such remote places in the first place). They are groomed to be the financial managers dealing with the local staff, suppliers and drivers. Their interest in our trips is than no longer ‘per person per night’ but a percentage of the earnings.
- Guides and porters: Their inherent bent towards adventure is tapped by educating them on all aspects of managing a trek, in some cases even sponsoring their formal training as mountain guides, so that they can graduate to be the trek leaders of their region. Lot of the guides and porters CWH have worked with are now handling treks on their own and are established ‘domain experts’ for their region.
Considering most of our trips are to places where the locals have had very limited contact with the world outside, this is an extremely sensitive concern and extra care and precautions are in place for a meaningful exchange with the natives:
- It starts with educating the clients about the place we are visiting. This includes telling them about the history, culture, cuisine, means of livelihood, local architecture, places of worship, etc. In the pre-trip sessions, we focus primarily on this aspect. I feel this is the crucial bit where clients start seeing the place they will be visiting as a complete social entity rather than an exotic sounding name they will check off their list.
- Standard traveling/ trekking ethics are followed. These include – no clicking pics without permission, dressing as per local sensibilities and never-ever give money and/or chocolates to the village children (I have serious issues with this practice as I have seen kids in villages gradually turning from wide-eyed curiosity to literally begging over years. Instead sharing what you are eating with them, speaking to them, such small things work wonders.)
- Direct contact and dialogue with the local communities is an integral part of CWH trips (and something we work extra hard at). Whether through homestays, the best inclusive tourism initiative ever according to me, or visits to local schools (we regularly visit and support community run schools and orphanages, e.g in Kalpa, Rishikesh and Darjeeling. Again, I feel this is a very imp part of building bonds with the places we visit), and to temples (in the small and remote villages, temples are the de-facto community halls and always buzzing with activity).
On every single trip, we include visits to local handicraft stores, co-operative premises and in many cases to native households from where variety of things can be purchased. These include – handicrafts, souvenirs and agricultural products (organic is the buzzword) like honey, spices, pickles, etc. These visits are meant to educate the clients as much as they are to encourage them to buy. For example, when in Spiti, we educate our clients about the seabuckthorn plant and encourage them to buy the products locals make out of it.
Women are the backbone of environment conservation (as they are of their family) in Indian Himalaya. Without involvement and buy-in of local women, its really just a nice sounding policy on paper. CWH strongly supports and works with women in every way possible. Here are some examples:
- We are one of the very few in India, hiring women as trekking staff i.e guides and cooks. We do so regularly in Kumaon (esp in Darma valley) and Sikkim. This is mutually beneficial as women staff have proved to be exceptionally adept at work and more cheerful than their male counterparts. Also, since more than 75% of CWH clients are women, it just works perfectly.
- We support women-run guesthouses, eateries and supply shops by putting them highest on our preference list for every single trip we conduct.
- Women co-operatives like the Kumaon women weavers group or the Ladakhi women association are supported by buying products from them and creating awareness amongst the clients.
The guiding principle of CWH is to explore the “off-beat” places in the Indian Himalaya. The environmental impact is reduced as:
- We spread out our trips to all the regions (there are 20 distinct ones) of the Indian Himalaya and very rarely have more than one trip a year to the same place.
- We only conduct small groups (on an average 8-10 clients per trip).
- Standard trekking practices like ‘leave-no trace’ are strictly practiced. Clients are explained the impact of what they might conceive as small actions:
- No wood is cut for cooking and bonfires are discouraged.
- ‘Dry-pit’ toilets are dug and a safe distance maintained from water sources.
- We use lunch boxes to carry meals and no paper/ aluminum foil is used.
- As much as possible, the waste generated is carried back down. Burning is the second option.
- Clients are encouraged not to disturb the ecological wealth of the place (stones, fossils, etc are best left where they are).
- Promote establishments that have adopted alternate means of energy e.g. Solar to heat water for bathing, etc.
- Support the growing trend of using water mills (at one time it was widely used) for grains.
- Are a paper-less organization. We never print our brochures or any documents. (We also don’t have visiting cards.)
I would however like to add that just the act of conducting trips means we are adding to our carbon footprint and that’s a debt which stays and can only be offset (hopefully) if a meaningful contribution is made to the place visited. (Its like a cost-benefit analysis we did in school. We know the cost, we just try our best to match it with the benefits, not necessarily just towards global warming, but surely also to the economic and social situation.)