Tourism researcher Sumesh Mangalasseri wants to make tourism in India more sustainable. His company offers homestays in Indian villages. He tells DW why he doesn't believe tourism can alleviate poverty.
DW: What is eco-tourism?
Sumesh Mangalasseri: Eco-tourism involves travel to natural destinations. It ensures and raises awareness of biodiversity conservation. It also ensures community development and employment opportunities for local communities through tourism.
Why is this type of tourism important?
India, like any other third-world country, is also taking tourism as a development model. If you do that, tourism should contribute to a community's development, and it should support local economy. But India's current tourism programs are promoting mass tourism, which is not at all supporting the local economy in a meaningful way. That's where I think people like us and our company's work is relevant.
What does your company, Kabani Community Tourism and Services, do?
Kabani Tours is social entrepreneurship that is facilitating community tourism in Indian villages. We offer travelers a sustainable way of travel throughout India. We are also enhancing the skills of villagers through our training programs, and are creating awareness.
Tell us about your sustainable tourism projects!
We have a project in Kerala where we work with farmers. They take on tourism as an additional source of income. They're doing it side by side with their agricultural work. This way, tourism is not creating any dependencies for these communities. After all, we don't believe that tourism can alleviate poverty. In our experience, it's one of the most vulnerable industries in the world.
What exactly does Kabani Tours do - what can guests expect from one of your trips?
We are trying to develop homestays in villages. A spare room of the farmer will be provided to the guest, and they can stay with a local family, experience their food, their culture. For this, we facilitate training programs for homestay providers and develop local guides. Whenever a guest comes to the village, we introduce them to our culture, our environment and things like that. And then, we also train local service providers, such as taxi drivers.
What are the environmental advantages of eco-tourism?
As I said, if you manage properly, eco-tourism can generate awareness of conservation and enhance financial support. It can also offer local communities the opportunity to participate in tourism management and planning. The moment you bring community involvement into tourism, locals will definitely care about the environment. So if they're involved in tourism, it will definitely be better than tourism managed by outsiders.
What environmental problems come with eco-tourism?
Today, eco-tourism is just bringing mass-tourism to protected, or ecologically fragile, areas in India. That creates a lot of problems: the large flow of tourists consumes a lot of resources - like water, for example. This in turn creates water scarcity in these regions, which affects wildlife. Construction of facilities like hotels and other tourist infrastructure also creates problems for wildlife. Wild animals could then come into residential areas, which creates a kind of man/animal conflict.
Another issue is the large number of vehicles entering the forest, which poses various problems like noise pollution and disturbing animals.
Has there been a boom in eco-tourism?
Well, there is a considerable increase in eco-tourism for one major reason: More and more city people want to come to areas like forests and relax. So India is building airports in every city - that is a government policy. But when you just look at the aviation policy in India and the eco-tourism concept, you can see that they are highly contradicting. On one hand, they are talking about sustainability and sustainable tourism development. But in reality, you can see that this talk is highly contradictory to what they're doing on the ground. I can't see a sincere effort to bring sustainable tourism to India so far.
Sumesh Mangalasseri, 38, is a tourism researcher focusing on the negative impact of tourism on communities and natural resources. He is also the director of Kabani Community Tourism and Services that offers homestays in the Indian state of Kerala.