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Green keys: Responsible, eco-friendly tourism in times of inhospitality

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Green keys, trip to mountains, eco-friendly tourism, ecotourism, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Thenmala Dam, tourism industry, Madagascar  

On a trip to the mountains where a river runs through, where the green of the trees is reflected in the pristine waters, and the cool, crisp air is a breath of freshness, there is nothing more jarring than a sight of haphazard, congested construction erupting like mushrooms gone wild in a field. The clash of white, orange and yellow painted cement against the earthy colours of a mountainside is a sore sight, reflecting the sad state of tourism.

While this may be the ploy of small and individual operators, fortunately, responsible tourism is gaining currency globally, with ecotourism becoming one of the fastest-growing sectors of the tourism industry, growing annually by 10-15% worldwide. In countries like Costa Rica, Ecuador, Nepal, Kenya, Madagascar and places such as Antarctica, ecotourism is a major industry.

In India, Thenmala in Kerala is the first planned ecotourism destination in India, with the Thenmala Dam a tourist attraction. An artificial lake amid a wildlife sanctuary attracts foreign and domestic tourists, offering boating on the lake, a rope bridge, trekking, mountaineering, biking and a musical fountain. A nearby deer rehabilitation centre gives a glimpse of deer in a forest setting and a peep into a traditional tree house used by forest dwellers to escape harm from wild animals. In the hill areas of Kurseong in West Bengal, researchers are working for the development of ecotourism to be used as a tool for natural resource management.

But the need of the hour is for big names in tourism and hospitality to wake up to ecotourism. So it is heartening to come across places like the Taj Resort in Rishikesh that are in sync with nature. Located about 35 kilometres upriver from the bustle of Rishikesh, the first thing that strikes you about the place is the simple architecture, which blends right in with the landscape. The stone and wood facade with slate floors and roofing is how locals construct their houses in the region. Known as kathkuni architecture, the style is a staple in the hilly states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The interiors of the resort replicate the ode to nature, with wood and stone walls and muted earth-toned décor, reflecting the colours of the river stones and surrounding flora.

The flashiness is nowhere to be found, but the warmth is full-on. Stepping into the main reception feels like walking into somebody’s home, with a gas-fuelled fireplace and library adding to the charm. The large windows blur the line between the interiors and exteriors for a seamless experience of the surrounding nature. The various villas are built down the slope in a tiered fashion, ending in a natural beach of the river Ganga. The small details emerge later. There are no flowers to be seen anywhere, either on the property or in the vases in the rooms. This is to remain true to the surrounding nature, because no flowers grow naturally on the hillside. Zero waste, solar power, water recycling, rainwater harvesting are integral to operations.

Getting the local community into the fold is essential to the definition of ecofriendly tourism. Not only is the property generating employment for the local community, the general manager narrates how efforts have been made to reinhabit a ghost village nearby by promising families to procure their entire produce. So far, four families that had moved to bigger cities for livelihood have returned to their village and are now back to full-time farming. A restaurant offering cuisine only from the region is an ideal platform to showcase not only local recipes and culinary traditions, but also championing local produce like red rice, millets, pulses and fresh greens and vegetables, achieving a low carbon footprint.