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COVER STORY

Sustainability - Time to Walk the Talk

Tuesday, June 6, 2017, 11:21 Hrs  [IST]

At a time global agencies like UNWTO is pushing the Sustainable Tourism Agenda to the centre stage by declaring 2017 as International Year of Sustainable Tourism, it is incumbent upon countries like India which are signatories in many UN Conventions on sustainability and also for private industry in these countries to take stock of their record so far and preparedness for future so that they reduce negative impacts on environment and become drivers of sustainable development goals which contributes positively to the environment, local communities, cultures and well being of the people. The track record, especially in India, is not very encouraging as vast majority of Indian industry hasn’t been able to go beyond ‘basic compliance’ and ‘tokenism’ when it comes to sustainability. P Krishna Kumar tries to understand where the Indian industry stands in terms of its commitment as well as the level of understanding about sustainable development in general.



As per UNWTO figures, an average of three million tourists cross borders every day and about 1.2 billion in a year. It’s just the international travel figures; the number will be more than double if travel within each country is counted. The kind of economic activity, such a big movement of travellers across the world is difficult to calculate to the last penny. Similarly, the kind of adverse impact on environment that such a movement leaves at destinations is also large and difficult to offset. It is in this respect, the need for sustainable development was thought over by global bodies like UNWTO with the involvement of the governments and participation of the private industry. International standards and guidelines have been developed by these agencies for governments and the industry to adhere to so that adverse impacts of travel and tourism can be reduced and thereby become a transformational force in fighting poverty, promoting decent jobs, improving gender equality and livelihoods of young people and also fight against the climate change.

UNWTO has even declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism to underline the immense socio-economic benefits the sector can deliver to all kinds of societies and also to propagate peace, understanding and harmony among people, cultures, communities, etc., and contribute to sustainable development of the world.

"  Unfortunately, massive
tourists don’t really care nor
tour companies. Sustainable
development is proving itself
to be never implemented in
capitalist world. Today, System is
not built to sustain the well-being
of people or environment. Rich
are getting richer  "



Objectives are noble, no doubt. However, travel and tourism industry across the globe has an image crisis because of various issues associated with tourism growth and development, by and large a private investororiented business activity. A comment uploaded on the UNWTO website on Sustainable Tourism initiative summarises the general sentiment prevailing about travel and tourism in general and its sustainability track record. It goes like this:

If various reports are anything to be believed, resistance against mass tourism has started gaining momentum from various places forcing city governments to rethink their strategies and implement strict regulations on tourist flow as well as businesses which are detrimental to the image of the city and over all destinations. Cities like Venice, Barcelona have their tourism strategies revisited recently. A recent report of researchers digging out 38 million pieces of trash washed up in an uninhabited UNESCO inscribed heritage island, Henderson, in Pacific Ocean was alarming, although there were no fingers pointed towards tourism. However, with destination marketers running after numbers to prove their mettle, sustainable tourism will continue to be a victim.

"  People think that going Green is what sustainability is all about. It is just one aspect of sustainability. In GSTC, we talk about four pillars of sustainability – business management aspect, social aspect, cultural aspect and finally the environmental aspect. There is a lack of awareness and understanding about these aspects in the industry.

CBRamkumar, Board Member, Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)


"   It is important to ask oneself, am I on the right track. Today, it is so simple to download the right guiding tools like the UN SDG - sustainable development goals to help navigate through various terminology and stick to a source which has global credibility.

Niranjan Khatri, Founder, iSambha


"  Let’s not create issues and dislodge the real issue. Responsible tourism is more inclusive and understood. Eco-tourism Societies across the world are being renamed as Responsible Tourism Societies. That says it all!

Steve Borgia, Founder of Indeco Hotels and President of Eco-tourism Society of India (ESOI)


"  The broadening of the agenda to embrace the three pillars of sustainability to address the economic, social and environmental is at the heart of the Responsible Tourism Movement. Responsible Tourism is about what individuals do to contribute to achieving sustainability, the things they take responsibility for.

Harold Goodwin, MD, Responsible Tourism Partnership


India scenario
India has been following the global initiatives on eco, sustainable and responsible tourism from time to time and is a signatory to various global conventions in this context. As a result, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India has formulated a Comprehensive Sustainable Tourism Criteria and Guidelines applicable to all verticals of the travel and tourism industry like tour operators, accommodation owners, resorts, beaches, backwaters, lakes, etc., in August 2014 after due process of consultations with the private industry in the country. However, there is a criticism that the guidelines are “minimum compliance” which the industry has to adopt “voluntarily” without any power vested on the authorities to enforce them. The critics believe that self-regulation would not work when businesses are tuned to make profits.

India’s experience with sustainable tourism has not been very encouraging although there has been lot of big breakthroughs and achievements by tourism departments, destination managers, hotel groups, etc. There have been positive debates and discussions about eco tourism, responsible tourism, sustainable tourism, etc., in the industry in the last few years, which have actually helped in creating some sort of awareness about broad objectives. However, very few have moved beyond minimum compliance and tokenism.

Confirms CB Ramkumar, Founder, Our Native Village and Board Member, Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), “Over 90 to 95% of the hotel industry in the country is not committed to sustainability at all. I am rather generous to put 5% as sustainable. One can literally count them on your fingers who are committed to sustainable tourism. There is a lot of tokenism and green washing even among those who claims to be committed to the cause. Many do it for the sake of marketing and winning awards. True commitment is seriously lacking. This is not the case of India alone; it is true for whole of South Asia.” Major reason for lack of commitment is lack of awareness about sustainability. More than 80% think that sustainability is all about green and environment, he said.



“In my view, barring few hotel chains, most of the hotels are in the compliance mode, as the subject of sustainability has not received encouragement from their owners to go beyond compliance,” observes Niranjan Khatri, Founder of iSambhav, a training organisation for sustainable development.

Steve Borgia, Founder of Indeco Hotels and President of Eco-tourism Society of India (ESOI) demands strong “political will” to make industry remain in the sustainable path. “We are far behind even countries like France, Germany. Certain initiatives that will contribute in a significant way to environmental sustainability are not adopted because of the difficulty and costs involved in adoption. What we do at family or community level will not even scratch the surface. But the good side of it is that we have at least started!”

Even in few places where responsible tourism, an offshoot of sustainable tourism, prospered and became some sort of a role model, the transformation has happened after mass movements and struggles by the local people against the tourism industry. One of the architects of Kerala’s responsible tourism model, Rupeshkumar in an interview recently had explicated how the resort owners in Kumarakom in Kerala tried to scuttle the responsible tourism initiatives initially, and how they practiced social alienation instead of inclusion by creating high walls between the visiting tourists and the local villagers by treating the locals uncivilised and inferior human beings. The success story of Kumarakom RT initiative amplifies the fact that left to them, the tourism industry would not care for local environment, communities.

Kabani Community Tourism Services is an alternate tourism model which allows tourists to discover places, people and their culture in a fair and responsible way while local communities get an alternate source of income other than farming and agriculture.Sumesh Mangalassery, Founder of Kabani talks about the model which has won many appreciations and accolades.



Centralised planning is the bane of sustainable tourism

Q How did your quest for an alternate tourism model start?
Kabani was founded in 2005 as a non-profit organisation for grassroots interventions in tourism. We believe that any development should benefit the lives and lands of the local communities and should not negatively impact them. This led us to follow a ‘propose and oppose’ approach in tourism. We propose a new kind of involvement of communities in tourism, driven by the villagers themselves, and a new way for tourists to discover a culture on sustainable, fair and responsible travel

Q How your model is different from the tourism professed and practiced by mainstream agencies?
The role of local communities in tourism usually confined merely as suppliers of goods and services to the tourists and hotels. In our programmes, local communities are empowered to take decisions on developments which affect them. We facilitate village committees that consist of members of ‘local self-governments’ which are democratically elected bodies.

We promote ‘people to people travel’, but at the same time ensure a fair share of benefits for everybody involved along the ‘value chain’. Entire profit of the programme is spread in villages for empowerment of communities and developing sustainable tourism.

We consider and promote hosting travellers as an additional income that needs to go along with farming or other traditional economic activities. We insist that the kind of tourism we advocate in this context uses very minimal or zero investment





Getttting there!
There are many examples globally and in India also of individuals and groups attempting to build an alternate model of tourism which is environment friendly, sensitive to the local communities, resources, etc. While searching for such models, I came across a highly commendable model from the region. The Soneva Group, which is known across the globe for the high end luxury resorts, has set an example in sustainability by undertaking a Total Impact Assessment (TIA) and publishing it on a yearly basis so that they can improve upon their benchmarks and strive for higher goals

People who are associated with sustainable tourism and responsible tourism initiatives globally takes note of the growing awareness even among the Indian industry stakeholders. “There have been some outstanding RT Award winners from India - just last year in the global RT Awards, Lemon Tree Hotels was overall joint winner. In the India RT Awards last year there were some very worthy winners. There are other great examples in India, ITC Hotels, CGH Earth, Orchid Hotels,” informs Dr Harold Goodwin, MD of Responsible Tourism Partnership.

"  Sadly, we did not get many applications for Green Hotelier Awards from hotels in India this year. However, we have had a few in previous years. It’s a shame because I know of a number of hotel groups in India who are very active with their sustainability programmes.

Siobhan O’Neill, Communications Manager, International Tourism Partnership (ITP)


"   Sustainable tourism is an aspiration which we all are trying to achieve, but responsible tourism is action to reach there. Wherever we go, we behave like a local and we are always in sync with the aspirations and culture of the local community.

Jose Dominic, CMD, CGH Earth


"  We are not obsessed with just the product. We realise that our product is only as good as the places we are in and the people who work for us. So paying attention to both on equal par with product development is what probably sets us apart from the rest of the industry in this regard.

Jose Ramapuram, Director-Marketing, Orange County Resorts


"  Our resorts are committed to conservation, cultural sensitivity, and most certainly comfort to our guests. We hire local staff and benefit native communities, this is done not only to give a more authentic touch but mainly to provide employment to people living in these places.

Param Kannampilly, MD, Concept Hospitality


Siobhan O’Neill, Communications Manager, International Tourism Partnership (ITP), which engages hotel industry globally in many sustainable tourism activities and Green Hotelier Awards, also authenticates tangible actions from Indian hospitality industry towards sustainability. “Green Hotelier is a programme of the International Tourism Partnership, a membership organisation which works with leading global hotel groups, providing a non-competitive forum for collaboration on sustainability. Taj Hotels, Resorts & Palaces is a member. IHG which has a big presence in India is also a member. They are both working with us across our four key issue areas of carbon, water, youth unemployment and human rights. In addition I know ITC Hotels, The Fern, etc., are very proactive in terms of their sustainability,” she informed. Besides that, their Youth Career Initiative (YCI), an employability programme for disadvantaged youth, was also received well in India by hotel companies. “They are very popular and successful and growing fast. Over 100 students graduated in April from the Mumbai programme which is active across a number of hotels.”

Going beyond mere compliance
The pertinent question is how many in the industry are going beyond minimum compliance and setting higher benchmarks. In fact, very few are trying in that direction. What is actually happening is some conservation efforts on electricity, water, etc., which is by and large classified as environmental sustainability. Those are efforts which directly or indirectly associated with the costs and profits of the business. “Sustainability is not just about energy/ water but about all resources and the ability to connect the unconnected dots by coalescing planet, people and profit,” informs Niranjan Khatri.

The availability of innovative and useful environmental technologies like data analytic tools to evaluate water and energy use has made it easy for the industry today to embrace sustainability with more conviction than before, says Jose Ramapuram, Director-Marketing, Orange Country Resorts & Hotels, which has won numerous national and international accolades for highest level of sustainability. “What is needed now is a comprehensive vision for sustainability that can be built into the very fabric of the business model itself, influencing its values and operations, rather than seeing it just as an adjunct to conventional industry policies and practices. This shift needs to take place before one can see visible results upon environment and society as a result of adopting sustainability,” he added.

Jose Dominic, Chairman & MD of CGH Earth Hotels believes that investment in sustainable and responsible tourism products makes good business sense as well. Return on investment and maximising profits is of course the objective of any business. “Business excellence happens when the interest of the planet and the interest of the society are put above the consumer and when the customer himself finds his worth in it. It would sound little contradictory, but the fact is that business excellence cannot be measured only on the basis of return on investment alone,” stated Dominic. When social inclusion and serving the local community is the driving motive and purpose of the business, instead of seeing such businesses as encroachment to their space, they support it for their larger benefit, he says. “Wherever we go, we never try to do anything alien to the environment and their culture, customs, etc. We don’t go with a colonial or imperialist attitude.”

Sustainable and responsible practices in the hotel industry were emerging trends two decades ago. Currently that trend, under the leadership of a passionate minority has become an emerging movement, says Param Kannampilly, MD, Concept Hospitality. “After years of it being perceived as cost-centric, the industry has now, finally realised the true value-addition made by implementation of sustainable initiatives and is committed to implementing holistic measures in hotels across the country.” Sustainability, according to Kannampilly, has moved beyond energy and water saving practices to inclusivity, equal opportunity, responsible sourcing, active conservation and minimal impact. How these principles are applied in business across the country will determine the overall impact of the industry, he added.

An experiment with Social Inclusion



Lemon Tree Hotel Company (LTHC) has embarked on a novel experiment with sustainability a decade ago of inducting people with disabilities and from socially and economically weaker sections, an exercise intended at mainstreaming the marginalised. The initiative proved to be a big success and earned global recognition to the hotel company. The company has a sizeable number of employees in their workforce today.

“Today, 13% of our total workforce is people with disabilities. It comes to 550 people in our total strength of 4,100 across 40 hotels in 23 cities. In addition, we have 310 people from economically and socially backward sections (7.5%). In short, one-fifth of our employee strength is opportunity deprived in one way or the other,” informs Aradhana Lal, VP – Sustainability Initiatives, Lemon Tree Hotels. The company has started inducting people with intellectual disabilities like Down Syndrome, Autism, etc., few years back, and geared to look at visually impaired in near future, she said.

By 2025, the Hotel Company has a vision to grow this segment to 40 to 45% of the company’s strength. The company is working closely with training partners so that they can gear up to train people to prepare them mentally and professionally to take up the responsibilities. “We can teach them the hoteliering, but we want schools, NGOs, etc., groom them on basic life skills, professional skills, etc.”

From brand perspective as well as business perspective, the initiative has given immense benefits to Lemon Tree. Guests started appreciating it, and at the same time ‘able’ employees started taking pride in associating with the brand. “Directly or indirectly we are also becoming part of the nation building exercise by helping people with disabilities and from the marginalised or the Opportunity Deprived Indians (ODI) to live with dignity, independence and self reliance.”





Policy framework
Apart from formulating a Sustainable Tourism Criteria for India, the role of the government from a policy perspective has been near absent in this space. Whatever little has been achieved or done is at the behest and initiative of the private entrepreneurs and the industry. Tourism being a state subject in the country, the relevance of a central policy is seen with doubts. Even the much talked about National Tourism Policy of the government hasn’t seen the light for the last two years.

Whatever progress achieved so far in sustainable and responsible tourism is all self-initiated. Perhaps this is one reason why it is limited in its impact and has been slow to spread. Th e role of government in this is sadly absent, Jose Ramapuram pointed out. Enlightened and well thought out government policies that support the conscious practice of sustainability and responsibility by the tourism sector at large will help considerably in advancing this movement, he added.

“Follow STCI has become very expensive. The government has to see it as an investment and look at subsidies to induce the industry to take to sustainability. We have a long way to go, not to get more sustainable, even to understand the value,” said Borgia.

There is still no clarity as far as converting the Sustainable Tourism Criteria into a policy by the government. There is still lack of understanding and awareness about what Sustainable Tourism is and how it will support the national agenda employment generation, social inclusiveness, etc., laments Ramkumar. “Unfortunately the only thing the governments understand is promotions. Major chunk of the funds for tourism is spent on promotions and the remaining is spent on last mile connectivity. Therefore, the whole objective gets diluted,” he stated.

In the global scenario where countries and destinations are spending huge money on marketing blitzkrieg to attract tourists to their shores to shore up their coffers and generate employment, sustainability will continue to remain a question mark and elude the sector unless strong regulatory systems are put in place. India, despite having a mammoth domestic tourist base, is also after ‘numbers’ in the game of international tourism. Numbers get predominance over carrying capacity in that game. It’s in this respect, the recent statement of a top official of the Ministry of Environment; Forests & Climate Change of Government of India becomes relevant. The official asked Indian tourism to emulate its tiny neighbour, Bhutan on Sustainable Tourism, which is not driven by numbers but rather based on the carrying capacity of the place.

krishna.kumar@saffronsynergies.in

 
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