Tourism is the means rather than the end

Stephan Marchal, Founder of Himalayan Ecotourism

Stephan Marchal is an OCI of Belgian origin. He has worked for about 7 years in the field of rural development with the Munda community in the state of Jharkhand. He specialised in conservation through social and economic empowerment of rural women. Then he moved to the Himalayas in 2011 and started Himalayan Ecotourism as his new instrument for nurturing a sustainable development in the Tirthan valley. Himalayan ecotourism was the Overall Winner of the Indian Responsible Tourism Awards 2019 and the Gold Winner in the Best Adventure Operator category. Edited excerpts from an interview with Stephan on his Responsible Tourism journey. 

Q: What led you to Responsible Tourism? Do tell us in brief the work your organisation does.

Stephan: Before working as a tour and trek operator I worked for about seven years with various NGOs in the field of sustainable development in tribal areas of Jharkhand. I found that the non-profit sector suffers from a crucial weakness: financial sustainability. To me this showed that conservation cannot be sustained by charitable endeavours alone. Therefore, when I moved to the Himalayas I decided to work as a social entrepreneur, and tourism appeared to be the best option for my enterprise. Tourism became the engine behind my social and environmental work to ensure financial sustainability, and hence a good level of self-reliance. 

Most people think that Responsible Tourism is a more ethical way of doing business in tourism. For me, on the other hand, I started doing business in tourism as a way to achieve my social and environmental objectives. For me tourism is the means rather than the end.

In many places across India we have seen how competition between the local stakeholders, when associated with poor regulations, has led to destructive over- tourism. Bringing the local people together to work collectively has been our foremost priority. A cooperative society of 65 members has been formed on the fringes of the Great Himalayan National Park.

From day one we decided to dedicate a part of our income to support conservation actions. We have developed green technologies that are affordable and match the local needs, launched several awareness campaigns to fight intentional forest fires, and encouraged the local women to work together for making local products for their economic and social empowerment. Recently we have started a tree plantation project.

Q: What can travellers expect when they sign up for a tour with you?

Stephan: When travellers book treks through a standard company their staff work as employees working for a daily wage from their employers. When trekking with Himalayan Ecotourism our guests are led by members of our cooperative, who are all shareholders in the society. They serve our guest as co-owners of their own company and that makes a huge difference.

Q: What are the challenges you have faced as a Responsible Tourism entrepreneur?

Stephan: The main obstacles have come from the local competitors associated with some other big players in the area. Scared to lose their monopoly and dominant influence they’ve looked unfavourably on the establishment of our cooperative. Encouraging the co-op members and standing firm against the attacks with tenacity and diplomacy has ensured our way to success.

A camp set up by Himalayan Ecotourism on one of their treks

Q: What is the impact of your organisation?

Stephan: The first impact of our organisation is the social impact. In the beginning, I don’t think any members really believed they could stand as a solid organisation. Their concerns were valid; the obstacles presented by the elite were very discouraging. But having persevered through all the obstacles makes them so much stronger and more confident today. It is a great social achievement.

The impact of our work on the environment is more difficult to quantify. However, we have seen an unprecedented absence of forest fires for nine months since the establishment of our awareness campaigns.

Q: Please share your proven best practices that other RT practitioners could implement.

Stephan: The positive impact of Himalayan Ecotourism on the local community and environment is due to the successful collaboration between locals and what we can call “benevolent non-locals”.

Obviously the locals should be the primary beneficiary of tourism in rural areas but in many cases the locals do not have the required set of skills to emerge as the main stakeholders.

Any well educated person could bridge this gap by collaborating with the locals. However, from my experience, I would say the following:

1. Having an experience in rural area with underprivileged communities is a big advantage.

2. Tourism should be thought of as a promising means of promoting conservation with the local community. The term ‘responsible tourism’ can also refer to conservation tourism for lucrative purposes, but this model wouldn’t be as successful.

3. A good amount of selflessness is required from the beginning and a continuous respectful attitude is a must for gaining trust of the locals.

4. Educating locals about their democratic rights is a necessary part of responsible tourism practice.

5. Networking with supportive officers and politicians can help you a lot.

Q: What are your immediate plans for your organisation in terms of expansion or new initiatives?

Stephan: Understanding that our cooperative society's primary aim is to provide employment we need to diversify our income generating activities because the trekking season lasts only for fivr months in a year. We are developing value-added local products: hand-made soaps, balms, woollen products etc. We will encourage the members of the cooperative to involve their wives and daughters. That would bring a big change in their society!