ecotourism in India – my complete guide
Most people outside the country would associate India with being overcrowded and polluted. The truth is that despite it all, there are massive swaths of land that is dedicated to an extraordinary array of plants and animals. India is a land where timeless cultures still thrive and find their place alongside the natural world. Outside of Africa this part of the planet is without a doubt your best bet for seeing the world’s megafauna.
Hindus Buddhists and Jains all have a great reverence for nature, and despite the burgeoning population, this is very visible to an outsider. As a visitor to these lands, it is incumbent that we leave as small a footprint as possible.
I think many of us in today’s world would see this as a big issue and so I am writing my post ecotourism in India – my complete guide. In this article, I will be talking about a few small steps you can take to do your part. I Will also be talking about some impressive conservation efforts you can experience for yourself with minimal impact on the environment.
Ok so the second-most populous country on the planet has mounting environmental issues, but there is no need to be adding to them is there? Wildlife enthusiasts have been drawn to these shores for centuries and with good reason. Despite all the environmental problems the country faces, there are still oodles of stunning natural spaces for everyone to experience and enjoy. Let us all do our part and tread carefully.
What is ecotourism and why is it important?
According to Wikipedia eco-tourism, it is catering for holidaymakers in the natural environment without damaging it or disturbing habitats. It is a form of tourism involving visiting fragile, pristine, and relatively undisturbed natural areas, intended as a low-impact and often small scale alternative to standard commercial mass tourism. Well, that sounded formal, but it is what it is. It is just a crying shame the term even needs to be bought into existence.
That definition is given from the standpoint of the business owner, and fortunately, it is on the rise. However many people capitalise on peoples heartstrings and unnecessarily put the costs up.
The places I recommend have not done so. Pushing the costs up can be frustrating and damn right off-putting for those on a tight budget.
Broadly speaking tourism comes in two flavours. It can be destructive or productive, and many people won’t spend a lot of time wondering what side of the fence they want to be on.
Where you put your money makes a world of difference. It can help ensure your children inherit an earth just as rich and varied as the world we were lucky enough to be born into. So being mindful of what you are doing and the impact you are having is an excellent reason why ecotourism is so essential.
It must be news to nobody at this point that our planet is in a state of crises. I am from England, where we only have 6% of our native habitat cover left so many of us will not know the difference. In India, that number is much higher, and these habitats support a myriad of species and fragile cultures.
As a traveller and an avid wildlife lover, you can’t help but notice just how endangered some species are. Some places I have visited I have discovered that certain species live in a tiny little bit of protected area and nowhere else in the world!
Some cultures have become so fragile the rest of the planet are no longer allowed to visit at all. Like in the case of the tribes of the Andaman Islands. Their numbers have dwindled so far that the cultures face extinction. So the situation is quite severe, and the impact you have can go a long way.
The irony being that tourism is often the only reason why these environments are still there and not cleared for farming. This situation is not unique to India. It is the same the world over. Like in the case of the Gorillas in Rwanda. Those crazy expensive permits and the tourists’ willingness to pay for them are the only reason they still exist. Someone somewhere has to pay for the preservation of that habitat.
More and more tourists are happy to foot that bill in exchange for experience. Particularly since so many of us both have an expendable income and live in concrete cites far removed from the natural world. London is a very different kind of jungle, and few animals can flourish. The benefits of ecotourism are massive. The communities involved have an incentive to protect the fragile environments and preserve future generations of its inhabitants.
What can you do as an eco-tourist?
You are the eco-tourist and its not just about where you visit but also the things you do while you are there that matters. If you are on the road for months at a time, you will of cause consume a lot of resources. Let’s take a look at how you can keep your impact down.
If you only drink bottled water and after one year on the road you were able to see just how many bottles that amounted too I think you would be genuinely disgusted. That does not mean drink water from the tap! That would be insane and a sure way to get sick. The water that you get in Dhabbas, train stations, peoples homes and a whole host of other places will probably be just fine. Local people won’t drink the tap water neither as it makes them sick too. A lot of the water you see on tables comes in huge twenty-litre dispensers, and that is no different from what you have in your water bottle anyway.
Some houses or restaurants have water treatment systems as buying bottled water your whole life would be incredibly expensive. It is also safe to drink, and If you are worried, bring a filter from home. They don’t cost very much any more, and you will need one trekking anyway. The reality is if you decide to get off the beaten track, you will be drinking whatever water is available to you, so don’t leave home without one. That is not to say never to buy bottled water. Only try and keep the number of plastic bottles down.
Another thing you can do is reduce your carbon footprint is by not getting any unnecessary flights. Domestic tourism accounts for the vast bulk of travel in today’s India. That means the country is awash with budget airlines. While it is tempting to fly everywhere, try no to. Plan your routes on a map to minimise backtracking. This will save you time, money, and it is kind to the planet. India has a fast bus and train services all over the country. Use them as much as possible although I know it is not always practical.
I would suggest using local business to spread your wealth, but there is a scarcity of large brands in India. Remember when you bargain with local people choose your battles with a little compassion. If you are bargaining in New Dehli for the cost of a pair of Alladin pants you are probably being overcharged so bargain hard. The vendor is unlikely to sell them at a loss anyway.
However, if it is some poor old man who is asking to cycle you around the city in the desert heat then for crying out loud dont take his money. He is poor and needs the business, so will take you anyway. Show a little humility and pick your battles. Sometimes it is good to reflect on the tiny amount of money you are bargaining for.
The last tip I have for having a minimum impact is don’t litter. As obvious as it sounds when you have been on the road for months, and you see for the one millionth time someone is throwing their rubbish out of a train window. You can be left thinking what is the point? I have seen numerous tourists littering over the years, so I am going to go ahead and mention it. We would never do it in our own country, so don’t do it there. India has a chronic garbage problem due to a minimal collection service. Don’t add to the problem and set an example to the young people who watch your every move.
Ecotourism in India.
The concept of eco-friendly travel has taken off in a big way across the country. However, this concept is often peddled to the upper end of the social spectrum. It burns me that people are getting charged extra because they care. I cant give suggestions for every eco-friendly destination I have come across because this article would be a billion words long and you would never get to the bottom of it.
I will now suggest some of my favourite examples of ecotourism in the country that have integrity and won’t break the bank for you to get involved. My website is geared towards budget travel after all. So without further ado, let us jump straight into the good stuff shall we?
You will find these treks in the north of the country and involve you walking between villages and then sleeping in someones home. It has to be the ultimate in eco-friendly travel as it involves no petrol as there tend to be no roads anyway. You are giving back directly to the communities you have come to see and will more than likely be in stunning surroundings.
There are a lot of homestay treks in the country so have a look online for what suits you best. I insist on only suggesting things I have experienced myself. While of course, I have not done them all, I can only recommend the ones I liked the best. I have two clear winners for you to try out and here they are.
Number 1 The Homestay Trek in the Spiti Valley.
Oh yes, this trek will knock your socks off. The walk takes you through the high mountain deserts of Himachal Pradesh. Tibetan culture here is quite spectacular, and the people are welcoming. It is a joy to spend time in their homes, and you can get all the food and water you need. The scenery is incredible, and it is surprisingly rich in wildlife. Suppose this sounds like something that appeals to you? Then as fortune would have it I have an in-depth post on the trek that takes you through what to expect day by day. Check it out when you get the time it is called a backpackers guide to the homestay trek, enjoy.
When you stay in someone’s home, you pay a meagre sum of money, and that covers you for all of your needs. That money is a good source of revenue for the family and gives you the chance to experience what it is like to live in these harsh conditions. So this is a win-win situation for those who choose this kind of tourism.
Number 2 The Markha Valley Trek.
The trek also takes you through some of the stunning high mountain deserts of the far north of the country. The big difference between these two is this one is far more accessible and easy to organise. You can get a taxi all the way to the foot of the trail from the capital of Ladakh. You can quickly fly to Leh. In contrast, to get to the foot of the homestay trek, you have to undertake a journey of hundreds of kilometres with no chance of getting a plane anywhere.
Both of these walks give you the chance to get up-close and personal with some extraordinary wildlife. In fact, the Markha valley cuts right through Hemis national park. Stunning surroundings, Thriving cultures and the beneficial kind of tourism, makes homestay treks very attractive for the mindful tourist.
Experiencing India’s fragile cultures for the mindful tourist.
India plays host to a vast array of cultures that are entirely unique to the country. Since the government has lifted the hard to obtain permits for the northeast of the country, it has put its fragile cultures at risk. It is not just in the North East of the country where you can find unique culture. Himachal Pradesh, Uttrakhand, Ladakh, and Odisha all offer a cultural voyage for any visitor.
The first thing to remember when visiting these parts is your behaviour will invariably have a significant impression on the people you are visiting. So always remember to act appropriately.
Remember not to flaunt your wealth. Sometimes it is not always apparent you are even doing it. Once when I was younger, I stopped to buy some sweets from a tiny shop, and I bought what I thought was a reasonable amount. After I had paid for them, I noticed some children were looking as if to say aww. I felt so guilty I gave them all some because I knew they could not afford it.
I have seen it many times where foreigners pull out their smartphones, and that’s normal. Unfortunately, many of the more remote cultures have no such luxuries so bear that in mind as it may cause resentment.
My favourite cultural experiences in India.
Again it will be impossible for me to talk about them all as the country has so many distinct and unusual cultures to choose from. So I will tell you about my three favourites. I would appreciate any feedback from my readers on their favourite experiences they have had. Leave all your comments in the space provided as I want my website to be interactive.
Number 1 Madjuli Island.
Imagine a land of incredible natural beauty, where distant tribal cultures flourish alongside the natural world. Now imagine that’s all easily accessible. Well, that is what you will find in the beautiful corner of the universe. Tourism among foreigners is still relatively uncommon in Assam, and that is a real shame.
The island is a world unto itself, and I can say that because it literally is! Sitting in the middle of the mighty Brahmaputra river, the island has developed a culture quite unlike anything else you will find in the country.
It is a land of shifting sandbanks, Forests, farmland and timeless culture. The island is approximately 450 square km (but whos to say when it is continually moving.) It plays host to one of the best off the beaten track adventures you can have in India.
The Island is incredibly photogenic and is plenty big enough to keep you busy for weeks on end. The island seems timeless and is without a doubt one of the destinations in the country that stands out in the crowd.
This place is wholly unique, and I would recommend getting there soon as it is fast disappearing due to erosion. If this sounds like something, you are interested in check out my separate post on travel in Majuli Island.
Number 2 Northen Nagaland.
Until recently the Naga people have been protected from the outside world. The sudden boost in tourism has come with a mixed response from its people. Some people appreciate the new source of revenue, and some don’t. Whoever it is you are dealing with, please remember that this is a culture that is trying to get to grips with the modern world.
In the south integration has not gone so well. The villages around Kohima have become like human zoos from mass tourism. In the north, the culture is still very much intact, but the villages are very hard to get to. You will need to organise a guide for most of your journey as you would not have a clue where to start. Your best bet is to go to Helsa Resort in Mon. That’s the “capital” of Northern Nagaland. They are accustomed to foreigners and can steer you in the direction of a useful guide.
Some of the villages are a little easier to get to like Luangwa or Mokokchang. These are accessible by public transport, and they get a steady trickle of tourists. This does mean, however, that the people of these villages will know full well you are happy to spend so get ready to be seen as a cash point. It is still a pleasure to visit but, take note.
One obvious thing is the people here have long been self-sufficient and seem to be happy to eat just about anything. One boy who didn’t speak a word of English handed me a tiny newt. I said thank you then much to the horror of the boy I set it free. I had no idea that it was on the menu. However, due to an increasing population, the lush jungles here seem to be almost empty of life. So the Naga people are finding their feet in a new world. Tread carefully as your actions matter.
Number 3 The tribes of Baster.
Jagdalpur is the capital of the Bastar region of Chhatisgarh and serves as a base to explore the area the eight tribes of Bastar call home. Visiting here is a very intense experience, and you will need a guide even to find any of the villages in the first place. There are some 3500 tribal villages in the area, and they are excellent craftsmen. The local Haats are a perfect place to start and some you can visit by bus on your own steam. Here you can see locals trade cattle and bet on cockfighting over a cup of Mahuwa ( a potent local brew.)
Their culture is very different from elsewhere in the country. Some of the more unique customs are the belief that if your sick you should put your hands in a fire ants nest and it will cure you. Presumably, because you will be in so much pain, you will forget about your fever. They also make a chutney from them.
Another unusual custom is when two young lovers like each other they go to a particular building to have a trial marriage and see how it goes and if it does not go well they find another better-suited partner.
As a whole, the locals speak little English and set mostly in very remote areas so you will need some help. I contacted Awesh Ali [email protected]. He has a fixed rate of 1500 rupees a day for himself and then you need to hire a taxi and pay for petrol if you are in a group of two upwards.
If you are on your own, he has a motorbike so you will cut out that cost. He is very knowledgeable, and I found him to have a good relationship with the people. He helps them to receive medical care and also helps to settle any disputes or problems they may have.
He speaks nine languages, so it is possible to have a meaningful interaction with the locals, and he can explain what you are seeing. For example, I saw a small shrine in the jungle, and he told me that it was where local people come to ask for a safe day in the forest. I would have never have understood that by myself. Trust me; he is well worth the money as that would have been just a pile of rocks without him to explain.
The tribal culture here is far removed from anything I have experienced before, and there is very little anthropological information on the people. A trip here is sure to stay in your mind for a lifetime. Whats more coming out this way is truly pioneering travel as not many of your fellow backpackers will make it anywhere near here.
Ecotourism and conservation.
There are some genuinely thoughtful conservation projects that you can visit, and I will now tell you about my three favourites. India is blessed with a rich diversity of life, and despite how many years I have spent travelling around the subcontinent, I still continually find new species. I never fail to be enthralled by what it is I find. Now I will share with you just some of the places that bought me the most joy.
Number 1 Keoladeo Ghana National Park.
This will always be my favourite to bring up as this park is so vital to so many migratory birds. The tiny national park is only 29 Square kilometres, but it is regarded as one of the most essential bird breeding sights in the world.
Over the monsoon period, much of the park becomes submerged. By October and February, The park plays host to scores of birds from Afghanistan to Siberia including the incredibly rare Siberian crane. There are 366 species of birds in the park, and some are not very hard to see at all.
It is inexpensive to visit and packed full of biodiversity so for any intrepid backpacker looking to experience a little of India’s natural wonders this park is a must. The best way of seeing the natural wonders of this park is on foot so this is definitely a good choice of destination for those who want to see the wildlife without getting on the back of an overworked elephant.
Many people say there is no point coming here outside of the peak season. For me, this is one of the national parks closest to Dehli, so I have come often. I can say with some confidence you will see different species at different times of the year. That means if you do come outside of the peak season that runs from October to February, then you will get this place largely to yourself. For an in-depth guide to this place, check out my post on Keoladeo Ghana.
Number 2 Kalipur
Kalipur is a tiny village at the tip of the Andaman islands. There is a little beach where you can find a lot of turtles, but there is so much more wildlife to be found in this unique habitat. It is a true paradise for nature lovers.
However, most people only come here for the turtles who come ashore from mid-December to April. Four species come to lay in this time, the Olive Ridley, Hawks Bill, Green Turtle and Leather Back. Despite this being reputedly one of the best places in the world to see turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs when I visited, I only saw the one.
In all fairness, I didn’t wait long, and it is done responsibly in small groups. In fact, at that time, there where only two other tourists on the whole beach and me. No flash photography and no one is allowed to play with or touch the animals. Tourists wait in a small thatched hut to be guided on to the beach at night a few at a time. This is, without doubt, the best organised and most compassionate turtle tourism project I have ever seen and provided me with a non-intrusive and very intimate experience.
I would not expect masses of turtles coming ashore as many people do. Still, this experience was magical, and the sound of hearing the mother panting as she laid her eggs will stay with me forever if this sounds like something that grabs your fancy then check out my backpackers guide to Kalipur and thank me later.
Number 3 The Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary.
This tiny little park is located in the state of Assam in the northeast of India. Despite it being very accessible from the main highway that links Guwathi to Dibrugarh, most tourists miss it entirely. It does not get nearly enough press so no one knows about it and that is a real shame.
I want to set the record straight as it is dedicated to the very noble cause of protecting the endangered Hoolock Gibbon.
The sanctuary makes for an easy day trip for those on their way to Majuli Island and for more information on that just click the link. It only involves you spending two nights in Jorhat instead of the one. The rewards are well worth your troubles as it is an absolute pleasure stroll around in the wild and not to mention the massive diversity of wildlife that you are sure to encounter along the way.
Getting up close and personal with the hoolock gibbon is an extraordinary experience. The park was only bought into existence a little while ago and despite its size, it plays a very important role. It is an essential piece of conservation as the animals who call this place home cling to there very existence in their twenty-five square kilometre sanctuary. Again I have an in-depth post on this magical place so if you want to find out more click the link for the Gibbon Sanctuary.
In summary of my post ecotourism in India – my complete guide.
I hope you have enjoyed my article and have found some inspiration somewhere to make your own journey. India is a country that is trying to hold on to its wonders with an ever-growing population. As a visitor, we can all do our part to help ensure that future generations can enjoy the same natural splendours we have the opportunity too. ?Mindful tourism also helps fragile cultures can cling on to there traditions for generations to come while providing the people with a good source of revenue.
With that said I think I have driven my point forward that we can all play our part and eco-tourism is the way forward. That does not mean staying in an overpriced resort. It means putting your money into diligent and worthwhile projects that are not just playing on peoples heartstrings. Well, that about wraps up my post for now so until the next time my fellow intrepid travellers, happy planning.
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