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Manisha and Bhavna Sharma (centre), who organize an annual cycling ride along the ancient Silk Route in Sikkim, with their guests from Tagalong Hostel in Gangtok. (Photo: Rudra Subba/Mint)
Manisha and Bhavna Sharma (centre), who organize an annual cycling ride along the ancient Silk Route in Sikkim, with their guests from Tagalong Hostel in Gangtok. (Photo: Rudra Subba/Mint)

Meet Sikkim’s warriors for sustainable tourism

With more people on the road, ecotourism, or visiting natural areas in a way that leaves a low impact on biodiversity, is important

GANGTOK/YUKSOM : In Gangtok’s Tagalong Hostel, groups of 20- and 30-somethings are in the café on the ground floor, eating pasta, playing a game of Uno, and sharing stories (and a smoke). Most of them are solo travellers, making friends along the way as they take in the sights and sounds of Sikkim.

Tagalong isn’t luxurious but there’s a reason the guests have chosen it—there are cloth napkins on each table, water is poured from glass bottles, and there’s hardly any plastic in the café. For many millennials, making ecologically conscious choices while travelling is as important as experiencing new places.

In its 2018 survey, travel company Cox & Kings found that 87% of millennials—many of whom are also looking for off-beat experiences and destinations—want to make sustainable choices when they travel. And in Sikkim, it’s not just the travellers who are woke millennials but also the hospitality providers.

“What’s exciting is that our guests support our efforts to follow sustainable practices," says Bhavana Sharma, 29, who co-founded the café and hostel with her sister Manisha in Gangtok’s busy Development Area in 2017. What they’re best known for though is Ride the Silk, an annual, week-long cycling expedition to Nathula along the ancient silk route. They were the first to introduce cycles on the route popular with motorbikers.

It’s the kind of story that appeals to millennial travellers—a brand that’s grown slowly and consciously, drawing in the community, and providing a niche, curated travel experience with minimal ecological impact. Since cycle rides are slower and riders make more overnight stops, the Sharma sisters convinced residents along the 160km route to open home-stays. For the ride and other treks they organize, the sisters choose sustainable alternatives—they’ve replaced Maggi packets with home-made snack packs, Pet water bottles with steel sippers, and everyone has to carry back waste and dispose it off.

Most urban millennials take two to five trips a year, enthusiastically immersing themselves in experiences. With more people on the road, ecotourism—or visiting relatively undisturbed natural areas in a manner that leaves low to zero impact on the biodiversity—becomes significant. It’s the small-scale alternative to standard, commercial mass tourism. Tourism in Sikkim so far, unfortunately, has mostly been of the latter.

Since permits were relaxed in 1992, there’s been a boom in tourist arrivals. According to the latest data from the Sikkim Tourism department, the number of tourists jumped 77% to 1.4 million in 2017. “Most locals depend on agriculture or tourism here. We need to make sure that the state can handle all these tourists. If we don’t adopt sustainable tourism practices, we’ll end up destroying the thing that sustains us—like the goose that laid the golden eggs," says Pema Gyaltshan Bhutia, general secretary, Khanchendzonga Conservation Committee (KCC), a not-for-profit based in Yuksom in western Sikkim.

Waste management is an issue, especially in remote areas of Sikkim, such as the village of Yuksom. At 1,780 metres above sea level with a population of 4,000 (according to the 2011 census), Yuksom is still largely untouched by urban problems. But the small village is also the entry point for major treks to Khangchendzonga, including Dzongri and Goechela. “Yuksom gets an average of 4,000 tourists a year and often during the same season. This can be a burden on our natural resources. The treks also lead to deforestation and garbage dumping. We needed to do something to maintain balance," explains Bhutia, 49.

KCC started raising awareness about ecotourism in Yuksom in 1996 and organized training for locals in a bid to bring employment to the region. They trained locals—mostly young boys who’d dropped out of school—as naturalists, guides, trekking cooks, porters and pack animal operators. The Sikkim government also trained home-stay hosts in an attempt to make the state an ideal ecotourism destination.

Chungda Sherpa trained as a guide with KCC straight out of school in the late 1990s. “I decided to focus on birding. I take groups for treks, and have increased my income because I provide a niche service," says Sherpa, who also runs a home-stay in Yuksom.

Sherpa’s clients are mostly millennial birding enthusiasts who visit to get a glimpse of Sikkim’s 500-plus species. He says millennials in Yuksom are now interested in turning guides and naturalists. “Back then, none of us had access to reference books or binoculars. My nephew, who is now training to be a birding guide, has everything on his phone."

Sherpa’s nephew is not the only one training to be a guide. As tourist numbers rise, young people are dropping out of school to guide treks. They see easy money, and do not return to finish their education. So Sewaro Youth Club has come together to raise awareness about a range of issues from the importance of education to garbage recycling.

“When the locals are aware and mobilized, a lot can be done," says Gopal Limbu, 34, recalling a 2001 incident when two Russians were arrested for illegally collecting 2,000 rare butterflies from the forest above Yuksom. He’s been volunteering as a ‘Himal Rakshak’ since 2014. The ‘Himal Rakshak’ or voluntary mountain guardian programme was piloted in Sikkim in 2006 for on-ground conservation.

As a ‘Himal Rakshak’, Limbu and others run awareness campaigns, conduct the animal census and more. “At panchayat meetings, we talk to villagers to help them understand that we must protect our environment," he adds.

There are three such clusters of Himal Rakshaks in Sikkim, each with an average of 15 volunteers. Sikkim has always been under threat from poachers and bio-pirates. With abundant flora and fauna, including snow leopards, red panda, blue sheep, Asian black bears, various orchids and medicinal plants, it has often been targeted by people pretending to be tourists. The younger generation, having seen the natural treasure trove under threat, have signed up for the Himal Rakshak programmes or reported “suspicious behaviour" of trekkers.Training like this has been important in building an environment for ecotourism in Sikkim. The work that goes behind the scenes is a lot—from identifying areas that do not have many hotels to finding families who don’t mind if guests enter their private space.

Every step that individuals like Limbu and Sharma take is geared towards a bigger goal—making Sikkim the model for ecotourism, which will inspire other areas in the country. Similar, small initiatives for sustainable and eco-friendly travel are being incubated around the country—home-stays in Karnataka’s Coorg, turtle watching in Velas in Maharashtra, staying in floating islands of Loktak, Manipur, or sharing a traditional meal with tribal families in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh. It’s travel for millennials and by millennials.

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