Bringing Responsible Tourism to the Hills of Darjeeling

02 Jun, 2011

An account of the work of GDF's project partner in India, and the communities with which it is linked.

This article is courtesy of The Travel Word and is re-published here with their kind permission.

Set against the jaw-droppingly gorgeous backdrop of the snow-covered Himalayas and surrounded by the phenomenal forests and streams of rural Darjeeling, India, the little village of Mineral Spring is a community knit together by strong cultural values that have made it a model of sustainable growth.

MineralSpring,seenabovefromDarjeelingtown,Indi Mineral Spring, seen above from Darjeeling town, India, is located at an lower elevation low and warm enough to enable the growth of various agricultural produce

Two of these values are commitments to traditional agriculture and to protecting the region’s incredible biodiversity. This vibrant ensemble of small farms has been producing high-quality and certified organic Darjeeling tea since 1998 – even competing successfully against large corporate tea companies – without losing sight of the health and long-term preservation of their local environment. All of this is particularly important given the adjacent Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary, whose resident birds and wildlife such as rhesus monkeys, barking deer and Himalayan flying squirrels know no borders.

Ever mindful of the difficulties involved in maintaining traditional ways of life and protecting nature, local farmers have also started harnessing the power of community-based tourism as an opportunity for additional income. The Himalayas and the people who inhabit them have long been powerful magnets to adventurous travellers, particular those interested in rural lifestyles and culture. Now, in Mineral Spring, homestays with locals have been set up, satisfying the desires of both mindful travellers and responsible hosts, the latter eager to share the unique character of their village and local environment.

It’s a win-win situation that brings greater economic prosperity to Mineral Springs and emboldens local efforts to ensure the vigour of the environment.

ForeignvisitorsenjoyalocalmealinMineralSpring Foreign visitors enjoy Mineral Spring delicacies as just part of the local hospitality during a farmstay near Darjeeling, India

Homestays in the Himalayas

The Mineral Spring homestay initiative was lauched by Tathagata Journeys, a local tour operator that aims to promote socially responsible and sustainable tourism, and specialises in off-the-beaten-path travel experiences. Born and bred in Darjeeling, the owners are brothers Pravin and Navin Tamang, who are joined by media and marketing manager Yogita Ranapaheli.

“We are all from diverse fields but have one thing in common – love for travel and love for the region,” Pravin explains. “This enables us to work closely together as a team bringing in our own expertise to this wonderful world of travel and remote-community tourism with the participation of local farmers.”

Their goal is to offer travellers overnighting in Mineral Spring some intimate insight into the challenges of daily life in this agricultural community. One important byproduct of visits is to see firsthand how tourism can make a positive difference, so hosts encourage their guests to participate in community activities during their stay. For example, travellers with an interest in agriculture can lend a hand on the farm by harvesting organic produce and learning about permaculture. Others can enjoy cooking traditional dishes at home with the family, or teaching English at the village primary school. Still more options abound for those who wish to take in the scenery during yoga classes, local hikes or down time amongst friendly faces.

JangbeerDaju-Hosts JangbeerDaju-Room JangbeerDaju-Homestay JangbeerDaju-Balcony Jojo-Room Jojo-Homestay ZimbaDaju-Hosts ZimbaDaju-Room-Bed ZimbaDaju-Room-Dresser ZimbaDaju-Room-Kitchen

Three traditional village homes and a two-cottage farmstay (the latter operated by Tathagata Journeys) currently host travellers in mountainous Mineral Spring; all accommodations feature private rooms for travellers with Western-style bathroom facilities. In all cases, there is direct involvement with locals interested in participating in the project and benefiting from it.

“I feel proud to be a homestay member letting travellers explore our village,” explains Jangbeer Chettri, a local host and community representative. “We have been part of the premier, organic, small-farmer group since 1998 and a number of buyers from abroad have visited our village, but we did not have proper facilities to accommodate them. Although this idea of a homestay was new, the number of travellers who have come here and stayed with us have experienced a very different rural life in Darjeeling. Their visits and the income they generated have helped us sustain our family, farm and community.”

Plans for the Future

Building upon the success of the Mineral Spring homestays, a new local initiative is targeting the development of infrastructure needed for long-term sustainable tourism in the area.

This new undertaking is one of four projects selected for support by the Geotourism Development Foundation, due to launch later this month, and will receive additional assistance from Tathagata Journeys. The aim is to promote the village as a responsible travel destination sensitive to the needs and qualities of both the local community and environment.

AGM Women'sGroup Farms Training Tathagata Farm in Mineral Spring, Darjeeling, India, serves as a training ground and a model organic farmstay. Here locals demonstrate the normal practice of making compost to be used as manure."

Composting Ginger TeaSorting TeaWeighing TeaDrying TeaStoring Bridge Dancer DanceTeam Football

Much remains to be done before tourism can begin generating additional revenue for the villagers. In addition to the need for more guest rooms, improvements are required to maintain the local environment, including investment in ‘green’ facilities such as environmentally friendly toilets, solar-powered lighting and water-heating systems, black- and grey-water management systems and rain-water harvesting. Investing in a biogas facility is also being considered; created through the fermentation of biodegradable material – such as manure – biogas is a renewable fuel used to run heating and cooking stoves.

Other important tourism developments underway in Mineral Spring involve training local youth as guides able lead treks and inform guests about local traditions and wildlife; promoting activities such as bird- and butterfly-watching; and getting the word out about volunteer opportunities, permaculture courses, yoga retreats and opportunities for meeting local families.

“The project will promote the people and the place by emphasising the sustainability of actions undertaken and the historical, cultural and biodiversity attributes of the place,” says Navin. “It will build on and supplement the work that is already being undertaken and it will help in improving and further diversifying local livelihoods, creating awareness regarding biodiversity conservation, and appreciation and pride in their natural and cultural heritage.”

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