Responsible walking vacations in India

Being a responsible walker in India is pretty obvious. Respect the lands you are walking through and remember that in many remote places, local people won’t be used to tourists passing through. Also, set an example and leave no trace while walking. You may see some tourists, domestic and international, behaving in ways that are harmful, but please do lead by example. No cigarette butts tucked behind bushes or in the sand, no approaching wild animals, no selfie obsessions in culturally sensitive areas. Just be sensitive. Please read some more of our issues below.

Wildlife & the environment

Water bottles – the big plastic revolution

The world is finally switching on, slowly but surely, to the poison that is plastic. And water bottles around the world, India included, have been a major contributor. In coastal states, such as Kerala, the danger to the marine environment caused by plastic pollution is well documented, Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II and Greenpeace being two of the most important voices on this subject of late. Tourism organisations are starting to take their head out of the sand on this subject too, and some of our suppliers are adamant that guests bring their own self filtering water bottles on walking vacations.
With the use of replaceable filters, these bottles mean that you can use tap or river water, as they eliminate bacteria, parasites and nasties such as E. coli from the water. If you buy a bottle that gives you up to 1,000 litres of drinking before having to change the filter, then it is hiking perfect.
What to do:
Do your research on self filtering bottles, talk to your vacation company and really do everything you can to help eliminate this planet wide problem. And also, subscribe to Greenpeace and read their petitions. They do make a difference. If you have to drink bottled water, ensure it is from a reliable source, that the top has not been tampered with and the seal is still intact. Always bring bottles back down from the mountains to recycle in town – if there is a facility in town at all.
Jennifer Cox, from our India walking vacations supplier, Exodus:

“We strongly encourage you to avoid buying mineral water as the plastic bottles cannot be readily recycled throughout much of India and are a growing problem. We provide boiled water on most if not all of our India treks – you may like to bring a SteriPEN or purification tablets in case you need to refill your bottle in between stops. Use biodegradable soap and shampoo. Carry some bags with you so that if you need to ‘spend a penny’ in the great outdoors you don’t leave any toilet paper behind – put it in a bag and dispose of it when you get to a suitable place.”

Responsible wildlife watching

At Responsible Travel we do not generally support elephant riding. We have, however, made some exceptions when it comes to tiger watching in India’s national parks, such as Periyar and Kanha, as the income gained from elephant back safaris has been reinvested in tiger conservation in many parks. With tiger numbers so low, and the risk of poaching high, this support is essential. If you are going on safari in a vehicle, opt for a small jeep rather than a larger minivan when possible. And make it clear to your driver that you don’t want to go too close to the wildlife.
What you can do:
Be prepared for the fact that Indian national parks do not really conduct safaris in the same way as many African countries do. They still have a focus on gaining tourist numbers, and sometimes rangers can be more like crowd controllers than informed wildlife experts. If you are combining a wildlife experience with walking, read up on the superb work of TOFTigers which works tirelessly to educate at government and institutional level to create change. They always welcome donations,of course. Report any bad practice through them as well, taking photos and video if necessary, as proof.

People & culture

Sophie Hartman, owner of our supplier Chinkara Journeys, specialising in walking vacations in central India:

“We operate in a very under visited part of India where people aren’t used to seeing white people, let alone bare white legs and arms. I’ve really struggled with people whom I’ve specially asked to dress modestly, who’ve then emerged in shorts and a strappy top and asked the guest house owner if they’re OK as they are. Hotel owners are far too polite to say anything and although everyone is lovely in the part of India in which we work (no rudeness or groping) the local people are embarrassed.”

Covering up

Cultural sensitivity is very important in India. For women, in particular, showing bare legs, shoulders and wearing low cut tops are a faux pas. In fact, in many rural locations, it doesn’t go down well for men to wear shorts either. If you cover yourself with light cotton, it is actually cooler as the sun isn’t hitting your skin when walking in hot areas, as well as being culturally acceptable. Women should also have a shawl to cover their head in any religious building. Also, being intimate with a partner in public is not welcomed.
What to do:
Consider buying a couple of garments when you arrive and don’t feel you have to buy everything in a mountain store before you leave. You can support local traders by buying head scarves, sarongs, walking trousers or hiking socks in Leh or Munnar. They are used to walkers here.

Reading up

Himalayan politics and cultural heritage play an important part of the great mountain range’s history. The same goes for the Western Ghats, where colonisation of plantations during British rule had a major impact. So, do read up on the history before you go, but also on the political situation today. We particularly recommend learning more about the history and politics of Kashmir, where only Ladakh and the cities of Jammu and Srinagar are recommended due to political unrest. If your walking vacation takes you to Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj, do read about why Tibetan people are living in exile here. Even better, when you come back and understand their plight in more detail, you can support Free Tibet, an organisation with a whole host of ongoing campaigns aimed at spreading the word about Tibet and securing the rights of its people.

Traveling with a local expert is a good idea, too. Local operators have their ear to the ground, have excellent relationships with local guides and NGOs and so will always have good up to date information. Always check with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for updated, regional issues if in doubt.

What to do:
For more information, see our Ladakh and Himalayas guides. For overall history of India, we also recommend The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty Delhi, 1857 by William Dalrymple and India: A History by John Keay. And although it is going back a few decades, the great travel writer Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle is always a must read. You can read more about Dervla in our interview with her here in Folks We Love.

Responsible tourism tips

If you are walking in well known wildlife habitat, do be quiet and don’t startle wildlife or birdlife. This may mean turning off your mobile phone, if it is one that tends to ring a lot! In Ladakh, you won’t find as many people speaking English, nor indeed Hindi. The local language is Ladakhi. A good word for starters is jullay, pronounced joo-lay, which covers all bases for hello, goodbye and thank you. You can always buy a phrasebook in Leh. If you are thinking of combining a walking vacation with a volunteering break in India, please choose wisely, particularly when it comes to vulnerable childrean. We don’t feature any orphanage volunteering projects on our site as many of them have proved dubious. Shocking, but true, with orphanages which have made a business around ‘voluntourism’ rather than focusing on being a place of care. Even in legitimate orphanages, a “revolving door” or well meaning yet unqualified volunteers can do more emotional and psychological harm than good to these already vulnerable children. Read more about our stance on orphanage volunteering. Tipping is controversial. Most small group walking vacation companies operate a kitty and then everyone donates a recommended amount for their guide which is handed over at the end. You may want to bring something to donate on your walking vacation, but please consult your vacation company first. Sweets are a definite no no, and pens are popular but some regions are now falling down with pens. Sometimes medicines or school supplies are useful, but you can also sometimes buy them locally and then donate them, which is a win win. But always seek advice before putting well meaning donations into your suitcase. Walking companies often support local charities, so you might be better donating to those.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Gaurav K] [Water bottles: Christian Haugen] [Responsible wildlife watching: Dey.sandip -] [Covering up: Poonam Agarwal]