Responsible tourism in India

It may feel like India is insane with issues when it comes to tourism but, in fact, like everything in India, they vary per region. And, in most cases, the issues are driven by poverty, inequality and sometimes just pure and simple inefficiency. India is a constant dichotomy, with hi tech companies ruling the roost in Bangalore, yet power blackouts a common occurrence in rural India. They have slum tourism and palace crawls in Mumbai. So, you can’t make generalisations about India. The issues are many, multi-faceted and ever changing. But most of all, Indian people will talk about them. They enjoy debate, can take criticism, welcome a cross-cultural conflab and, as this is in general a spiritual, caring country, they strive for positive change.

People & culture

Poverty: cliché or change?

The one danger of us highlighting poverty as an issue in India is that it adds to the tired, clichéd conclusion reached by many tourists that India is just full of beggars and thieves. Tricksters and touts. It isn’t. Nor is everyone poor. In 2013, the Indian government stated 21.9% of its population is below its official poverty limit which, with a population of 1.27 billion, is a lot of people. Too many people. However, since the 1950s, the Indian government has, with the help of food subsidies, improved agriculture and education, reduced absolute poverty levels by half, and greatly reduced illiteracy and malnutrition. Gujarat and Delhi are faring well, but Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh less well, with Odisha (aka Orissa) and rural Bihar among the world’s most poor. However, poverty is not going to feature center stage for tourists anymore, even though it should do for politicians and economists. What is important to understand in India is that, very often, the negative impacts of tourism have been exacerbated because of a growing income divide. Tigers are still being poached because there is more money to be made by selling their body parts than selling safaris. Houseboats are still polluting the backwaters of Kerala because they are one of the biggest sources of income in the region. Elephant rides can feed a family for a week, even though the treatment of the animals is often unethical. Haggling and hassling is a quick fix compared with raising funds to create a legal tourism business and, the worst side of humanity, the sexual exploitation and abuse of children, a very dark side of tourism, grows not just because of the shocking demand but because young people are talked into being trafficked with a promise of a more affluent lifestyle. And businesses turn a blind eye as it pays well.
The alleviation of poverty through tourism will never be a fix all. But individuals can create change through tourism, sometimes by just making one small change of direction. Surprisingly, considering it is one of the biggest countries in the world, the tourist trail in India is still very predictable and heavily trodden. Stepping off it can have huge positive impact, even if just for half a day. Using local guides, supporting a wildlife sanctuary, staying in homestays, supporting vibrant new enterprises from literary festivals to backwater kayakers, visiting bazaars that aren’t in the guidebooks or cycling to a village and eating at a small family owned restaurant, all make a huge difference. Not only to people’s daily lives, but also in growing the areas which benefit from tourism, and thus enabling them to gain support and recognition from tourist boards. This is worth its weight in gold alone.

What you can do
As well as using responsible tourism companies, gaining their advice about donating to charities on the ground and appropriately when you are there, spread the word using social media. If you find a brilliant toddy bar, tell everyone and hashtag #India. If you see illegal acts, tell everyone and hashtag #India. If you are moved to tears by beauty, tell everyone and hashtag #India. And if you had fun and learned something new on a slum tour, tell everyone and hashtag #India. That’s the quickest way to erase the tired old clichés, and put positive word around. Because if ever there was a place to create change through crowd sourcing, India has to be it.
Rajat Kumar, Managing Director of our supplier ExplorIndya:

“We support slum tours to see what these families do, how they survive, what their stories are. We ensure they are not voyeuristic and simply for taking photographs, but they are tours that actually tell an honest story of what the slums are, and why people here are poor. Which is mainly because the government won’t improve their conditions as they want them to move away so that they can develop this prime real estate. But actually, in many ways, these are thriving communities, the children are educated and speak English, they have skills which are being passed down educated, but their geographical reality hasn’t changed. So you can’t just generalise and say, ‘everyone is poor here’. You have to dig deep, open your mind, and you will see the different layers”.

Wildlife & environment

Tiger tourism

Seeing tigers in the wild is rare. But tigers are rare, with just over 3,000 in the wild, worldwide. India is home to half of these and, with poaching still a serious threat, it is vital to support conservation efforts through tourism. In the past it was even more difficult to spot the elusive tiger, but they have now become more used to jeeps and people, and are braving the open spaces, sometimes even with their cubs. The most usual way to see tigers is from a vehicle, either a jeep or a minibus although some parks are installing tree viewing platforms.

The best places for viewing are Bandhavgarh National Park, Corbett Tiger Reserve, Bandipur National Park, Kanha National Park, Periyar National Park and Pench Tiger Reserve. One other issue related to tiger watching is the use of elephants in national parks where tigers have their habitats. Although we do not endorse elephant trekking at Responsible Travel, as you will see from our ‘Elephants in tourism’ guide, we do recognise that, at Periyar, for example, the survival of the remaining tigers is simply too precarious to risk withdrawing the funding gained through elephant rides from the park; to do so would risk an instant increase in poaching and the demise of the species. Allowing elephant back safaris is far from an ideal situation, but we believe it is the “least bad” solution to a complex problem. Read more about the use of elephants in conservation here.

We highly recommend using the services of expert tour operators and guides to arrange a tiger safari as they know all the issues in their specific area. These should also be organisations that wholly engage with local communities, however, not just with national park authorities as the development of tiger tourism as an income source for local communities is vital.

While you are on a tiger safari, a few days at least is recommended, and the usual wildlife watching guidelines apply. Your guide should not take you too close and never tip guides more money to take you closer towards a tiger. Of course, wild animals should not be fed, touched or teased in any way. Read more about responsible tiger safaris in our guide.
What you can do
Make sure you use a tiger safari company with a strong knowledge not only of responsible tourism but also of conservation issues within the area of India that you are hoping to visit. A very useful website is the Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFTigers), which not only leads strong campaigns for responsible tiger tourism in India, but has also developed rating system of rating that measures the ‘footprint’ of individual lodges and hotels in India’s wilderness regions, called the PUG Rating. You can also donate to reputable tiger conservation charities such as WWF, Born Free and many others listed on TOFTigers website.
Sophie Hartman, owner of our specialists Vacations in Rural India, says:

“I think that name ‘tiger watching’ should be banned. Don’t go with tigers as your sole focus, there is so much to see in India’s national parks and spending the whole of your safari charging around the park on a hunt for a tiger is such a wasted opportunity. Ask your guide and driver to stop for ten minutes by a lake or stream, listen to the sounds of the jungle, watch the birds, enjoy the beauty of the light coming through the forest. SO much more fun than just thumping along in a jeep.”

Responsible tourism tips

The sexual exploitation of children for prostitution is a reality in India and, although a shock to many this is, horrifically, a growth area in tourism. We have rightly been advised by campaigning organisations not to refer to these young people as child prostitutes or sex workers. They are children who are victims of child rape. And the reality is that children are trafficked into India for this purpose from Bangladesh and Nepal, and then through India to Pakistan and the Middle East. It is thought that between 5,000 and 7,000 Nepalese girls are trafficked into India for sexual exploitation every year. Always report any suspect activities with regards to children to local authorities and, in particular, the tourism locations which are allowing it to happen. The Code (short for “The Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation in Travel and Tourism”) is an excellent point of contact for this purpose. Alternatively, you can email, who can refer your reports to their global network of contacts and law enforcement agencies. Elephant trekking, riding, washing and playing are not on our list of top things to do in India, as you can see from our Elephants in tourism’ guide, although we make some exceptions when it comes to creating conservation income in national parks that helps protect endangered tigers. However, the mistreatment of these wild animals to titillate tourists is not something we endorse in any way. Elephant polo, popular in Rajasthan, wouldn’t be one of our favourites either, with elephants being trained at a young age using methods that compromise their welfare, such as shackling, the use of a bull hook and hours of unnatural tricks. There are orphanages in India which invite ‘voluntourists’, something we discourage as, in some cases, orphanages can become businesses rather than places of care. Untrained volunteers, however well-meaning, should not be allowed to work with vulnerable children, just as they would not in their home countries. And a high turnover of volunteers means that children become separated from people they have become attached to again and again. For this reason, we removed a large number of orphanage volunteer trips from our site in 2013. Read more about our orphanage campaign here. We also do not promote day trips to orphanages, schools or nurseries. These are disruptive for the children - and also puts them in the position of being a "tourist attraction", which is not something we would ever encourage. Being aware of cultural sensitivity is very important in India, when it comes to dress sense. For women, in particular, showing bare legs, shoulders and wearing low cut tops are a faux pas. And, in fact, if you cover yourself with light cotton, it is actually cooler as the sun isn’t hitting your skin, and also culturally acceptable. Women should also have a shawl to cover their head in a mosque. Also, being intimate with a partner in public is not welcomed either. Tipping is controversial. On one hand we recommend you don’t tip too much, as the standard of living is very different, and so just because you pay a tiny amount for a meal, doesn’t mean you have to give five times that amount as a tip. It creates a false economy. On the other, some people such as local guides depend on tips. At hotels there is a service charge but drivers and guides do depend on tips. Giving pens to children may be done with good intentions, but it has got a little out of hand. If you really want to give to charity, ask your tour operator for a good local charity to support. Most responsible tourism companies will have an associated with a local charity which is sustainable and transparent. And if you do want to donate items while in India, give items to a head teacher to distribute, rather than to the children direcly.
Andreas Astrup, General Manager of The Code:

"We can all play a role in keeping children safe, whether at home or abroad. If you see a child at risk of sexual exploitation while traveling, please take action and either report your concern directly to authorities or visit The Code's website to find the best reporting line."

Sophie Hartman, owner of our partners Vacations in Rural India, says:

“I’ve really struggled with people whom I’ve specially asked to dress modestly (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) 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 and that infuriates me.”

Rajat Kumar, Managing Director of our supplier ExplorIndya

"The whole idea of gifting pens to kids bothers me. I don’t diss the reasons behind it. I diss the act itself. When this started, the reasons behind it were very noble as the pen was seen as a direct tool to empower the child to study and write. But today it has become a game that locals play with tourists, and tourists encourage with the act itself. It is ironic because it actually drives children to skip school and hang out in areas frequented by western tourists because they know they will get handfuls of pens. They just keep them in boxes, where they collect hundreds of pens, and it is a satire.“
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Uzi Yachin] [Children in the slums: Michal Huniewicz] [Tiger mania: Brian Gratwicke]