Responsible tourism issues

Rajasthan is a wonderful place to visit. It is brimming with history, architectural splendour, fine hospitality and the most dramatic desert landscapes. And, in the middle of it all, you have the extraordinary Ranthambore National Park. It does, however, have its fair share of responsible tourism issues. One thing that Rajasthani people don’t do, however, is brush their issues under their beautiful carpets. People are open to conversation and debate and welcome tourists who want to gain an honest understanding of their state. A state of which they are rightly very proud. So, here are a few of our thoughts of responsible tourism issues in Rajasthan, which we hope will help you think before you go, and get to understand in more detail when you are there.

People & culture

Rajasthan is a state that is full of contrasts. And with its history of royalty and opulence, it is hard to avoid the issue that poverty is one of these contrasts. However, this is delicate territory because it is considered a bit of a cliché that India is a land of beggars and thieves, all out to make a tourist buck. It isn’t true.

Recently, the Indian government stated that more than 21 percent of its population is below its official poverty limit which, with a population of 1.3 billion, is a lot of people. Too many people. In Rajasthan, however, the percentage is two thirds of this figure - 14 percent - and so even though this is still a big issue for government, it is not something people should fear, or make western assumptions about either. That is not to say that the income divide in Rajasthan doesn’t have an impact on tourism. It does. As you will see from our other responsible tourism points below, most of these relate back to a need for money. Tigers are still being poached for money, camels and elephants are mistreated for money. In reality, an elephant ride could feed a small family for a week. Sex tourism, and indeed child sex tourism is more and more in demand in Rajasthan too, with people being trafficked and lured away with a promise of a better lifestyle.

Our point is that although tourism can act as a force for positive change and, if you travel responsibly, your money will be directed to the right place and used sustainably, Indian people are tired of outsiders calling them poor. So many are working incredibly hard to make an honest living, they are culturally aware, want to protect their environment and engage in interesting debate. We are not asking you to turn a blind eye to poverty where it exists. We are asking you to open your eyes to all the positive changes going on too, and not arrive with poverty hang-ups.

Wildlife & the environment

Elephant rides for tourists are particularly popular around Jaipur and the Amber Fort. We do not support elephant riding for tourism purposes at Responsible Travel and have written more about this in our elephant conservation guide. Elephant-back safaris used to happen in Ranthambore National Park but not any more, which is good news. At places like Jaipur, however, or during festivals, the ways in which elephants are treated in order to be habituated for humans is unethical. So always avoid these circuses and spend your money locally in a more ethical way.

Camels are also sometimes used in processions for performance purposes and this use of animals for tourists’ entertainment is totally irresponsible. The same goes for camel races, such as at the annual Pushkar Fair where they put as many as ten people on top of one camel to see which camel can carry the most people. There are even camel beauty contents, which involve piercing the camel and shaving or dying their fur into intricate designs.

Responsible tourism tips

Water usage is not surprisingly an issue in the desert and you certainly do need to drink bottled mineral water. But packing vehicles with 50, 250cl plastic bottles just isn’t the way to go, so responsible suppliers are hopefully using less plastic at least. Ask your tour operator in advance if they have a policy about this, so that you can bring your own bottle and refill it from large water containers. Because of the demand for tiger watching there are more mini buses, called canters, going through Ranthambore National Park now rather than Jeeps. These are heavy on carbon emissions, but the counterargument is that tourism income helps conservation. Some national parks outside Rajasthan, such as Tadoba or Bandhavgarh, ban minibuses. So it can happen. Most responsible tiger safari companies will use Jeeps however. Jeeps should never go over 20kmph in the national park, so ensure your driver keeps to that. Noise levels should also be kept to a minimum. If you are disgruntled about any of these issues, posting your thoughts on social media usually has an impact, and our own vacation reviews have a section for travelers to give their thoughts on how operators have benefitted the environment (or not). We follow up on irresponsible issues which have been reported. You can also report incidents through TOFTigers, with photo or video proof if possible. For more information, see our Tiger safaris travel guide. As with the rest of India, there are orphanages in Rajasthan, and tourists should be aware of being asked to visit them and pay money to do so. We don’t feature any trips on Responsible Travel which invite tourists to volunteer in orphanages or to visit them when the children are present. Research has shown that orphanages can be used as tourist attractions, and that the children may therefore not be orphans, as they create value. Read more about our campaign against orphanage volunteering. If you come across camel meat in Rajasthan, be aware that slaughtering it for meat is illegal in the state, and so it has been done so under the radar and very unethically. Most of this illegal trade is done for other states or countries so it is unlikely you'll come across it in Rajasthan, but be warned. It was made the state animal in 2014 in order to try to highlight its importance and to put a stop to their dwindling numbers. There has been a movement to try and legalise camel milk in order to help sustain camel numbers and also to provide an income for traditional peoples. To date this has been refused, and it is still considered unfit for human consumption. Beware of ‘bhang’, an ingredient that is added to sweets and drinks which is actually made from cannabis. You can buy bhang lassis or biscuits, but beware of these as they really can have an impact on the body and mental state if consumed in large quantities. They also cause dehydration, so it is advised to drink plenty of water if you do consume it. It is legal in some government approved cafes. Sadly Lake Pushkar has become known for its scammers, particularly where a professed holy man asks for money to bless your family and then says he wants that amount for each member. Just stick to the amount you agreed to in the first place and walk away. Your family will not be cursed because he accuses you of short changing him. It’s a common threat. Another one is flower petal sellers who demand lots of money for the flowers they give you and threaten to involve the police if you don’t pay out. Best just not take the petals. When traveling with responsible tourism operators they will be very au fait with common scams, and warn you in advance. The other major scam in India, and not unheard of in Jaipur, is the gemstone scam, where you are sold gemstones at a certain price being told they have a huge re-sale value. Always buy from a certified vendor, who provides the right certificates for the gems. Again, your responsible tour operator will be able to advise.
Andrew Appleyard from our supplier, Exodus Travels: “If you want to buy jewellery, head to Jaipur. But for gems, you really need to be with a reputable operator to make sure you are going somewhere where you will get a government certification, and that the operator or guide knows how to get recourse if you find out you have ended up with something that isn’t right. We are lucky that we use guides that have been around for a very long time and really know the good, responsible places to go.”
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 not culturally acceptable. Women should 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 it can create a false economy. Just because you pay £1 for a meal, doesn’t mean you should tip three times that amount. In many cases, however, employees depend on tips, especially local guides, but your responsible tourism operator will be able to advise on how best to cover this. It is often done through a communal kitty and you can budget for this in advance. We have been advised by our responsible tourism suppliers to really move on with the ‘giving pens to children’ trend. Although people do it for the right reasons, the country is now coming down with pens. Children stockpile them and sell them on. Seek out a really good sustainable and ethical charity to donate to instead or ask your tour operator to advise on items really needed right now in a particular place.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Nick Kenrick] [Elephant ride: Frank Holleman] [Henna: Zac Davies]