Himalayan Ecotourism's Stephen Marchal On How To Curb Overtourism

When the founder of Himalayan Ecotourism noticed how competition between local stakeholders led to destructive overtourism, he decided to form a co-operative that worked collectively for the Tirthan valley community of Himachal Pradesh
Stephen Marchal
Stephen MarchalCourtesy: Himalayan Ecotourism

For seven years, Stephan Marchal worked in the field of rural development with the Munda community of Jharkhand, specialising in the conservation of the living world through the social and economic empowerment of rural women. When he moved to the Himalayas in 2011, he started Himalayan Ecotourism to nurture sustainable development in the Tirthan valley of Himachal Pradesh.

His company was the overall winner at the India Responsible Tourism Awards in 2019 and the gold winner in the Best Adventure Operator category. Marchal is an Overseas Citizen of India and has Belgian roots. Excerpts from the interview here.

Can you tell us about your organisation and what led you to responsible tourism?

Before working as a tour and trek operator, I worked for about seven years with various non-governmental organisations in the field of sustainable development in the tribal areas of Jharkhand. I found that the non-profit sector suffered from a crucial weakness: financial sustainability. To me, this showed that conservation cannot be sustained by charitable endeavours alone.

Therefore, when I moved to the Himalayas I decided to work as a social entrepreneur, and tourism appeared to be the best option for my enterprise. Tourism became the engine behind my social and environmental work to ensure financial sustainability, and hence a good level of self-reliance. 

Most people think that responsible tourism is a more ethical way of doing business in tourism. For me, on the other hand, I started doing business in tourism as a way to achieve my social and environmental objectives. For me, tourism is the means rather than the end.

In many places across India, we have seen how competition between the local stakeholders, when associated with poor regulations, has led to destructive overtourism. Bringing the local people together to work collectively has been our foremost priority. A co-operative society of 65 members has been formed on the fringes of the Great Himalayan National Park.

From day one, we decided to dedicate a part of our income to support conservation actions. We have developed green technologies that are affordable and match local needs, launched several awareness campaigns to fight intentional forest fires, and encouraged the local women to work together for making local products for their economic and social empowerment.

A bedroom at the Tirthan Eagle Nest homestay
A bedroom at the Tirthan Eagle Nest homestayCopyright: Himalayan Ecotourism

What can travellers expect when they sign up for a tour with you?

When travellers book treks through a standard company, their staff work as employees working for a daily wage from their employers. When trekking with Himalayan Ecotourism, our guests are led by members of our co-operative who are all shareholders in the society. They serve our guest as co-owners of their own company and that makes a huge difference.

What are the challenges you have faced as a responsible tourism entrepreneur?

The main obstacles have come from the local competitors associated with some other big players in the area. Scared to lose their monopoly and dominant influence, they’ve looked unfavourably on the establishment of our co-operative. Encouraging the co-op members and standing firm against the attacks with tenacity and diplomacy has ensured our way to success.

Children from Targali village in the Tirthan valley
Children from Targali village in the Tirthan valleyFlickr: Stephen Webb

What is the impact of your organisation?

The first impact of our organisation is the social impact. In the beginning, I don’t think any members really believed they could stand as a solid organisation. Their concerns were valid; the obstacles presented by the elite were very discouraging. But having persevered through all the obstacles makes them so much stronger and more confident today. It is a great social achievement.

The impact of our work on the environment is more difficult to quantify. However, we have seen an unprecedented absence of forest fires for nine months since the establishment of our awareness campaigns.

What are proven best practices that other responsible tourism practitioners can implement?

The positive impact of Himalayan Ecotourism on the local community and environment is due to the successful collaboration between locals and what we can call “benevolent nonlocals.”

Obviously the locals should be the primary beneficiary of tourism in rural areas, but in many cases the locals do not have the required set of skills to emerge as the main stakeholders.

Any well-educated person could bridge this gap by collaborating with locals. However, from my experience, I would say the following:

  1. Having an experience in [a] rural area with underprivileged communities is a big advantage.

  2. Tourism should be thought of as a promising means of promoting conservation with the local community. The term "responsible tourism" can also refer to conservation tourism for lucrative purposes, but this model wouldn’t be as successful.

  3. A good amount of selflessness is required from the beginning, and a continuous respectful attitude is a must for gaining [the] trust of the locals.

  4. Educating locals about their democratic rights is a necessary part of responsible tourism practice.

  5. Networking with supportive officers and politicians can help you a lot.

A view of the Tirthan valley
A view of the Tirthan valleyFlickr: anshya

What are your plans for your organisation in terms of expansion or new initiatives?

Understanding that our co-operative society's primary aim is to provide employment, we need to diversify our income generating activities because the trekking season lasts only for five months in a year. We are developing value-added local products: handmade soaps, balms, woollen products etc. We encourage the members of the co-operative to involve their wives and daughters. That would bring a big change in their society.

Note: The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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