Hotelier Altaf Chapri On Choosing The Responsible Path To Success
Altaf Chapri, the founder and managing director of AB Chapri Retreats, runs small, intimate, low-impact properties—Neeleshwar Hermitage in North Kerala and Qayaam Gah at the foothills of the Zabarwan Hills just outside Srinagar—on the principles of sustainability and responsible tourism. The resorts are designed to cause minimal damage to the region's ecology without compromising on the quality of stay. Outlook Traveller spoke to him to learn more about his projects and their philosophy.
What are your thoughts on responsible tourism?
Responsible tourism is a lifeline for the future, and all of us in the industry must educate our guests about the need for tourism to be accountable.
Client demands lead us, but we also influence those demands because we see the bigger picture and deal with what goes on behind the scenes in catering to client expectations. While this comes at a cost, as the less responsible option is often easier or cheaper when the economies of scale kick in, it is a change of direction we must take for the future health of the industry, the country and the planet.
For example, if a big hotel chain abandons plastic water bottles and uses natural systems such as reverse osmosis water purification, those gigantic rubbish dumps would shrink overnight, and other chains would be encouraged to follow.
Good eco-habits can spread from the tourism sector to daily life as well. People always remember their holidays, so staying in a sustainable property can be a learning experience.
What are the critical responsible tourism measures every hotelier must undertake?
This five-point plan should be followed to minimise ecological impact:
a) Building should be undertaken after careful consideration of the natural surroundings and the potential environmental impact.
b) Local and natural materials should be used, and local craftsmen, artisans and artists should be employed to emphasise the uniqueness of the location and its history and heritage.
c) Plastic should be banned—no plastic water bottles, toiletries, milk packets, etc. It is easy to find substitutes; using plastic is just a lazy and destructive habit.
d) Source food, staff and artisans locally to support the local community; this will help the area grow in skill sets and enhance its standard of living.
e) Guests should be aware that the serving staff in sustainable tourism will be different from in city centre business-type hotels. Local staff bring a friendlier, personal and heartfelt touch to their work, and the guest is looked after like family. Impatience on the part of the guest does not help anybody.
How challenging was implementing responsible tourism in your properties? What is the most important step you have taken at Qayaam Gah towards maintaining the region's ecology?
It was hugely challenging because eco-positive decisions come with a cost. For example, we could have made 50 rooms in Neeleshwar Hermitage using concrete towers and cemented public spaces. Still, we created 18 low-impact cottages and public buildings that maximised natural ventilation and healthy air flow, all made out of reclaimed wood, tiles, and materials grown and used locally.
We chose to employ local skilled artisans and specialists rather than industrial-scale construction teams because we value traditional skills, working methods, and the families that depend on these skills. These policies also create an end-product that educates the tourists about the unique character and culture of the area they are visiting.
In the long term, this approach pays off, as the discerning tourist is tired of the architectural uniformity and lack of character found in so many destinations and will always choose the authentic exceptions to the general rule. We implemented a similar policy while creating Qayaam Gah.
Are you hopeful about the resurgence of Kashmir as a major tourism hub? What are the challenges that you foresee?
Although things are improving politically, and the past few years have been excellent regarding tourism, given the area's history, we still need to find out what the future will hold.
The primary practical challenge that our guests are facing is the airport. Although it handles almost 40 flights daily from various destinations, an astonishing number, the airport's facilities could be better given this volume of traffic. Guests get confused during departure with all the security checks and military bunkers everywhere.
The other major problem is that we are hampered from actively promoting Kashmir in some countries; for example, the UK Foreign Office still warns its citizens against travelling here.
How can Kashmir avoid the pitfalls of over-tourism?
We are already experiencing the pitfalls of over-tourism! Destinations like Kashmir must focus on Luxury Responsible Tourism and limit mass market influx. Kashmir is environmentally very fragile, and we should respect that. Otherwise, the area will no longer be able to function as a tourist destination, with all the disastrous loss of natural habitat, local income and established infrastructure.
What support are you expecting from the Kashmir government to aid your responsible tourism efforts?
In the short term, a regular, properly organised, and efficient rubbish pickup and recycling service is essential, and all houseboats should be provided with bio-tanks.
In the longer term, as a government initiative, we need more training centres to teach the upcoming tourist industry the principles and practical techniques of building and working in harmony with the natural environment.
Have you undertaken any capacity-building measures for the local communities where Qayaam Gah is located?
During the making and building of Qayaam Gah, a project that took eight years to complete, we employed almost 80% of the site workers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers from local villages. Now that we are operational, we continue to employ several staff members from the adjoining villages as gardeners, security personnel and cleaners. As a result, the village's employment rate, prosperity and general quality of life have improved. This will also have a knock-on effect on the future well-being of the locality.
What are your plans? Are there any more resorts in the pipeline?
The aim is to create more small-scale and intimate retreat resorts in Kashmir and other parts of India, all following the same plan of sustainability and benign integration into the natural and human environment.