Paras Loomba: Creating Real Impact Through Tourism
Paras Loomba, Founder of Global Himalayan Expeditions (GHE), has led several leadership expeditions to Ladakh to provide Clean Energy and Digital Education access to remote off-grid communities without access to basic electricity over the last few years.
GHE has been instrumental in electrifying 101 remote off-grid Himalayan villages and impacting over 40,000 lives. In the process, GHE has set up more than 55 women-run homestays in these solar-electrified villages under the Mountain Homestays initiative to promote community tourism experiences.
An engineer by profession, Paras merges technology and passion with an approach towards entrepreneurial models in these high-altitude areas, advocating sustainable tourism solutions that would eventually stimulate the local economy, reducing local emigration and preserving age-old cultural Himalayan heritage.
What made you start a responsible tourism venture?
I founded GHE in 2013 with the intent to promote tourism as a vehicle for the sustainable development of rural communities. I was inspired by a leadership expedition to Antarctica with Sir Robert Swan that I undertook in 2012. I was working in a High-Tech Electronics company when I decided to pursue my childhood dream. On my return from Antarctica, I wanted to start a movement that leverages technology and tourism to develop remote communities. As a son of an army officer, I spent a lot of my childhood in the mountainous regions of India, and that was the key driver towards my mission to bring light and development for the remote indigenous communities of the Himalayas. We started with organising expeditions to these remote villages, during which we would install solar microgrids and electrify an entire village.
Soon this led to the launch of other initiatives. Like Mountain Homestays, a community empowerment initiative that focuses on promoting solar-electrified villages as destinations for travellers by developing homestays in partnership with the locals. Mountain Homestays are managed and run by village women, thus helping them with doorstep income and making them more confident and independent. Linked to the homestays are our experiential tours, based on various themes like Adventure, Spirituality, Cultural and Heritage. Based on the theme, travellers get to explore unique places, stay in solar homestays, and participate in local activities. By creating new offbeat destinations, we are promoting local handicrafts and centuries-old heritage sites in the villages.
The high altitude and dry climate of Ladakh result in wonderful night skies where one can identify numerous stellar objects. This makes the region perfect for astro-tourism. GHE has developed Astrostays in various villages of Ladakh by installing large telescopes. The local women running these homestays are trained in operating the telescopes and showcasing the night sky to the tourists. For instance, in just three months, the community near Pangong Lake in Ladakh could earn Rs 86,000 through the Astrostays.
What is a GHE expedition like?
Once a traveller signs up for a particular expedition, they are asked to fill out a selection questionnaire where we get to know them better and in detail. We then conduct a small telephonic conversation with our team leader of the expedition and ensure they are medically fit before the final selection. The team chosen is carefully selected with people who have a similar thought process and are interested in both adventure and social impact. Once the group is chosen, everyone is briefed on the itinerary and the village to be electrified through an online webinar. We expect everyone to reach Leh on a given date and post that GHE takes care of the logistics. The journey involves visiting unexplored areas of Ladakh and, of course, finally trekking to the remote village for electrification.
What are the challenges responsible tourism as an industry faces?
My view is based on my observation of Ladakh in the past few years . In the Pangong Lake area, for example, there are more than 100 hotels and resorts. Almost everyone uses diesel generators. They can migrate to solar power but are not doing so. This is because there is no strict policy in place. A lot of people, especially the smaller operators, look at earning all the money they can in the six months of the season. Some of the large, established chains are investing in sustainability. But many of those starting out think of the shorter term and are focusing on ensuring higher profitability. The choice, when there is no strict policy, will be for cheaper options and to increase margins. Only when the locals adopt sustainable alternatives will there be an actual impact.
Also, for small operators, solar energy investments are costly. There is no real government support in the form of subsidies or rebates. There used to be a subsidy for solar energy water heaters, and many installed them at that time. But now the subsidy has stopped and so people are not installing new solar water heaters. This is in the case of other areas, too, like water recycling and waste.
What is the impact of your organisation?
Over the years, GHE has been conducting impact expeditions in the Zanskar region of Ladakh to provide clean energy access to the remote communities living in the Himalayas. This project tackles the issue of lack of electricity access for the communities that are living in darkness and still use kerosene oil for their lighting and cooking needs, which in turn emits toxic gases.
The project aims to empower these remote Himalayan communities with basic infrastructure, such as providing them with solar electricity by conducting traveller expeditions. This electrification is done by installing solar-based microgrids that are not only safe to install but also require very little technical knowledge for a traveller.
More than 1,250 travellers from over 60 different countries have been part of the impact expeditions to bring light to these 101 villages in the remote regions of Ladakh, Kargil and Zanskar.
Once these villages have been electrified, GHE sets up homestays in these communities for future traveller accommodation. This brings in livelihood for the communities and helps them maintain grid infrastructure. GHE has now set up 55 Homestays in these electrified villages and has been able to generate an additional $35,000 in income for the local communities.
GHE has trained 65 women from the communities in hospitality and financial literacy. GHE has also trained a few women as solar engineers, and these are the first women engineers from the Ladakh region who have electrified 27 villages with GHE.
GHE has set up a total solar capacity of 114kW in the Himalayas. This has mitigated 1263 Tons of CO2 emissions annually and also displaced 325 Tons of kerosene oil that is mostly used in the winter months.
In addition to the electrification of villages, GHE has installed solar-powered digital education centres at remote schools to enable more than 1,500 students to access digital education. Students are engaging in experiential learning, and the school grade averages, as well as attendance, have improved by 70 percent.
What drives you?
We want to get back to the age of exploration—going to remote areas not for Instagramming but to do good. Sometimes we discuss why is it our aim to stop people from migrating when we, as humans, are constantly migrating. In this case, a lot of people want to stay in the community and are migrating only because there are no opportunities in their own community. Creating these livelihood opportunities in remote communities makes a lot of impact. For me, the drive is still about exploring new areas, doing tech interventions to improve lives and taking people to places they have not been to before to inspire them.
What are your plans for your organisation in terms of expansion and new initiatives?
With more than 800 million people in the world without access to energy and more than a million just in the Himalayas, our vision is to provide energy access to 1 million lives by 2025 and, in the process, create 1,000 local entrepreneurs that can take forward this legacy. While the use of solar energy is on the rise and has been successful in providing energy access to the most isolated communities, the transformational impact of merging tourism with the growth in experiential-led travel for millennials is something that has potential.
With the increase in the visibility of our impact in the Himalayas, many other regions facing similar issues in energy access have contacted us to set up similar models of execution for their remote communities. In India, we are launching in the Northeastern states of Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.
Internationally, GHE has surveyed remote villages in Indonesia, Cameroon, Namibia and Nepal to expand its expedition model to bring technology innovation solutions to communities. GHE plans to launch six impact expeditions. By setting up homestays for these electrified villages, GHE now has a database of exclusive homestays, which has potential for backpackers and travellers looking for newer destinations. Under the brand Mountain Homestays, GHE plans to provide access to more than 200 homestays.
In addition to providing solar-based energy for villages, many resorts and hotels in Ladakh have approached us to set up clean energy-based electricity systems and replace their existing diesel-based generators. The state tourism authorities of three states in India that are planning to create sustainable tourism policies have recently approached GHE to help in the development of homestay-based rural tourism for their states.
For more information visit, ghe.co.in