Vaibhav Kala On Pioneering Adventure Travel In India

The founder and director of Aquaterra Adventures talks about starting an adventure travel business in the 1990s and how to practice responsible tourism today
Vaibhav Kala helps to frame policies that ensure safer adventure travels in the country
Vaibhav Kala helps to frame policies that ensure safer adventure travels in the countryCopyright: Vaibhav Kala

Vaibhav Kala was climbing a mountain in Ladakh when he wondered whether he should start an adventure travel company. The seed of this idea bloomed in 1995 when Aquaterra Adventures was established as one of the few travel outfitters in the country that catered to those who wanted to climb Himalayan summits and partake in river running adventures.

Today, the company is an award-winning outfitter that runs treks and river rafting in places like Uttarakhand, Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, as well as overseas, including to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and Peru.

Kala continues to be at the forefront of guiding adventure travel and helps to frame policies that ensure safer travels in the country. Outlook Traveller sat down with the founder and director of Aquaterra Adventures to learn more about the organisation's history and impact. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Can you start by telling us about Aquaterra Adventures and how responsible tourism fits into that?

The sort of work we do has always been committed to natural heritage regions [which are] out of cities and largely in protected and reserved forests. So, an immediate connect to be 'responsible' has always been part of [our] system. This is all I have been doing since 1992 starting as a mountain and river guide when there was very little 'outdoor' and 'leisure' tourism. They were the days of 286 computers, telex systems and international faxing was at the mercy of being able to get a call out overseas. There was no market in India. 

Aquaterra Adventures began in 1995 offering mobile, self-contained trips across the Himalayas, which still remains our USP (unique selling proposition). Diversifying into soft adventure base camps and a full-fledged activity lodge in the mountains, Aquaterra offers custom adventures, group departures, 2-3 day breaks at our three properties, and up to 2-3 week expeditions on rivers and mountains across the Himalayas. We also promote adventures in Tanzania, Zambia, Morocco, Jordan, Nepal, Bhutan, Peru and Chile. 

Camping under the stars
Camping under the starsCopyright: Aquaterra Adventures

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

Travellers expect safety, consistency and reliability when they sign up with us. With no army of salespeople selling tours, the demography remains a highly focused one through referrals, word-of-mouth distribution of the brand and repeat experiences forged by the diversity of products on offer. We are known for owning the experience with our own guiding team, equipment [and] logistical back end, [which] offers us complete control of the client's experience. 

What are the main challenges you faced while setting up your organisation and the challenges you continue to face as you run it? How have you dealt with them?

When we started, there was a very small, evolved and educated market and industry. The challenges were communication, reaching out and a world without internet. Setting up a website was a challenge – our first was made of a series of Jpeg files – and availability of quality equipment was a huge hurdle. 

The main challenges today remain unregulated growth, where there is no prequalification for an industry where safety must be paramount. Rising accident rates, a raging price war, unreported incidents and low prioritisation of risk mitigation remain a problem. Overtourism in certain regions is eroding the very USP that brings people to the mountains. 

We have dealt with these challenges by plodding on and working with the industry to reduce the challenges, whilst engaging with the governments at state and centre [level]. 

En route to the Kalindi mountains in Uttarakhand
En route to the Kalindi mountains in UttarakhandWikimedia Commons: Sharada Prasad CS

What is the impact of your organisation?

We have always maintained a strong 'from the regions we work in' hiring approach. It gives us the most satisfaction that 99.5% of our 90+ strong team comes from the regions we work in. So, besides giving us even further domain expertise, it is a matter of pride that they are empowered to retain permanent jobs doing what they like – an absolute rarity in this industry that relies on part-time employment and low on long-term commitment.

They have been able to educate their children in city schools and build homes, have access to health care, and retain jobs in regions that have seen large-scale migration due to [a] lack of job opportunities.  

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

1. Removal of all single-use plastic items from our operations. Garbage disposal bags have also moved from plastic to gunny bags. 

2. Shortlist products with less plastic packaging such as reusable dispensers and open food items.

3. [Use] biodegradable soaps, organic and local food, local supplies, [and] local suppliers.

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