As two nature enthusiasts from SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai we were quite excited when we were lucky enough to get an opportunity to work as part of our curriculum (Development of Corporate Citizenship – DOCC) with My Himachal on an eco-tourism project for the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) in the Kullu district.
Almost three days into our project we were still struggling to come up with a suitable definition for the word ‘Eco tourism’ with respect to the GHNP and spending hours researching online was not getting us anywhere. We decided the best way to define our objectives for this project and to actually understand our role here was to visit the park and get a firsthand experience on what the park has to offer.
We began our journey to the hallowed portals of the Great Himachal National Park with a visit to the main office at Shamshi. The officials there were very helpful and on such short notice arranged for our transport and accommodation at the Park. On reaching Sairopa we eagerly awaited the trek into GHNP. We were told that it is a 9 km trek from Gushaini (a small village on the outskirts of the park) to the GHNP entrance. Though we knew that one can only reach GHNP on foot, a 9 km trek seemed a little difficult for us business school students used to a life across our laptop screens, buried into our assignments. But our excitement knew no bounds since we were astounded by the beauty of Sairopa and we waited for what would greet us in the interiors of this untouched land called GHNP.
The genuineness of the people of this region was no shock to us since each soul we met in Himachal was out to make us feel as comfortable as we city-breed students could. Our guide for the trek was a lad named Charan Chauhan, a sweet, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and energetic trekker. He kept us engrossed throughout the 9 km walk to the park with stories on how the park’s existence had come about and how he came about being a trekking guide at the GHNP.
Our main objective of the trek was to meet the locals staying within the Eco-zone (the western boundary of the Park inhabited by 160 villages historically dependent on forest resources) , to talk to them in order to gauge what they feel about their source of sustenance being converted into a protected park. We wanted to know on how they have adapted to this change and in what way have the local governing bodies helped their employment opportunities and income generation activities. We felt a firsthand experience of a journey into the Park would help a long way into understanding its strengths and weaknesses.
We met a quaint family of five living in small log hut en route to GHNP. They used to depend on medicinal plants from the park for their livelihood but since the park had become a protected area they now reared goats for a living. The woman of the house was a part of the WSCGs here (Women’s Saving and Credit Group-an initiative by the Biodiversity Tourism and Community Advancement (BTCA) group) and the man of the house was comparatively inactive. This family’s outlook towards life in the valley was quite defeatist and they were resigned to the belief that their life would not improve. On further probing about the initiatives taken by the Government they seemed sceptical and had lost faith in the present governing bodies.
Trekking further we were lucky to meet a man named Harilal from a village called Dhar. We were astounded by his positive attitude, his smiling face was inspiring. He told us that his family relied on a little farming and cattle for sustenance and said that he was on the lookout for more job opportunities. We found that there were primary schools within a radius of 1km around each village though the middle school was quite far. He said that children in his village were studying and he had high hopes for their future. But again he was pessimistic about the present initiatives been taken by the governing bodies.
All the other people we met fell into either one of the above categories but most locals were accepting the fact that the Park was now a protected area and had to look for other avenues for their sustenance. After speaking to the villagers we started our journey back to Gushaini and then to Sairopa.
We learnt about the wide spectrum of activities the Eco zone and GHNP had to offer for a tourist when we spoke to Mr Shesh Ram, the oldest serving trekking guide in Sairopa. One has an array of choice between adventure sports such as rock climbing, rappelling, river crossing, and fishing in the Eco zone or long treks into the GHNP for bird watching, wildlife spotting and long nature trails in GHNP. Also we were lucky to have the opportunity to speak to some tourists from Mumbai who had been on a trek to Shilt hut in GHNP. They were more than satisfied with the service provided and they could not stop talking about their experiences. But speaking to them we realized that they had carried out a careful search of national parks in India and had extensively planned their trip unlike most Indian tourists. We wondered if these nature lovers would have come to GHNP if they had not had the patience to keep researching and not giving up each time they met a road block in the planning of their trip – be it the fact that there is no brochure/website about GHNP which mentions the prevailing rates or the fact that there is not even a mention of GHNP on the Himachal Pradesh Tourism website!
Over the last 3 days spent at the GHNP we have realised the road ahead is long and has many obstacles. GHNP is a paradise on earth but its inaccessibility (by road) and lack of information about it do pose a major challenge in attracting people to it. Providing alternate means of sustenance to locals who previously depended on the forest also is an uphill task especially since most villagers are losing faith in the present system and further time passing by without any action is not helping. Handloom, handicrafts, medicinal plants in the Eco zone etc are few of the employment opportunities which are being explored, but some strong decisions need to be taken accompanied with a implementable action plan is the need of the hour. Keeping in mind that responsible tourism has to be the key outline we have come to understand what really eco tourism is about. We have realised that developing small scale tourism in GHNP while striving to have as little impact on the fragile and pristine protected areas of GHNP is one of our primary objectives. Educating the traveller while directly benefiting the social stability, economic development and political empowerment for the local communities (Community Based Ecotourism) will be another key objective of our study.
Our visit to the GHNP has been a completely new experience from the bustling streets of Mumbai to being surrounded by lush mountains roofed by clouds. GHNP gives the mind the peace which no place else can give and has lot to offer an adventurous traveller. Over the next few weeks we hope to bring about a significant positive impact to this region to the best of our abilities.
The above article has been written by Divya Sawant and Gautam Bhatia. Both of them are students of SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai. They are currently on a 6 week internship with My Himachal as part of their DOCC (Development of Corporate Citizenship) program. They are presently working on a plan to develop a sustainable model for eco tourism in the GHNP area. Their immediate plan is to develop a marketing strategy for ecotourism in GHNP.