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Educational, fun vacations can be responsible, too, when you learn what makes a good eco-destination and how to be a green traveler.
Traveling is one of life’s great pleasures! Seeing natural wonders, meeting people from different cultures, experiencing things only imagine. Just because you are going on a family vacation doesn’t mean that learning should take a break too. Ecotourism is full of what educators call teachable moments or, more definitively, unplanned opportunities to explain a concept that has unintentionally captured a child’s interest.
Who among us has not witnessed the common occurrence while visiting the local zoo, going hiking or even watching a local artistic exhibit where younger children are looking with absolute wonder and amazement at the spectacle of music, art, flora or fauna? These teachable moments mark milestones for a child’s personal growth and development. And the value system that is at the core of ecotourism can be a positive influence on all age groups, not just the very young.
To understand the benefits of eco-tourism for kids and families we spoke to Shyam Penubolu who is an avid trekker and a nature lover. He has done several high-altitude and low-altitude treks in the Himalayas, Sahayadris and the Western ghats since the age of 14. After almost two decades in the corporate world, Shyam decided to follow his heart and set up an adventure outfit, Outdoers, that enables city folks to tread the road less traveled and visit some of the most beautiful, unexplored places in the mountains.
Read on to know his thoughts on the benefits of ecotourism:
KidEngage: Many people automatically turn to big theme parks, all-inclusive resorts and those kinds of things when they think of family travel. What kind of an experience should one expect from an ecotourism trip?
Shyam: Conventional family vacations to popular tourist destinations are so been-there-done-that! Ecotourism or responsible travel involves travel to quaint places that are usually off the tourist circuit and are relatively undisturbed by development. Forms of eco-tourism are trekking, observing wildlife, staying in homestays voluntourism (where one spends a few days volunteering with a local community) and so on.
Eco-tourism is a win-win for travelers and the local communities – it is a source of additional livelihood for the locals and the experience is enriching for the travelers. Ecotours give an opportunity to visit pristine areas and understand the flora, fauna, local culture, cuisine, architecture etc.
KidEngage: How can families help preserve the environment and support local culture by choosing destinations that are not overcrowded or overdeveloped?
Shyam: Ecotourism is environmentally responsible travel. Families undertaking an ecotour need to appreciate that they will be visiting pristine, relatively undisturbed regions and that the places must remain so even after their visit! As these places have almost no waste management facilities, families can help by minimizing the amount of non biodegradable material they carry to the remote places. In fact they can help further by clearing the place of rubbish so that the place is cleaner when they leave. Avoiding bottled water and trying out local cuisine made from locally available ingredients are examples of simple ways in which guests can minimize their ecological footprint.
As for supporting local culture, they can do this by simply interacting with the local people being curious of their lifestyle and traditions. This helps the locals develop a sense of pride for their own locale and their culture. Families can even pick an activity and volunteer with the local community.
KidEngage: What role do tour operators and guides play in the conservation and preservation efforts of such destinations?
Shyam: If one is not careful enough, eco-tourism can even be detrimental to the local environment and the people in the long term. Eco-tour operators play an important role in making sure that does not happen. They must make the locals, as stakeholders in eco-tourism programs. They should be seen as an extension of the local community and not someone who is trying to snatch their livelihood away. As eco-tour operators understand the needs of a typical eco traveler, they can help the locals design the program and lay down the do’s and dont’s.
Eco-tour operators must play an active role in the betterment of the community and in capacity building in areas – say, farming, bee-keeping, renewable energy, waste management – in which skills are lacking or inadequate.
KidEngage: What are the guidelines a family with kids has to follow when on one of such tours?
Shyam: The much cliched phrase – ‘leave only footprints behind’ – does hold good for such tours. Minimize the generation of non biodegradable waste and carry such trash back to the cities. Have fun together as a family but also make use of the opportunity to learn. Do interact with the locals and get an insight into their lives. If you will, lend a hand in their daily chores such as gathering firewood, weeding or sowing in the fields, cooking and so on. It takes some time to break the ice but it is well worth the effort!
KidEngage: Briefly describe your eco tourism company OutDoers and the kind of tours and trips it undertakes for families.
Shyam: Outdoers is a responsible tourism company that has been around for almost 3 years. We organize family treks that serve as an alternative to conventional family vacations. These amply rewarding treks in various scenic regions are do-able by children as young as 5. The trips involve loads of fun and adventure, and also include some learning. The groups are accompanied by a naturalist or a local guide who can give an insight into the local culture, flora and fauna.
The duration of the trips ranges from 4 to 8 days, excluding travel from your city to the starting point. We involve local communities wherever possible. We accommodate guests in charming rural home-stays or stand-alone guesthouses that have most of the basic facilities that city dwellers expect.
KidEngage: A lot of parents today are interested in travel that helps their kids learn and care about the world. With the holiday season around the corner, which trips should families look out for from OutDoers?
Shyam: It is heartening to see parents who want to expose their children to meaningful, responsible travel. We keep organizing several offbeat family treks in Bhutan, Nepal, Meghalaya and Uttarakhand depending on the season. While some can be undertaken by children aged 5 and above, others are somewhat harder and are do-able by older children. As a preparation for the trek, we also organize weekend walks in Hyderabad.
All details of their programs can be found at their website as well as on KidEngage.