There are few things that move me more than a night sky. When the air is clean, and when I’m far from noisy, bright cities, the stars speak to me. They are a powerful reminder of how I, a measly collection of atoms, can be so big yet so small at exactly the same time.
In India, it’s hard to find this sky. The cities are plagued with smog, and the lights and noise of 1.2 billion people permeate nearly every inch of the subcontinent.
But sitting at Black Eagle’s Camp near Munnar, Kerala, India, I’ve stumbled into this moment in time and space. The fire crackles subtly at my feet, and crickets chirp harmoniously in the distance. My fellow campers have gone to bed, and I find myself alone, surrounded by tea plants, breathing in air untouched by the messiness of human civilization.
I travel a lot. And when I do, as much as I don’t want to be, I am a tourist. I don’t really like the word; it conjures up images of pasty Britons in their socks and sandals walking along the coast of Spain wondering where they can get bangers and mash and a pint. But it’s an unavoidable distinction.
Wherever I go, I’m hardly the first person to pass through, and I certainly won’t be the last. Tourist locations are forever changed by the influx of people from afar. But exactly how do we shape the places we visit?
Most tourists crave “local” and “genuine” experiences, but what does that really mean? Can you actually experience a place like a local if you’re not one? I personally don’t think so. It’s impossible for us to remove the filter created by our own unique experiences, and combined with a language barrier, there will always be distance between us and the place. That’s why I always say travel is for you. The place is secondary.
But yet here I am.
I wrote recently about the state of Kerala and how it embraced its role as an agricultural state to improve the well-being of its citizens. But I also wrote about how Kerala does not exist in a bubble, and that because of this, it’s experiencing a bit of a crisis; its youth is educated and motivated, so to find fulfillment, Keralan youngsters must leave the region.
In some respects, tourism can never be bad. It’s an effective method of making capital flow from one part of the world to the other. But it certainly has its dark side. For example, one can travel to the north of Thailand to ride elephants, or to Panglao Island in the Philippines to swim with whalesharks, but these animals are often abused so as to create these experiences for people who view them as exotic.
Yet how does one control tourism? People love to travel, and as the world gets wealthier, more and more people are itching to explore it. There will always be someone looking to make a quick buck, and there will always be people who can’t be bothered to think about the impact they are having on the place where they are.
This unfortunate reality of tourism begs the question: can it be used to promote ethical and sustainable development?
The short answer is yes. Just like anything else, tourism is neutral. It’s how we engage with it that determines its impact.
Tourism goes hand in hand with vacation and leisure. Travel is an opportunity for us to break from our routines and to experience things that differ greatly from our typical lived experience. When we travel, we frequently seek to disconnect, to turn off our brains and to leave our concerns and troubles behind.
I stumbled upon the Black Eagle’s Camp; I did not go because of its mission. I went because I heard the region was stunning, and because I needed a break from the crowded urbanity found throughout India. But what I found renewed my faith in tourism as a means of injecting life into areas that are struggling.
The region around Munnar is dominated by tea plantations—India is one of the world’s largest exporters of tea—and this unique landscape is one of its draws.
Tea production began after British colonialists deforested the area to supply a lucrative shipbuilding industry. The high altitude and abundant water supply lent itself to tea, but it wasn’t until the foreign company fell into Indian hands in the 1970s that the region became the tea giant that it is today.
More land was acquired, and production ramped up. The new company began offering more competitive wages, and to encourage people to work, they gave employees free education, healthcare, and housing. This had the intended effect of keeping employees happy and working, but it also created a situation common throughout Kerala where the youth outgrew the opportunities available to them. Well-educated youngsters moved onto ‘greener’ pastures, leaving behind the last generation of tea workers.
It’s not certain what will happen to these communities when the current workforce becomes too old to work. Business is still booming, and it’s improbable to think the tea companies will simply close up shop. But something must be done to make the region an attractive place to live, making it increasingly necessary for the large tea companies to rely on workers who have no other choice, opening the door for oppression and unfair labor practices.
Black Eagle’s Camp was founded by a man from Mumbai who spent years working in tourism in London. He returned to India and launched this project with the vision that responsible tourism could bring new life to these communities and prevent what is becoming an inevitable braindrain on the region.
He employs people from the villages where the tea workers live, and in doing so, he has helped to renew the relationship people have with the surrounding area. In many ways, he is trying to show people that there are other ways of making a good life beyond studying at university and chasing after high-paying jobs in faraway cities, especially when you live in a place with such natural beauty as the Munnar area.
This is an interesting concept. A good education is one of the most effective ways to improve life. Yet our relationship with education has become tenuous. We tend to place more value on training that prepares us for economic success. But this leaves out some of the more qualitative benefits of education, such as self-discovery, expression, curiosity, etc. A good life comes from having sufficient economic opportunities to help provide comfort and security, but this alone will not eliminate suffering. Financial success can only get us so far, so we may be arriving at a point in time where we need to reconsider how we prepare our future generations for the world they are set to inherit.
Because it seems to embrace this idea, the Black Eagle’s Camp project is really quite an exciting one. But there’s still lots of work to be done, not the least of which is encouraging tourists to engage in projects like these when they make their decisions as to where to spend their holidays.
I firmly believe that given the right resources and information, people will do the right thing. But at this current juncture, sustainable tourism projects depend too heavily on people going out of their way to find them. This is something that needs to change.
Effective tourism development depends equally on the availability of sustainable options as well as the presence of mind from tourists to choose these options over others even in the face of slightly higher fees.
And this points to one of the real challenges facing this sector: adding value beyond its social purpose. People want to do good, but they also want to make sure their money is being well-spent. We can’t expect people to purchase a lesser-quality product simply because it brands itself as “sustainable.”
Sustainable development cannot forget that we live in a world dominated by business. You must compete on the open market if you plan to have success. The folks at Black Eagle’s Camp seem to understand this. If you visit their site, you’ll find no reference to their social intentions; what they are selling instead is the experience you stand to have, or in other words, the product.
But we cannot let the onus fall entirely on businesses operating in the area. There needs to be an increased awareness about the effects of our decisions. This is even more true in the ‘developing’ world, where regulation is often weak and enforcement lax. Supply will respond to demand, and we as individuals are responsible for demand.
We can never forget the impact of our actions. The effects of even our most insignificant choices ripple out into the world and help construct the reality in which we live.
Projects such as Black Eagle’s Camp help show a path forward in the world of sustainable tourism and development. However, it will take more than just an increased availability of initiatives such as this one for tourism to realize its full impact. We must cease to view travel and tourism as a way of disconnecting from our world, and instead look at it as a was of bringing cultures together for mutual benefit.
I found this project by accident, but the next time I head out for an adventure, I’ll do my best to learn more about the impact of my leisure.