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ISSN 1108-8931

INTERNATIONAL ECOTOURISM MAGAZINE

 Year 8 - Issue 94 - Oct 07

Sponsored by: Hana Maui Botanical Gardens (US), Maris Hotels Traditional Apartments (GR), Beyond Touring (BZ),
Siam Safari Nature Tours (TH), Canyon Travel (MX), La Selva Jungle Lodge (EC), Eco Holidays Malta (MT), Abha Palace (SA),
St-Géry Historic Estate (FR), International Centre for Responsible Tourism (UK)

GOPINATH PARAYIL: "Small scale tourism projects in consultation with local communities should be the mainstay in development"

ECOCLUB Interviews Gopinath Parayil
Index of Interviews

Gopinath ParayilGopinath Parayil (Gopi) is the founder of  award-winning The Blue Yonder,  a 'responsible travel' company based in Bangalore, India. Before setting up The Blue Yonder, Gopinath worked with software companies, NGOs and consulted in Disaster Management. After leaving his job as a professional fundraiser for a Children's NGO in the UK, he pursued his passion for a dying river in Kerala leading to the formation of Nila Foundation. Seeing the potential of positive changes that Tourism can bring in the lives of people along the banks of River Nila, Gopi kick-started the movement of Responsible Tourism in India.

The recipient of First Choice Responsible Tourism Award for Poverty reduction at the World Travel Market 2006 in London, The Blue Yonder (Web: www.theblueyonder.com) was set up in 2003 to  support the work of Nila Foundation. The Nila Foundation had been set up to revive and regenerate a dying river, Bharatapuzha (River Nila) in Kerala. Initially started as a project in North Kerala, surrounding River Nila, The Blue Yonder (TBY) organises tours that give in-depth understanding of the river culture and which provide alternative and supplementary sources of income for various communities. The TBY model is now being implemented in six other Indian states: Rajasthan, Karnataka, Sikkim, Orissa, Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal.

 

(The Interview follows:)


ECOCLUB.com: What was it that first attracted you to Ecotourism and Responsible Tourism?

Gopinath Parayil: When we set up Nila Foundation to do research on river conservation, we were definite that we would not depend on funding agencies to sustain the functions of the organisation. We didn't want our dreams to be dictated by some insensitive funding agency. So it was while looking for a sustainable funding support for the Nila Foundation activities, that we started exploring the options of using tourism as a tool for generating income for the foundation.

This was also an opportunity for us to tell the world about a dying river that was once the life line of Kerala with its contribution to a unique river valley civilization. Since the central theme of our holidays were initially surrounding the sadly depleted river, it only made sense for us to introduce a travel culture that was sensitive to the local surroundings; including our people and the environment in which they lived.

ECOCLUB.com: Your company was set up with the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility from scratch. How would you define CSR in theory, and what does it mean for your company in practice?

Gopinath Parayil: CSR is one of the many abused terms similar to the green washing that has happened in the travel industry in the name of eco tourism. For us, CSR is not about PR exercise. Nor is it about just sharing a bit of profit that you make out of your business to make one look 'balanced' or 'just'.

As I mentioned earlier, the work we are doing came out of our 'responsibility' to our surroundings. Tourism was only one of the several elements that came into the broader frame work of our CSR. It was out of our 'responsibility' that we decided to set up Nila Foundation to do our bit to preserve and revive a dying river and its cultural ethos.

While the initial objective of The Blue Yonder was to be of a financial engine to support activities of Nila Foundation, later it evolved into an organisation that created alternative and supplementary jobs in villages that were never part of conventional tourism circuits in Kerala.

Since accommodation providers and property owners were an integral part of our programs, we set up an associate network called ‘The Blue Yonder Associates’ which is a platform for property owners who run their business responsibly.

Seeing the scope and potential of being able to influence and engage the industry and the Governments, we went ahead with the plans for setting up the International Centre for Responsible Tourism in India. (ICRT India). The centre has organised National and state level symposiums in Bangalore and Kerala respectively. We are also organizing the 2nd International conference on RT in March 2008 along with the Kerala Tourism department and ICRT UK.

ECOCLUB.com: What share of tourists actually choose your tours because of your socially responsible record, and which countries do they mostly come from?

Gopinath Parayil: Except for the 15% of domestic enquiries we get through telephone at our Bangalore office, the rest of our B2C business comes through our website www.theblueyonder.com. Web stats records link these enquiries to key words defining 'environment-friendly' and 'socially responsible holidays'. Individual traveller's are becoming more and more sensitive to the way they want to holiday and from our experiences, the trend is increasing beyond any doubts in originating markets like the UK, USA, Germany, France and Netherlands. Though small in numbers, we are seeing a change amongst travellers from Scandinavian countries who are looking for responsible holidays since last year.

ECOCLUB.com: Your company received the coveted First Choice Responsible Tourism Award 2006 in London, last year. Has the award been of practical use to you in terms of business, or is it more or less mainly a moral reward?

Gopinath Parayil: I don’t think any of our guests decided to travel with us ONLY because we received a prestigious award. But, I do believe that awards and recognitions, especially when the awards come through nomination from travellers, do influence the decision of a traveller when she decides to book the holiday. It is true that RT award has increased the TBY - brand value within the global travel industry. On a long term perspective, I think prestigious awards do make a difference.

As a small organisation, the award was morally uplifting for us. To receive an award out of some 1200 nominees under 13 different categories reiterated our commitment to the work we were involved in and prompted us to explore various other possibilities of Responsible Tourism to different parts of the country. The 2007 Conde Nast Award World Savers Award came to us in the same year when India has been voted as the favourite country to travel by Conde Nast Traveller UK and this has brought in fair amount of attention on us.

ECOCLUB.com: Some fear that with the growing fashion of CSR, otherwise ordinary tourism companies will also set up foundations as a side-dish / publicity stunt to attract praise and customers, or for tax purposes, rather than to engage in real social & environmental work. What is your view and experience?

Gopinath Parayil: When certain business models make 'certain business sense' to some people, they will definitely pursue short cuts without much sweat. We have seen much greenwashing of pseudo projects in the name of eco tourism over the last decade and I don't see any reason why this should not happen in the name of CSR or even Responsible Tourism. This is already happening in originating markets including the UK where some companies promoting destinations like Kerala and rest of India are positioning themselves as Responsible Tour operators when we cannot differentiate between them and the run-of-the-mill operators. At the same time, even after all these tall claims, none of the benefits from RT is percolating to the lower strata of the society. Probably this is the time; responsible travellers should become the whistle blowers and report back on their experiences with these ‘Irresponsible Tourism Operators’.

ECOCLUB.com: Overall, do you feel that Indian hotels and tour operators increasingly respect or ignore the environment? Are you optimistic that environmental responsibility ideals go deep enough in the Indian tourism sector so that voluntary action is sufficient, or do state governments need to make drastic interventions?

Gopinath Parayil: The trend is by and large to ignore the environment, barring a few properties and tour operators in the length and breadth of India. Irrespective of short term interventions by state Governments, what is lacking in India is a national policy on Responsible tourism. Until and unless this is incorporated into the National Planning commission's agenda, I personally believe that no significant change will happen. Also, unless Responsible tourism becomes a market driven initiative, I don’t see much happening from the Government level. Hence, other small initiatives by the tourism industry will remain only in the periphery levels.

ECOCLUB.com: As someone who has studied Disaster Management, do you feel that there is an adequate system in place to protect communities and tourism from natural disasters, as well as the associated hysteria. How has the Chikungunya fever outbreak in parts of Kerala in Autumn 2006 and again in June 2007 affected tourism?

Gopinath Parayil: Though India has gained tremendous knowledge and capacity in intervention on the onset of a disaster and post disaster management, the story on disaster preparedness and planning is more or less the same as it was a decade before. Albeit quite late, it’s good to see that a disaster management authority is being set up in Kerala. As long as the command control is not defined, disaster management would end up becoming disastrous management as it happened twice during the floods in Mumbai recently. According to the industry feedback, Chikungunya did not affect the tourism industry in 2006 at all. Initially though there were fears of cancellations. The statistics available on the Tourism department website actually shows an increase in the inflow of travellers. Since the statistics are not available at present, it is not possible to comment based on any speculation. However, our interaction with stakeholders in the industry reveals a different picture in contrast to the official statements.

ECOCLUB.com: You have studied computers and are also an avid blogger. Where do you see the Internet going, in terms of its relevance to tourism practitioners and with reference to India?

Gopinath Parayil: Like it is happening in many other parts of the world, travel agents will have lesser role to play in B2C transactions as internet provides customers the opportunity to research and purchase holidays online. With travel agents commission being slashed on airline tickets and plethora of products and services available to the customers, brick and mortar concepts of business will not be the same in the coming years.

The Internet has already revolutionized the way people plan their holiday within India. Disposable income combined with access to internet has prompted millions of Indians to purchase their holiday online by-passing middlemen.

Even in such a scenario, the relevance of tour operators seems to be only increasing as the focus on 'experiential' travelling is on demand. With the new generation tourism entrepreneurs coming out of the ‘user friendly technology boom’ more and more work from large travel companies will pursue out sourcing so as to add values based on their core competencies.

ECOCLUB.com: As India rapidly develops, the impression around the world is that inequality grows with many people being left behind. What is the situation in India's travel sector, and can small-scale tourism bridge the various gaps, or do you really need mass investments and resorts?

Gopinath Parayil: India is going through the initial stage of its economic development phase at the moment and at present it is being visible mostly in the urban areas. Growth in the tourism sector is also reflecting similar trends and the developments are confined to only certain areas. There is a need for mass investment, but this should not be restricted to resorts or hotels. Mass investment is needed in allied industries and public infrastructure that will increase the quality of life of a commoner. On a long term, only if the host community has better living conditions, would travellers continue to visit a destination. It is also important that the investment has to be spread out with discretion between main gateways and rural India. Small scale tourism projects in consultation with local communities should be the mainstay in development. Even though the potential of small scale tourism is enormous, this development itself will not bridge the gap. When we started operating in areas which were not part of the popular circuits, we faced problems with accommodations like hotels and resorts. What was looked upon as a limitation was later turned into an add-on-value, as home stays and small properties provided alternative source of income for many families!

ECOCLUB.com: Do you see India experiencing a mass influx of tourists in the near future? Should India try to avoid it or prepare for it?

Gopinath Parayil: Incredible India campaign at the ITB Berlin, along with various visual media promotions in different parts of the world has created a lot of interest about India as a destination. All this will certainly bring in a flow of tourists to India in the near future. I don't see any reason why India should arrest this growth. A trillion dollar economy and the pace in which the economy is growing will certainly influence the way tourism will develop in the country including the volume and carrying capacity of destinations. Rather than avoiding the increase in the number of tourists, India should prepare for this, as tourism as an industry along with its subsidiary industries and associated infrastructure can make positive changes in the lives of common people. Nevertheless this needs a lot of consultations and planning with various stakeholders.

ECOCLUB.com: What sets Kerala apart from other Indian states and has produced its tourism success? Environment, culture or politics?

Gopinath Parayil: I would say a combination of all. Even the landscape has played its role in making Kerala as one of the world’s top destination. The narrow strip of land provides the traveller a combination of rivers, backwaters, beaches, mountains and stunning wildlife in its forest regions and all these are accessible within short distances. Cultural richness, entrepreneurial nature of local people (more than 70% of hospitality business are run by people from the state), and sustained marketing efforts of the successive Governments that came to power irrespective of their political belief has also been influential in making it a success story.

ECOCLUB.com: You are still in your mid-30s, yet you have accomplished quite a bit for responsible tourism in India. What are your future plans?

Gopinath Parayil: Tourism projects that are run responsibly can make so many positive changes in a society. The potential of tourism in providing jobs, alternative livelihoods, and conservation of environment and preservation of many art forms that would otherwise go into oblivion are mind boggling and as an organisation, we have only scratched the surface in Kerala.

Seeing the potential of the concept and the success of revenue model we are working on, there is a lot of interest being generated in the country. We are building networks in Rajasthan, Karnataka, Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal and North East of India, where the ground work has already started through our local partners.

The idea is to build up local partnerships where they can design, own, operate and manage the projects in the tourism sector that are sustainable. Our role should remain only as the facilitator and in another five years I would like to see The Blue Yonder working with communities around the world.

ECOCLUB.com: Thank you very much!

Find the complete list of ECOCLUB Interviews here


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