Eco Luminaries™: CB Ramkumar, Vice-Chair, Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)

[Indian Sustainable Tourism] government policies exist, though not in a manner that is easily implementable. Policies are general, to tick off the boxes and, worse, are directionless. Policies need to give clear direction, with incentives or penalties for following them. This is what is missing at a central level.

CB Ramkumar is an Author, Speaker, Trainer, Consultant, Eco resort owner and Farmer! He is passionate about sustainability and has over the years acquired immense knowledge in sustainable living concepts including sustainable food, health sustainable marketing & branding. Previously he had an international career as an advertising and marketing professional for global companies. Ram defines himself as a 'passional' and a ‘revivalist’ who is trying to restore faith in "all the progressive concepts of yesteryears". A Vice Chair of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and the Program Director for South Asia, he was influential in the adoption by the government of India of national sustainable tourism standards in 2014, and served as President of the Karnataka Tourism Forum. Ram is a passionate speaker on Sustainability and Climate Change and his next engagement is at the GSTC2023 Sustainable Tourism Conference in Antalya, Türkiye (9-12 May, 2023), an event has the great pleasure of supporting as Media Partners. 

Antonis Petropoulos - You have recently spoken about the need to deepen and broaden the technical aspects of Sustainability, which problems are you referring to and what is the role and the most suitable type of training, in this respect? Are you referring to ongoing, lifelong education and re-education, or specialist courses in higher and tertiary education?

CB Ramkumar: Tourism has traditionally been a ‘lazy’ business - all one did was take a tourist to a destination or hotel and bring them back and it was over. But now, with travellers demanding sustainable tourism options, industry responding to it, governments rising up to it with policies, it is becoming technical. Getting a grip on standards, third party verification, certification bodies and their audit expertise, are all areas that tourism practitioners have never contemplated or studied. And study they must do now, if they want to go deep into the principles of sustainable tourism to respond to traveller demands. So this will now require specialists courses so that we normalise this knowledge for the coming generations of tourism professionals.

Antonis Petropoulos: What distinguishing traits have you imbued with "Our Native Village", your award-winning eco-resort and your farm and how replicable are they in other locations and by other teams?

CB Ramkumar: I am a great experimenter, much to the displeasure of my finance people! I firmly believe that we need to explore, break new grounds, and tread the paths that no one has before. This is what happened with my resort. For a while I was a freak in the industry, because my peers could not understand why I had to go through the trouble of installing solar panels, windmills, bio-gas plants, for energy - just install a diesel generator and get on with it was the advice! All this swimming against the tide gave me the opportunity to imbibe a lot of applied sustainability knowledge - very different from the consultants and academics whose knowledge base is theoretical.

Our native village, Ram's eco resort just outside Bangalore, in south IndiaOur native village, Ram's eco resort just outside Bangalore, in south India

What I did is very replicable. Which is the reason I wrote a book also (Ed. "Green Dreams"). To ensure that the knowledge and experience I went through is available for all. Conceptually what I did then, was to focus on social, cultural and environmental aspects of sustainability - all that we are talking about today as the model for sustainable living. So it is now contemporary and more relevant.

Antonis Petropoulos: Looking at the greater picture, what percentage of Indian tourism businesses would you classify as sustainable and what key changes are needed in government policies to increase this percentage?

CB Ramkumar: There are a lot of anecdotal examples of sustainability in the country. But this is also in my opinion less than 2-3% of the industry. Government policies exist, though not in a manner that is easily implementable. Policies are general, to tick off the boxes and, worse, are directionless. Policies need to give clear direction, with incentives or penalties for following them. This is what is missing at a central level. In India, tourism is a state subject, so some progressive states like Gujarat have built in sustainability requirements for the industry and have moved further to offer incentives for the industry to follow sustainable tourism standards and get themselves certified. So clear policies, along with a standards & certification scheme, is what is expected from governments.

Antonis Petropoulos: Has Covid had a lasting effect on Indian tourism, both domestic and incoming, in terms of lingering problems but also lessons learned? Is any building back better taking place?

Speaking at the Karnataka Tourism Forum, 2013, as its PresidentSpeaking at the Karnataka Tourism Forum, 2013, as its PresidentCB Ramkumar: Yes it has. Focus on the domestic traveller has energised the industry. But more importantly, the realisation that dependence on in-bound tourism can be fatal for industry has seeped in. Lots of building back is happening. Recasting of legacy business models is taking place. Even large hotel groups who swore allegiance to large room inventories in city settings as the only way, have now developed the appetite for boutique concepts with small room inventories in locations that are rural and far from the maddening crowds! This is a great development and will surely energise the industry even more.

Antonis Petropoulos: Is Overtourism a serious, deep, global problem that requires systemic changes, or is it more or less confined to a handful of urban and island destinations and famous monuments that essentially need better management and/or capacity building?

CB Ramkumar: Overtourism is a serious global phenomenon. It spans across all destinations and is agnostic to types of destinations as long as they have traveller interest. Fundamentally, governments and destination managers need to move away from footfalls as a measure of success. Number of tourists is an outdated metric in the world today. Getting out of this mindset is the big challenge for governments and destination managers. They have to realise that visitor experience and traveller delight, has to be more important than numbers. 

Antonis Petropoulos: Based on your experience with Tiger conservation, how is tourism helping or not helping and what actions would you take as a tourism (or environment) minister?

CB Ramkumar: It has been proven conclusively that tourism is great for conservation efforts. Global case studies on this are abundant. In India specifically, many years ago, the government launched a tiger project that focused on conservation efforts, diminishing the flawed notion that anything should be done for tourists satisfaction. This resulted in better conservation strategies and good outcomes for the tiger population and visitor experiences. So tourism can help tremendously but it has to follow all the criteria for sustainable tourism as detailed in the GSTC standards, because this is comprehensive. Comprehensive adherence to holistic standards is the need of the hour.

Antonis Petropoulos: Neighbouring Kerala and its Responsible Tourism model have been receiving more attention and accolades in recent years, compared to Karnataka. Is this well-deserved, and should Karnataka adapt and adopt Kerala’s policies or are socioeconomic conditions totally different?

CB Ramkumar: It all comes down to the contribution of tourism to the GDP of the state. Larger the contribution, bigger the focus, and this is the difference between Kerala and Karnataka. Can Karnataka develop tourism in the state so that its contribution increases? Yes! It has more scope because of the sheer depth and width of tourism experiences that state has to offer. This one state is home to 3+ languages, and varied cultural experiences that accompany the languages. All this is besides that huge number of archaeological assets, and divergent natural beauty - forests, waterfalls, lakes, beaches, islands, chic city experiences, etc.

Antonis Petropoulos: In recent years Sustainable Tourism and sustainability in general have become mainstream and attracted the attention of big business. The obvious benefit is the availability of funds, but what could be the risks?

CB Ramkumar presenting Al Gore with his Climate Change workbook at the International Climate Change Training in Manila 2016, where Ram was a MentorCB Ramkumar presenting Al Gore with his Climate Change workbook at the International Climate Change Training in Manila 2016, where Ram was a MentorCB Ramkumar: It is time that sustainable tourism becomes mainstream! The main benefit is sustainability of the whole industry. And therefore, this is also the risk. If the industry does not pivot towards sustainable tourism wholeheartedly, the biggest risk is the sustainability of the industry itself. Travellers are demanding it, so soon it will become an existential risk if the sector does not respond. Other sectors like marine products, forest products have all realised this. Tourism is yet to realise this. Having said that, when the focus of fund managers moves towards sustainable tourism, then the industry will also shift and chase the funds.

Antonis Petropoulos: What is the key role the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) should play in your view compared to other international tourism bodies, also with specific reference to Asia?

CB Ramkumar: GSTC is not a tourism body. GSTC is a global sustainable tourism standard setting body. This is our singular focus and mandate. Asia is responding to concepts of sustainable tourism at a faster pace, post-Covid than some of the other regions are. Perhaps Asia is playing catch up to North Europe, who were early movers. Importantly, Asia's dependence on the tourism economy is also forcing it to take a harder look at themselves. Too many destinations in Asia were succumbing to over tourism and suffering from it. All this learning is being processed quite intellectually by the region and its response by moving towards sustainable tourism is noteworthy.

Antonis Petropoulos: Finally, what are your expectations from GSTC2023 and how can such summits, beyond interesting speeches and useful networking, be even more productive in advancing sustainability?

CB Ramkumar: GSTC2023 will be a defining event in the history and evolution of sustainable tourism. Not just because of the earthquake that turkey is trying to recover from, but because of the example that countries like turkey are setting for the world. Traditionally, the expectation was that liberal western democracies are the trendsetters in progressive thinking and constructing path breaking business policies. But here you have a country like Turkey jumping into and committing its entire massive tourism industry to following sustainable tourism principles - because they understand that this is futuristic. This will become one of the big take aways from GSTC2023, which will serve the planet well.

Antonis Petropoulos - Thank you very much for your valuable insights, we wish you every success in your many business eco endeavours as well as in co-steering GSTC! 

GSTC2023, AntalyaGSTC2023, Antalya