This woman entrepreneur’s travel company is taking ecotourism to pristine and offbeat parts of India
Increasing sea levels, melting ice in Antarctica and the Arctic, changes in climate patterns, unseasonal rains, cyclones, and other unusual weather phenomena are indicators that climate change is real and stringent measures are necessary. Regular natural disasters call for sustainability to be at the core of human practices.
From businesses to lifestyles, sustainability measures can help prevent damage to the environment and roll back our carbon emissions.
The travel and tourism industry is a significant contributor towards global emissions. A study published in the Nature Research Journal estimated that in 2013, tourism constituted eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
A sustainable solution for the tourism industry is the adoption of eco-tourism. The International Ecotourism Society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education of both staff and guests.”
In India, entrepreneur Aditi Balbir is nurturing ecotourism through her new age travel solutions company, V Resorts.
Taking ecotourism to travellers
Aditi Balbir, 41, left her decade-long career in finance in companies like McKinsey and Baring Equity to follow the entrepreneurial path. It wasn’t an unusual choice as she had been travelling to various countries since she was six years old. She recalls spending her two-month long summer vacations abroad. Her love for travel grew with age and she would often explore offbeat places and connect with locals. She has travelled to more than 50 countries and 200 destinations across the globe.
In 2014, when she saw that travel solutions companies like AirBnB were doing well, she decided to invest in a travel company in the country. However, the promoters of the company withdrew and by chance, Aditi turned from being an investor to spearheading V Resorts.
The initial idea was to emulate AirBnB and create a marketplace for people who had vacation homes in India. However, she quickly realised that the last mile was broken. The homestays and small boutique places lacked professional management and hence were not very popular. Therefore, it pivoted to becoming a management company that ran and managed experiences for customers.
At this point, ecotourism or sustainability were not on her radar.
“Our model of ecotourism emerged from our business needs. For instance, to ensure longevity, we had to recruit and train locals. We could not have centralised procurement for remote locations and hence had to procure locally. We had to develop activities and things to do and so we tied up with local entrepreneurs for this. To ensure low costs, we had to revert to ecologically-friendly methods for cleaning, waste management, and energy use. This is eco-tourism in its truest form because it stems from a business need and is therefore sustainable in the long run,” explains Aditi.
V Resorts has over 170 properties spread across 20 Indian states and offers experiences in some of the most pristine and untouched corners of India like Orchha, Ghanerao, Sattal, Kumbhalgarh, Narkanda, Kalagarh, and Kotabagh. Keeping with principles of ecotourism, it employs 90 percent local staff, ensures 100 percent local procurement, assimilates local culture, and brings empowerment to local communities without causing harm to the natural environment.
Rise of circular economy
Circular and inclusive economies are the buzzwords one often hears when talking of sustainable business practices and taking action against climate change. The adoption of local procurement and employment led to the creation of circular economies.
V Resorts works with small resorts located in remote locations that require a small initial capital investment in order to make the property match up to its operational standards. As it went about this project, Aditi realised micro tourism had immense benefits for the local economy. A small resort of 15 rooms was able to create jobs worth $20,000, local income creation that amounted to $40,000 and environmental impact at $30,000 per year. The ancillary benefits included women’s empowerment, skilling and training, local craft revival, economic opportunity, and reverse migration.
“As we went deeper, we realised our project was checking 12 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and in fact we were creating what is now the buzzword - a circular economy in the process,” Aditi says.
With an objective of creating circular economies globally in an environmentally responsible way, V Resorts works closely with the UN Environment Programme, and other government entities in India and across borders.
Tourism presents a wide range of income generation opportunities for women in both formal and informal employment. In line with this, V Resorts ensures that at least five percent of its resort staff are women. It expects to increase this number to 10 percent over the next five years. It has also undertaken several initiatives to expand association with local women communities. For instance, in Sattal, Uttarakhand, it has partnered with a group of village women who make 100 percent natural fruit squash, pickles, spices, and essential oils. These products are packaged and sold at Pitara, V Resorts’ souvenir shop. The benefits go directly to the group of women making the products.
Aditi is a part of The Cherie Blair foundation, which aims to help women entrepreneurs in developing countries by matching them with mentors who have scaled in similar areas. She has mentored several women in Brazil and Vietnam in the travel and healthcare space.
The effect of COVID-19
“We felt it first because suddenly people were afraid to travel. The travel industry came to a grinding halt. And now, after two months of lockdown, with each day a frantic search for news on growing cases, we have come to a realisation - that we have to live in this new normal and adapt as best as we can,” says Aditi.
She believes the new normal will bring with it, heightened hygiene practices. Hotel chains have already responded by introducing new hygiene standards. Some have replaced cleaning agents with hospital-grade disinfectants. Thermal checks are likely to be mandatory with sanitisers everywhere. While the focus will be on the needs of customers, hoteliers will also need to protect their staff and the people who come in contact with many guests each day. Personal protective equipment (PPE) might become a necessity too, feels Aditi.
Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan