When Bipasha Majumder, 38, wanted to go on a trek in Uttarakhand's Nanda Devi National Park this October, she did not rely on a regular tour and travel outfit. Instead, she opted for a six-day package from Mountain Shepherds, an adventure tourism company operating in the region. "There are home stays within villages in the area. Everything is sourced locally and is very eco-friendly," says Majumder, who works for an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Mumbai. She is richer for the experience, which cost her Rs 17,000.
Mountain Shepherds was born out of a movement begun by the Bhotiya community in the late 1990s to regain their historical rights over the region's natural resources. In 2002, decades after the government banned tourism in the region to preserve its ecology, Sunil Kainthola, a psychologist, and Dhan Singh Rana, a community leader, joined hands with people from villages in the region to launch the initiative. Its primary objective is to improve the living standards of the Bhotiyas, an Indo-Tibetan tribe, by promoting eco-friendly adventure tourism.
Rs 27 lakh revenue Mountain Shepherds earned in 2011/12.
"We should take control of our tourism. Why should someone in Delhi be selling the Himalayas to tourists," asks Kainthola. Much of that tourism involves long treks that allow tourists to take in the breathtaking sights in that part of the Himalayas. So, the company has not had to invest much in infrastructure. Tourists are charged between Rs 1,500 and Rs 4,000 a day, depending on the size of the group and the duration of the trek, which can vary from three to 20 days. The tourists are given the option of choosing home stays owned by villagers or living in camps.
"In the first year, we had just about 15 tourists and earned Rs 60,000 to Rs 70,000," says Kainthola. Six years later, they decided to make the organisation a private company. "We didn't want an NGO. The boys wanted to be owners of this initiative," he says. The boys, majority of whom are Bhotiyas, own 12 per cent of the company. Mountain Shepherds has guides and cooks accompanying trekkers. Last year, it opened a training institute, which has added to its revenues. Local residents are also trained at the reputed Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi. "The core team of Mountain Shepherds has 30 to 35 boys and some work full-time with us," says Kainthola.
Thirty-year-old Narendra Singh from Lata village is one of the 'boys'. He has seen the start and evolution of the company. A graduate in geography, he trains volunteers when he is not guiding trekkers. "If everyone runs his own tour company, it will not last for long. But if we join hands, it will be bigger and better," says Singh. He makes Rs 500 a day when he works as a guide and takes home twice as much as a trainer.
The April to June and September to November periods are the peak seasons for tourism in the area. In 2011/12, Mountain Shepherds had over 100 tourists and revenues of Rs 27 lakh. Earlier, most of the trekkers were foreigners but now Indians account for almost half the number. Kainthola says the operating profit margins are about 40 per cent. The company has used its profits to buy campsites and runs a guesthouse on a lease.
Wildlife Conservationist Kishore Rithe believes local communities should be at the forefront of any tourist activity and partake of the profits. "There is nothing wrong in business, but it should be inclusive. We should not wait for a backlash from the local people to start doing this more systematically," he says.
Mountain Shepherds has shown how that can be done. G. Seetharaman