Eco-tourists take to village life in India's 'Little Tibet'

by AFP/Tripti Lahiri, Aug 27, 2007 | Destinations: India / Ladakh

Rumbuk, India, Aug 1, 2007 - Answering the call of nature over a pit of manure with no flush water in sight and learning how to churn butter may not be everyone's idea of a great holiday.

But in India's "Little Tibet", the remote Himalayan region of Ladakh, a pioneering scheme to offer tourists the authentic tastes of mountain life is taking off -- and could hold the key to preserving a fragile ecosystem.

"Himalayan Homestays," as the programme is called, started out as one environmental group's way of protecting the endangered snow leopard, which roams the high-altitude plateau and towering peaks on the border with China.

In the past, villagers here hunted the predator that each year bit into their earnings by killing 13 percent of their livestock -- sheep, goats, yaks and dzos, a cow-yak hybrid.

"We wanted to do something that would serve as an incentive for the villagers not to kill the snow leopard," explained Rinchen Wangchuck, the head of the non-profit Snow Leopard Conservancy.

Now, residents have a new source of income.

Wangchuck says his group helped villagers transform their wish to operate run-of-the-mill guesthouses into a niche tourism concept that would boost their income and protect the delicate environmental balance in the rural areas.

Five years on, the homestay programme -- which allows trekkers to sleep and eat with families in the Hemis National Park or Sham and Zanskar mountains -- is catching on as a local model for eco-tourism.

About 15 villages with 65 households are involved, charging couples 700 rupees (17 dollars) a night for their stay. All but 50 rupees go straight to the family.

Alternative sanitation

For 35-year-old Swedish tourist Melinda Kinnaman, her stay at Padma Dolma's home in the tiny Ladakhi village of Rumbuk gave her a true break from her work back home as an actress -- a taste of a simpler, old-fashioned life.

"This morning the grandfather was churning the butter and I've never seen that before," Kinnaman said as she sat next to a window in Dolma's house looking out at snow-capped peaks and bright green fields of barley.

The home -- a three-floor flat-roofed earthen house with carved wooden window frames -- appeared, like its neighbours, to blend seamlessly into the surrounding mountains of the Stok range.

There's little in the way of technology -- a tape recorder sits in one corner of the room while government-distributed solar panels power a few bulbs after dark.

"In Sweden, it would be much more modern and mechanised," said Kinnaman.

Visitors get breakfast and dinner -- and a crash course in alternative sanitation, with Ladakhi villages still using dry composting rather than the flush toilets increasingly in vogue in Leh, Ladakh's main town.

The region is dependent on glaciers for 90 percent of its water and with little infrastructure to deal with sewage or garbage, wasting water has never been an option.

A visit to the ladies' room during a Ladakh homestay involves crouching with a leg on either side of a rectangular hole over a storage chamber and pouring a shovel of dirt over any new additions to the pile below.

Eventually, the whole lot turns into manure that is used by the villagers in the fields.

"The toilet -- sometimes it's a little difficult," laughed Kinnaman.

Most food comes directly from the land, such as the Ladakhi pasta-type dish skyu -- small thumb-indented flour balls that are boiled and served with freshly picked peas and cream.

"How I live, I don't even know who makes my food or where it comes from. They have so much knowledge that I don't," said Kinnaman, who had watched her hosts go out to gather food for meals from the farm.

"It's such a different tempo from Sweden. There's just another sense of time here."

Cash for education, clean-up

The homestays are mainly run by women, who plough 10 percent of the proceeds back into a village conservation committee in charge of keeping the area free of plastic bottles, soft drink cans and the other kinds of tourist litter that ruins many of the world's scenic spots.

Dolma, who was hosting Kinnaman, has also been able to send her youngest daughter to a private boarding school -- something that would have been unattainable before Rumbuk, a picturesque but simple hamlet of nine households, joined the tourism industry.

"Here there is no income. Everyone would stay in campgrounds," said Dolma, reflecting on the previous tourism trends, which kept the money out of reach of villagers, to the benefit of mainstream tour operators and hoteliers.

"Now we get four to five thousand rupees (over a hundred dollars)" a season, she said in her spotless mountain home, with woven mats spread on the kitchen floor for guests to sit on.

Dolma, who says she was the first one to sign up for the homestay programme, said she never doubted the wisdom of allowing strangers into her home but admitted feeling a little shy.

"First we had problems in speaking. Now there's no problem -- we speak a bit of Hindi and English," said Dolma, a smiling, rosy-cheeked mother of three who has embraced globalisation with the help of an English language cassette.

"We had to learn how to cook and serve food. First we didn't even know if they would eat dinner like us."

In Leh, 30 kilometres (18 miles) away from Rumbuk, officials are hoping they can spread the homestay model to other villages -- and perhaps even to Leh.

Last year, 40,000 tourists visited Ladakh and the number is going up 10 percent each year -- a major boost for the isolated region's economy but also laden with potential disastrous environmental consequences.

A 2005 study for the governing Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council found that Leh produced 6,000 tonnes of waste during the tourist season, about three times what it produces in the rest of the year.

"We are never prepared. Every year there are more hotels and guesthouses," council chief Chering Dorjay told AFP. "They are not eco-friendly."

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