Sumesh Mangalasseri – Sustainable Tourism
“Tourism offers great opportunities for emerging economies and developing countries. It creates jobs, strengthens the local economy, contributes to local infrastructure development, and reduces poverty and inequality.”- this sounds like an ideal scenario.
But is this the ground reality? NO. We need tourism to be sustainable and inclusive.
The aim of sustainable tourism is to increase the benefits and reduce the negative impacts caused by it. Also focusing on reducing over-consumption and waste, avoiding the cost of restoring long-term environmental damage, and contributing to the quality of tourism. The meaningful participation of local communities in various stages / aspects of tourism is the way to achieve this.
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One such person who was passionate about tourism, yet, felt it was his moral duty to focus on sustainable tourism projects was Sumesh Mangalasseri.
Sumesh is a social entrepreneur and a strong campaigner for inclusive and sustainable tourism. He is the founder of social initiatives Suyatri and Kabani- community tourism – working for sustainable tourism.
Past 23 years, he has been working to facilitate, build and promote self-reliant communities and support tourism both at national and international levels.
He recently started working closely with the Sanjeevani – Karnataka State Rural Livelihood Mission of Karnataka government for developing women led community based tourism with a mission of empowering tourism in various districts with his organization Suyatri community tourism and services. He believes that India is rich in culture, diversity and heritage and has huge potential to make a mark difference in rural and community-based tourism.
“A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality.” – John F. Kennedy
Sumesh is one who follows extremely high standards of integrity and values.
He was born in the Wayanad district which was considered as one of the most backward villages in Kerela with hardly any exposure. He completed his schooling there and then moved to Kannur for higher studies. He was greatly influenced by his grandfather who was a Gandhian and spoke a lot about Satyagraha, Village Swaraj and village economy and British rule. The second influencer was his father, who had a good collection of books by Communist and Russian authors. He was an atheist and he encouraged Sumesh to have a liberal mind-set. At an early age, he was exposed to various thought processes, and literature and interacted with different people who discussed people science, equality and social equity. This was how the seeds were sown to think differently.
Village libraries allowed him to participate in group discussions and it was a space for exchanging cultural ideas and debates. Hence, later, he started putting effort into starting libraries in remote locations so that children get exposure to the outside world.
His interest in tourism developed over time. He was very active in student politics in college. While working in Bangalore, he got involved with friend’s groups who were actively protesting against pollution and factories which caused cholera and other diseases. Over time, he realized that the root cause was not only pollution but development paradigm we follow and how it was affecting local communities independently and its influence on ecology.
During that phase in the mid-1990s, Kerala was growing through a tourism boom as God’s own Country and Sumesh wanted to understand the impact of tourism on the economy, environment and local communities. He started working with a research organization as a volunteer at Equitable Tourism Options, based in Bangalore. He actually got a deeper understanding of tourism through a critical lens and participated in various discussions and conferences. He also got involved in publishing a newsletter called Tourism Monitor which pushed him deeper to critically monitor tourism projects and their impact, whether they were government projects or private projects. They realized there were plenty of pitfalls in the way tourism was being conducted and this could be rectified.
He then moved back to Kerala in 2005 and started a group called Kabani – the other direction as a non-profit NGO and was looking at research and policy-level interventions.
The idea of Kabani developed from the name Kabini river. Kerala has 44 rivers. 41 rivers are flowing towards the Arabian Sea, towards the west, while Kabini flows in the other direction, towards the East, reaching Karnataka. Hence, they called their company, Kabani – The Other Direction in Tourism.
Their approach is ‘Oppose and Propose’, as they believe that the present model and policies of tourism are not supportive. They were working for effective policies and practices of tourism at Kabani which benefited the local community as they believed that Tourism policies should be sustainable, equitable, and ethical.
Sumesh Says, “Tourism can eliminate poverty people say…but tourism depends on situations and circumstances. Tourism is one of the most vulnerable industries due to various internal and external factors. For e.g. climate has changed completely with floods, landslides, and droughts. Most popular tourist destinations are also close to sensitive areas affected by climate change- beaches, mountains, and rivers. Studying or bringing more resilience is important before promoting a place”.
Sumesh has aptly stated that,
“catastrophes like covid showed us how vulnerable this industry is. Government should initiate alternative models of tourism that do not depend on huge infrastructure-based activities but focus on sensitive issues of local communities. We follow a tourism model which is not based on creating new infrastructure rather we work with existing infrastructure and resources. A not build” approach is what we try to follow.”
“Even the most rational approach to ethics is defenceless if there isn’t the will to do what is right.”
Being an activist, for him, ethics and ideologies were extremely important.
He explains, “We can still do business without compromising on your values. Kabani and Suyatri are working with innovative ideas and creating spaces for people who think differently and want to contribute to change and development without compromising their principles. Since its inception, we are working as a catalyst to support such communities”.
In 2005, he formed Kabini as a non-profit but over time realized that without funding, it doesn’t sustain itself. Getting CSR or Govt grants is not easy and create more dependency. They found that self-sufficiency is the way forward.
In 2014, Kabini became a social enterprise and registered as a company and worked to support local communities.
Sumesh states, “We started our work in Wayanad where major population depended on agriculture and nearly 18 % of its population are adivasis.”
Agriculture was not a stable source of income.
Kabani focussed on how to support these farmers and started home stays in farmer homes which could be a revenue source as per industry. This is just an additional revenue source and not an alternative to the agrarian crisis.
Interesting modules for home stays were created. Workshops and training sessions were conducted. Women’s workload increases when they start home stays because men did not support them. They started gender awareness programs. The role of women started changing within the family and men started contributing to home chores. Workshops are held in spoken English, and international events and activities. The children were also impacted by these development practices and took education seriously. So, this Home stays program resulted in a major social impact and all-round growth of the family and community.
Sumesh says,”Adivasi and indigenous communities have amazing traditional knowledge about conservation, preservation, and morals. Resilience and sustainability are inbuilt into their culture. The repository of this traditional knowledge is a huge attraction for tourists. This facilitate further promotion of this knowledge and bring more resilience.”
If tourism has to be successful. Participation of local communities is very important.
It has to be inclusive and locals should be involved in the decision-making of the project and the overall tourism business in meaningful manner. Tourism management, visitor management, and monitoring should be taken into account.
When a local person is involved while designing a tourism package, it is more sustainable as he will know exactly what the religious, cultural habits, sensitivity or customs involved. So, such tours will be more successful as local support is there.
Suyatri, the social enterprise, is closely working with the Karnataka govt and panchayat raj, and the response is very positive. Their work is having a new dimension, especially with women’s self-help groups.
They are working with, Zila panchayat Sanjeevani, a poverty elimination program and network of women’s self-help groups in Karnataka. Currently 130 women involved in these programmes and by end of March 2023 the number of them will increase to 300.
To integrate agriculture, development, and rural tourism, they developed Silk Tour to show how silk is made from mulberry plants to silkworms and to making actual silk sarees.
This group of women is being trained in various aspects of tourism and conducting experiential tours. It’s not only the tour operator or guides but even the farmers or weavers -The entire eco system, who are benefiting now from the new Suyatri programs. They follow fair trade, and a transparent model in Suyatri. They also keep 10 % income for larger village development activities like supporting schools, libraries or clinics, etc. This is the fundamental rule.
They extended this to sugar cane farm tours also in Maddur in Mandya district. They also converted an 18-room building into a community homestay to add revenue for the locals.
Major work was done with the Siddi communities which had migrated from Africa centuries back. Some home stays are getting ready using their style of architecture to give an authentic experience.
They have also won many international and national recognitions such as ‘To do Award for the best responsible tourism project in the world in ITB Berlin.
Out Look traveller responsible tourism award in 2017 etc.
This is just the beginning and Sumesh has major expansion plans in his endeavours. Sumesh and his team at Suyatri are ready to share and support other states set up a model which will be sustainable and support local communities along with tourism. They understand that one template will not work for all states. So, they can facilitate individual models as per the requirement of that particular state.
They want to replicate the Kabani program through Suyatri so that a maximum number of people benefit.
If more and more responsible people like Sumesh come into mainstream development along with the government, then definitely India has a brighter future.
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