Wildrift is among the oldest community-centric eco-tourism enterprises in Uttranchal. For this workshop we are a Case-Study in key-theme “Finance, Marketing and Business Planning”. The following is from Discussion Notes for a collaborative just started. It does not cover the entire range of our experiences (as per guideline #2 for this workshop) but narrates a sequential story (guideline #3) that addresses the check-listed questions, also in other themes, not so much in terms of answers as in terms of reflections on larger questions that face Community Based Tourism (CBT) decisions.
WILDRIFT ECO-TOURISM PRODUCT EVOLUTION AND MARKETING
Wildrift began operations in 1993 with a small camp in Saat Tal, the first of its kind in Kumaon, on a disused garden close to the lake, leased from the Irrigation Department. The idea was simply to provide an adventure and nature based alternative to the burgeoning resort tourism in the lake-region. In 1995 we reorganised and also started to build linkages with the villages for a range of village-visitor interactions.
As our repeat clients repeatedly suggested a different option, especially in hotter weather, we started Camp Purple at Mukteshwar, atop a ridge facing the Himalayas, in an apple orchard leased from a local farmer. Like the Saat Tal Camp, the camp was minimalist, the activities were adventure and nature-based, itineraries and services were defined by the local place and the predominantly local people working at the camp.
Marketing was based in Delhi and used a cautious strategy to target those who would be comfortable with the product that we were evolving so as to minimize compromises and to get useful feedback. It involved mainly transparency, especially about “camp-rules”, in all communications with prospective visitors. Price packages were based on cost and reasonable profit margins. Over time we evolved parameters for non-arbitrary flexibilities for short-term business viability without compromising long-term enterprise objectives.
By 1995-96 we had found not only a niche market for our fairly unique product but also (at no or low cost) support for refining and marketing it from experts. A qualified fashion designer joined Wildrift and fashioned the Wildrift lifestyle. Clients from a leading advertising firm designed Wildrift communication material. A professional development planner helped identify synergies between our objectives and regional development goals (on basis also of her doctoral work, a stakeholders interface based on which was, incidentally, held in the UPAA at the beginning of 1997).
The thesis of our development planner, very simply put, is that the conflict between tourism and environment cannot be resolved by eco-tourism promotion unless other types of tourism are explicitly restricted; where tourism is single or major economic base this conflict resolution is best addressed with reference to development goals rather than environment and/or tourism goals; and without community control the hope of tourism becoming engine for development is unrealistic and eco-tourism is conceptually untenable. She argues that a feasible proposition is a network of community owned eco-tourism enterprises facilitated by community controlled support enterprises, with basis in statutory holistic development planning (with accompanying policy and institutional framework for implementation and monitoring). This is very different from current CBT thinking, but has been the direction that Wildrift chose in 1997 for expanding the synergy of its product with environmental goals to synergy also with developmental goals.
NETWORK OF COMMUNITY-OWNED ECO-TOURISM ENTERPRISES
In 1997 we were considering a seasonal camp in the foothills since Camp Purple was not operational in winters. With the decision to test a different paradigm, Camp Kyari was started in a village in Corbett periphery on land on short-term lease from the Panchayat with clear intent of offering partnership and buy-out options at the earliest. The partnership happened two years later and in April 2004 we were bought out and a youth cooperative runs Kyari Camp. Meanwhile, we had also facilitated a local village youth enterprise, Nandadevi Adventures, in Mukteshwar. They were handling adventure activities for us and also offering services to resorts and hotels. For a year they ran Camp Purple on contract basis and in November 2003 we finalised with them a partnership with buy-out option for Camp Purple. The same was then finalised also with youth associated with running the Saat Taal camp.
When the Kyari approach was conceptualised, it was assumed that Wildrift would provide all the marketing support. However, Nandadevi Adventures set up an effective marketing system of its own to target schools in Haldwani and Almora. Lately they have decided to set up an office in Dehradun and the other two camps have decided to partner in this. We are hopeful this will grow into a synergy platform for similar community owned enterprises across Uttaranchal.
It is premature to evaluate this approach, but from experience we see in it far greater possibilities than provided by CBT models that fall short of community control and there are already encouraging indications of employment multipliers (eg, in Kyari two adventure related enterprises have been started by other village youth and in Saat Taal the camp partnership has spawned a partnership also in the information centre for marketing activities like kayaking, swimming, rock climbing, trekking, bird watching, village lunches, etc) as well as of direct local development spin offs (eg, in Kyari profits from the camp have been used to revive a watermill and Nandadevi Adventures are working on a long-term plan for improving the quality of their village school, for which visitor-school interactions have been cautiously designed in various programmes).
FACILITATION BY COMMUNITY CONTROLLED SUPPORT ENTERPRISES
We are acutely aware that such community-owned enterprises, especially in a fledgling state, require support. Wildrift itself is a local community enterprise and our experiences with securing support for ourselves have helped us understand many things.
In initial stages we felt rather pious about employing only local staff, about the Wildrift lifestyle that made no distinction between staff and proprietors, etc. We considered ourselves indispensable and very popular and, to begin with, our development planner’s absolute insistence on buy-out options was not so much accepted as indulged – her view was that we were scared to put our impression of ourselves to test and village youth who ran our camps in their villages had no pride or spine. Now that we have been bought out but not thrown out, we have passed the popularity test. With control having passed to village youth with hardly any disruption, they have passed the capability (and pride and spine) test. We have been humbled on our illusion of being indispensable at the camps, but are clear on what we have grown to be more capable of – ten years after we started defining parameters for community-centric eco-tourism product enterprises, we are now articulating parameters for community-controlled support enterprises.
We have a fair understanding of the kinds of support needed. We are opposed to emergent approaches of product finance through loans, etc, with separate capacity building inputs. Our approach is based on local private capital, does not burden the exchequer at all, and transfers the risk to enterprises like ours. Capacity building support is inbuilt and fully need-based, with no pressure or interference in community decision making. Support beyond buy-out is governed by principles of mutual interest and commonality of purpose with full negotiating freedom for both parties. In addition to product development and capacity building support needs, we give importance also to support needs for ancillary income options on account of, besides seasonality, the market becoming unduly competitive, etc.
We believe support enterprises themselves should be local as far as possible and community-controlled in any case. Full freedom of community-owned product enterprises to select and reject support services and availability of these services at prices tempered by commitment to common goals for local regional development is what we envision as desired scenario. As a private enterprise we favour such responsible free market processes, but are not averse to responsive state regulation. However, we consider “NGO” mechanisms typically inefficient and potentially dangerous.
STATUTORY DEVELOPMENT FRAMEWORKS
While supporting responsible free market enterprise, we are opposed to free-wheeling in its name and are convinced of the need for statutory holistic framework for planned development for all to work towards common goals with clarity and without conflict.
We are not speaking here of “Tourism Master Plans” that view planning and policy and institutional frameworks in terms of tourism goals, have utterly failed to reconcile means and ends and led only to runaway tourism development at cost of regional development as well as of eroding the tourism attraction. Where tourism is an economic base activity, this is obviously unaffordable. Uttranchal urgently needs comprehensive regional and sub-regional development plans in which tourism, environment and development goals are balanced for long-term benefit. As a private eco-tourism enterprise it is beyond our authority or competence to suggest contours of such a framework, but we emphatically assert its need, on priority.
Having demonstrated the viability of community-owned tourism enterprises and begun to demonstrate community-controlled support enterprises, we intend also to press for a supporting statutory development framework in Uttranchal. Since this is not the agenda of this workshop, and also beyond the authority and competency of participants, we suggest suitable consultations in the future on this theme and propose that this workshop make its recommendations subject to the outcome of those.
We would also like to mention in this regard a broader collaborative. Like our work in hill areas, there has been some work on community owned eco-tourism and community-controlled support enterprises in coast and desert areas and some efforts in this direction have been initiated even in Delhi (where the ridge-river eco-system qualifies to be considered what the Draft National Environment Policy calls “incomparable entity”). These initiatives owe their origin to discomfort about runaway “touristy” development and their progress beyond a point is hampered by either absence or disregard of statutory development frameworks.
A decision to synergize on this count was precipitated by two events in the last week of 2004. One, of course, was the Tsunami devastation at coastal resorts that might have been less devastating if there were better / strictly enforced coastal zone restrictions. The other was a startling demolition three days later. In the first half of 2004 thousands of families were evicted from a waterfront (using encroachment removal / environment protection laws) while a commercial IT complex came up on it (in violation of the same laws as well as the statutory development framework). Through a statutory process cultivator communities objected and sought the option of restoring the waterfront to agriculture and community-owned eco-tourism in accordance with development law. We endorsed this suggestion. For other reasons, including deaths (including of children) among those evicted, several others also objected to the commercial project. The area is seismic, with a fault line right below, and on the day the Tsunami struck, a joint demand for demolition of the illegal structure was also made. Three days later, the religious structures that survived the demolitions in 2004 were summarily demolished.
This happened on the Yamuna in Delhi, but it can happen anywhere as long as environment and development are viewed separately and community-centric eco-enterprises remain optional agenda, giving “touristy” projects implicit precedence.