Q&A with Mr Harish Bali, India’s top Travel Vlogger, on enhancing sustainable and safe tourism in India

Harish’s travel vlog on YouTube is Visa2Explore. It focuses on India & has over 1 million subscribers

Q) First of all, what led to your interest in travel vlogging ? How did the entire journey start ?

A) Back in Jan 2017, I left my telco sales job to start a new venture in the travel sector. Since then, I have embarked on traveling to different cities and states in India. I always had an interest in travel, especially food-related exploration. Hence, for me, it was like turning my hobby into a full-time profession.

Q) What are the most memorable places you have visited, which you will recommend to fellow travelers? Any specific places for solo women travelers?

A) According to my experiences, the top destinations in India are Kerala, North Sikkim and Indore. Kerala and North Sikkim for nature-lovers, and Indore for foodies.

During my travel to different states, I have met several solo women travelers. So it is a bit hard to pinpoint exactly which cities or states are better. But in view of the question, I think the more important thing for solo women travelers to keep in mind is selecting the right options for their overnight stay and preferably traveling only during the daytime.

Q) Environmental issues are plaguing all countries, and India is no exception. What are the basic solutions our services providers can do to reduce the environmental damage due to tourism activities?

A) The one and only place I have seen in the entire country where there was no environmental
damage was North Sikkim. They do not allow you to carry anything with you that can even remotely damage the environment. Enforcement from the authorities is strict, and I think enforcement is the only thing that can work. Moreover, the locals in that region will caution you if you are found littering on the roads. Hence, even adherence from the peoples’ side is there. They take pride in keeping their surroundings clean and undamaged, which is exemplary. The city there has dustbins installed at a distance of every 200 meters, which is the case in only a few cities.

One key advice, in my opinion, is the tour agencies, service-providers and even taxi-drivers who handle the tourism value-chain must be trained on the environment management and standards that must be managed. That is because only when the tour-guide traveling with the tourist/s is alert about the issue of environmental damage to his area, he will be able to guide the tourist/s who are accompanying him. One thing can lead to the other!

Q) Sustainable tourism is not just about the environment, but also about society. How can our rural communities (including indigenous communities) who reside near tourism places be included in a more holistic way into the tourism economy? Right now, most of it is restricted to dance/cultural programmes for tourists in India. However, Thailand has successfully incorporated products (coffee, honey, etc.) made by rural indigenous communities to be sold to tourists, thus creating a more holistic economic engine for the local communities. What are your views on this issue?

A) You are absolutely right. This needs to be put in place through conscious effort from all the stakeholders, be it the government authorities, tourism sector businesses and local communities. Tourists will always want to buy local products, be it honey, homemade chocolate, woolens, handmade bags, etc., which they would not get elsewhere. It is not that no action is occurring. In bits and pieces I have noticed the state tourism authorities in many places are taking initiatives.

But at the ground-level, things are not often happening as expected because of a lack of marketing about who is selling what and where. Apart from marketing, several more things are needed to make the entire ecosystem more convenient for the tourist on-ground, because she/he has limited time. But due to these gaps, most state-initiatives just remain on paper and there is limited on-ground impact. We need more and more “haats” or fairs of local products near tourism sites, at rentals which the local communities can afford since they have limited budget. We need to bridge this gap between state-level initiatives and on-ground outcomes to see true impact for local societies.

Q) Sustainability is also about safety. Unsafe locations cannot sustain tourist footfalls. India has a bad name owing to scammers and touts fleecing tourists, not to mention crime against women tourists. Can a national digital-based reporting system to be used to help improve the safety standards, and track/penalize the wrongdoers? For example, Egypt launched a crowdsourced-based mobile app to track incidents of women harassment on Cairo’s streets, thus bringing more reporting on unsafe incidents.

A) Our state-level police needs to get aggressive on launching such programmes at their level and popularize it. Just something happening at the national-level may not be sufficient given the large size of our country. Yes, I agree completely on the point that if India has to emerge as a preferred tourist destination, then this is definitely a big issue we must meet – i.e. make our country safe to travel, including for women travelers. I would add the ground reality has seen some improvements. For example, after the Uber incident that happened 5 -7 years back, you now see many cabs and private taxis with the labels, the drivers observe women safety, etc. But the bigger image is still very important. Because of some wrongdoers, the impression of the whole country goes for toss. A case of a few rotten apples spoiling the whole batch! Yes, this is a critical issue and must be rectified.

Q) Let us now come to the consumer, i.e. the tourist. Consciousness of basic habits by consumers can really help reduce the damage to the environment. A lot is advertised on this, but very few actually practice it. How can we improve the tourist’s consciousness to keep their country clean?

A) About 3 years back, I visited a waterfall near Manali, Himachal Pradesh. It was a 2 km trek. The locals at that place had put up 50 cardboard-type sheets on the trees, so that while you are walking towards the waterfall, you could easily see those cardboards hanging on the trees. They were 2 feet by 2 feet boards, on which was written text-messages from the trees.

One said “I also breathe and eat like you do. I do not eat plastic or polythene. just like you don’t. Please keep that in mind before you throw garbage around me“.

Another said “Your girlfriend is watching you if you through any garbage“.

One more said “Look for the dustbin, you will find one in next 200 meters“.

In all there must been more than 20-such text messages. I really missed talking about it in the Manali videos, but that is one of the best examples I have ever seen in my life to improve the consciousness of the tourists to care more for the local environment and not damage it unnecessarily. Once the tourists does this change of habit for a few times, hopefully it should stay with him always.

Q) Lastly, tell us a bit about your travel plans for 2021? Also, the small ways in which you, and all of us, can encourage a more sustainable tourism sector in India this year?

A) I plan to travel to Gujarat in Feb. Then during the middle of the year, I want to travel to Leh Ladakh. And maybe before starting for Leh, I would try to plan a tour for Arunachal Pradesh. The during the winter of 2021, I want to travel to Andhra Pradesh and Bihar.

On the small things I am trying to do to be more sustainability-conscious, I am carrying a metal bottle for water everywhere with me to avoid using plastic bottles of packaged water. Reducing plastics use by avoiding plastic bottles is one message I want to make! Another thing is we assemble all the wastes of the day in our cab, and then dispose it at one-go in the hotel dustbin. I might not have demonstrated these on my videos. But I think it is important I should show it more on the videos, so that the viewers would get the message from the videos, and follow that when they are traveling as tourists.

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