Responsible India: Showing how sustainability by design works

tourists admiring the sunset in uttarakhand Himalayas

Globally, people are increasingly aware of the need to live in ways that don’t have a negative environmental impact. But, as studies consistently reveal, making sustainable choices is often perceived as harder, more inconvenient and more expensive. Travel and tourism is no exception, with low impact and responsible travel experiences more often than not requiring extra effort, sacrifice and specific knowledge on the part of the traveler. So despite their best intentions, even the most conscious travelers often end up deviating from their normal sustainable behavior patterns in order to make the most of their experience.

This phenomenon, the gap between what we say we’re going to do, and what we actually do, is known as the intention-action gap. In travel, this gap between intentions and actions is not only persistent, but wide; with only 2% of travelers following through. Frustrating, yet promising; how much can we lower travel and tourism impact and emissions by narrowing the gap – even by a small fraction?

What we know from scientific understanding of traveler psychology leads us to believe the path to a true sustainability transformation in the industry is to make it part of the design. Sustainability by design (supply-driven) as opposed to demand-driven sustainability doesn’t ask or wait for the traveler to make the choice, it eliminates the choice altogether. Think of swapping plastic bottles for glass ones, or sourcing all food available, locally. We often refer to examples from destinations where infrastructure for recycling, low footprint mobility and local sourcing is already in place for society-at-large. This leads some of our partners to argue that sustainability by design is only possible if your business is located in a country where systems are already in place.

This article is inspired by my recent trip to Shangri-La Eros, New Delhi where Milena and I attended the annual Indian Responsible Tourism Summit & Awards hosted by the Outlook Responsible Tourism Initiative. Now in its eighth year, IRTA celebrates and champions local tourism initiatives “that are gentle on the earth and invested in the growth and happiness of the local communities across India.” From off-grid homestays and B&B’s to large travel enterprises I witnessed and experienced sustainability by design in places where it was both easy and difficult to achieve. Despite nationwide technological advances and ambitious climate initiatives seeking to make broader progress, the sheer scale and diverse socio-economic landscapes of India means systems including waste management, water management, and reusable energy alternatives are inconsistently available through


Following the summit, we were fortunate enough to experience some of the incredible hospitality on offer in the vast Northern region of India, traveling out of the city on a sleeper train into the foothills of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand, before completing the final leg of the journey by car into the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. There, our experience reaffirmed the power of tourism experiences that have been designed to benefit both the environment and local communities. Below are three travel businesses we encountered who exemplify how simple and rewarding it can be to embed sustainability in the design of the experience for the benefit of everyone.

Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kumaon, Uttarakhand

Located in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, about 30 miles from Almora, Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary is a rich and biodiverse forest habitat. While much of the surrounding regions were destroyed to become pine plantations, the area’s history as an estate during British colonization protected its dense oak and pine forests from destruction and industry. The sanctuary is home to leopards, mountain goats, wild boar, baking deer, porcupines and all kinds of small mammals and birds.

Nestled in among the trees at 7’600 ft (2,300m) is the Binsar Forest Retreat, a comfortable, quiet escape. Renovated by owners Preetam and Rajesh, the building is entirely off-grid, and offers a place to switch off and relish the peace and solitude of the forest setting. “By nature, Rajesh, Pallavi and I are slow, deep-dive people, ” explains Preetam. “Moving to the Himalayas has allowed us to slow down and live naturally in tune with the rhythms of the hills and forest, and in turn, without any conscious effort from us, Binsar Forest Retreat has come to reflect our innate nature. It is a harmonious arrangement.”

When it came to the sustainability of the retreat, without incentives or investment, it made sense to Preetam to design the experience to be as low-impact as possible. Water is sourced from nearby springs and solar geysers heat water for bathing. To minimize power consumption generated by solar, power sockets are only installed in shared living spaces. Plus, all ingredients and supplies are sourced from the local town of Almora, transformed into delicious vegetarian food cooked from Kumoani, north Indian and continental recipes. Our days were spent outdoors taking in the magical and spiritual landscape of the Himalayas, venturing out on some of the 60 km of hiking trails in retreat before returning to enjoy the delicious fresh food, prepared by hand only, each day. The team’s commitment to low-impact operations encouraged a slower, more conscious mindset, and demonstrated how little you need when you combine a beautiful setting with warm hospitality and shared stories.

Cafe Lota

Through discussions with attendees and business owners in New Delhi, it became clear to me that in many Indian regions, there is an appetite for expanding tourism offerings that provide deeper and richer experiences into traditional and contemporary food and dining. Considering the wide diversity and styles of cuisine available across the country, from locally-grown spices to particular preparations of ingredients, there is potential to design whole experiences around food that celebrates regional cultural heritage and history. Part of Red Cedar Hospitality, Cafe Lota is a “uniquely crafted ethno-contemporary experience of lesser-known regional Indian cuisine” in the heart of Delhi. Within the walls of a space built and finished by local craftsmen, Cafe Lota’s skilled team, led by Head Chef Anand, brings recipes from all over India into the capital, preserving and elevating each one as part of a diverse cultural narrative.

What’s more, Cafe Lota is proud of their commitment to being plastic-free, having made the transition to filtered water in order to eliminate waste from their operations. Diners who do not wish to drink the filtered water have the option to buy glass-bottled water at their own expense. By making free filtered water the default and the glass bottle four times more expensive than an average plastic water bottle, Cafe Lota have made the sustainable option the easy option. It might be surprising, but I managed my entire trip in India without using a single plastic bottle.

India Insight Tours

While appreciating the outdoors is central to nature-based tourism, not all experiences of this type prioritize conservation and environmental conservation. Indeed, preparations for outdoor recreation and tours are challenging; requiring deep understanding of landscapes, terrain and routes as well as careful planning to ensure plenty of clean drinking water, food and accommodation is available to ensure tours run smoothly. For over 25 years, India Insight Tours have been leading international groups on small-group tours, taking adventurous travelers on inspiring journeys.

From multi-day Himalayan treks to multi-activity adventures into the foothills and backwaters of Kerala, Vishwas and his team are not only committed to uplifting communities by employing locals to deliver these experiences, but operate a strict no plastic policy, even during hotel stays, instead providing each client with a Lifestraw reusable bottle to carry and filter water during their trip. This simple commitment not only eliminates unnecessary plastic use by design, but encourages responsibility among local communities, and a deeper respect from travelers seeking to reap the rewards of exploring these precious natural habitats. This year, without any incentive or reward, India Insight Tours is celebrating 10 years of plastic-free operations, proving that protecting the value of nature is a reward in itself.

From this article, we want to highlight that sustainable success stories can come from anywhere, and don’t need to be expensive or complicated. All that matters is that the experience design is sensitive and hyper-tailored to local regions and communities.

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