Nanda Devi Recognized by Conde Nast as a Remarkable Ecotourism Destination: A Major Boost for Local Community Efforts

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The mountain paradise of Nanda Devi has been named runner-up in the destination category for the prestigious 2004 Condé Nast Traveler’s Ecotourism Awards.

In the tenth anniversary of the competition, 91 candidates vied for awards in three categories including destination, tour operator, and lodge/resort. A panel of judges representing ecotourism and general tourism markets evaluated each entry in a rigorous process lauded by ecotourism experts for its transparency and environmental standards. Based on the elements of nature preservation, local contribution, and guest education, the application put forward by the Nanda Devi Campaign achieved a score of 68 out of 100, placing it third amongst all entries.

The awards are covered in the July issue of the world’s preeminent travel magazine that recently hit newsstands in North America.

This outstanding recognition comes at a time when big tour operators in association with the state and central government are revving up to promote Nanda Devi, a peak in the Indian Himalayas as an up and coming tourist destination. However, it is the shoestring grassroots effort embodied by the Nanda Devi Campaign that is drawing international attention for its commitment to linking local economic empowerment and community-based conservation.

In fact, this summer Lata, the gateway community to Nanda Devi, is hosting a variety of visitors including artists, craftspeople, researchers, and students from India and abroad. The artists in particular have been inspired by their week-long workshop organized by the Coleman Company and Alliance for Development in June to produce over 30 paintings to benefit the local villages. In an unique partnership of art for social change, the artwork will be exhibited online at the Nanda Devi Campaign’s web site as well as in New Delhi under the auspices of Uttarakhand Kalakar Samiti and Alliance for Development. Organizers including the painter and sculptor, Madan Singh Rawat, are hoping to raise funds from sale of the artwork for training courses in mountaineering for 40 unemployed youth at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering.

Having come to create, share, and learn in the communities that overlook Nanda Devi, many of the guests have also taken up residence in the winter camps of the Indo-Tibetan Bhotiya people whose tradition of moving from summer to winter abodes has been followed for a thousand years. By reusing traditional structures rather than constructing new concrete monstrosities, this unique housing solution fulfills a key aspect of the historic 2001 Nanda Devi Ecotourism and Biodiversity Conservation Declaration, which has laid out a progressive vision for sustainable tourism in the region. In addition, residing in the village also benefits the local economy, preserves indigenous architectural heritage, and respects the land’s carrying capacity by adjusting tourism flows to the seasonal cycling of people and animals in high altitude regions.

Nanda Devi as one of the tallest and most sacred peaks of the Himalayas is remarkable as much for its sheer physical majesty as its intense human drama. Situated in the state of Uttarakhand, India, Nanda Devi is surrounded by a barrier ring of 12 other peaks over 21,000 feet in altitude. This unique and magnificent formation has been recognized by ancient Hindu mythology (Nanda Devi means the bliss-giving goddess), and modern mountaineers alike, who came to scale its heights in dozens of expeditions following first ascent in 1936. Over the decades, these expeditions would come to embrace a whole range of experiences from cold war nuclear intrigues to heartbreaking tragedies and feats of unmatched mountaineering skill.

In 1982, trekking and tourism that saw Nanda Devi become the second most popular Himalayan destination next to Everest, came to abrupt end with the creation of the Nanda Devi National Park and later in 1988, a UN-designated biosphere reserve. The closure put off limits the entire region to both tourists and local inhabitants. This had a devastating impact on the local economy and stirred resentment on the part of the Bhotiya. In a bitter irony, the communities had themselves saved their forests during the famous Chipko movement of the 1970s only the see their rights usurped by park authorities.

In the late 1990s, as pressures grew to reopen the park, the local communities launched their own campaign to reclaim their rights over traditional lands. After a series of actions, this movement culminated in the ecotourism and conservation declaration, where in concert with environmental justice activists from throughout India, the Bhotiya stated their intention of pursuing a tourism strategy that would safeguard their human rights, cultural heritage, and environment, while recognizing the needs of disadvantaged members of their community.

In the following years, this declaration guided them in the preparation of multiple strategies to implement their ideas including in early 2004, the holding of a women’s festival and celebrations of the thirtieth anniversary of Chipko where women took a leading role. As such, recognition from Condé Nast Traveler will provide a major boost to community-based tourism built around cultural survival, sustainable livelihoods, and minimizing the human footprint in such extraordinary places of the world.

Many thanks to Keith Bosak of the University of Georgia for filling out the original application on behalf of Nanda Devi communities.

— Rajiv Rawat, 29 June 2004