In Kullu’s breathtaking Tirthan Valley, Jiwe Nand, 25, guides tourists through trails inside the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) — from a day’s hike to week-long expeditions — for birdwatching, river-crossing, fishing or “simply relaxing”, except from December to March when snow restricts access.
Nand says his life changed in 2018, when he attended a 28-day course at the government-run Atal Bihari Institute for Mountaineering and Allied Sports in Manali. He is among 350 people — 200 men and 150 women — from two gram panchayats of Kandidhar and Nohanda in Tirthan Valley who have been imparted free training in tourism-related skills in the last five years. Nand says he learnt the basics of rock climbing, rappelling, river-crossing, ice-craft, and survival in high-altitude areas. He also underwent an 18-day trekking guide course.
“Even before my training, I sometimes worked as a guide for trekkers. But now I have a professional licence and the skills to conduct larger expeditions. Many people from our village undergo the sponsored training every year,” he says, adding that his fee of Rs 28,000 in Nand’s case was sponsored by the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
This initiative is part of the ADB-funded Community-Based Tourism (CBT) project run by the Himachal Pradesh tourism department since 2015. The project is the brainchild of Ankit Sood, 46, a former professor of tourism at the government college in Kullu who first pitched the idea to a visiting team from the Bank.
Sood, who has designed the training curriculum, now works as a consultant for ADB and advises the governments of the three Himalayan states of Himachal, Uttarakhand and Sikkim, as a forest conservation expert.
“The project is being implemented in 14 panchayats across six districts to promote new venues of tourism and to de-stress popular hill stations such as Manali and Dharamshala. Across the state, 1,400 people have been trained. In the case of Tirthan Valley, it has been an outright success, as one can judge by the number of home stays that have sprung up in the last few years,” says Sood.
He has also roped in the forest department, fisheries department and the department of language, art and culture to start short courses in wildlife, birdwatching, angling, and heritage tourism in Tirthan. “Government-certified courses increase the chances of professional employability. In our training modules, we’re laying a special emphasis on solid waste management to create sustainable models of tourism,” said Sood.
Mamata Thakur, 21, another Tirthan resident, says that after she completed her mountaineering course last year, she started working with private camping organisers in Manali. Taku Ram, 30, who underwent a guide course in 2017, works with an adventure tourism firm in Tirthan as a guide, cook and porter.
Besides the CBT project, the success of Tirthan as a budding destination for travellers can also be attributed to other initiatives, including the formation of cooperatives such as the GHNP Community-based Ecotourism Cooperative Society in Nohanda, which has has 65 members.
“Earlier, most of us independently worked as guides, cooks, and porters. But the earnings were low. Now we jointly manage tourist activity here and 10 per cent of our earnings are deposited in a cooperative bank, while the profits are distributed equally,” says Sanju Negi, a member of the cooperative. Negi says that he earlier worked in a hotel in Manali but has now settled in Tirthan due to “emerging opportunities”.
According to Anil Chandel, the district employment officer, tourism initiatives such as these are helping generate employment during the tourist season. “One drawback of tourism in Kullu is its seasonal nature. Many people migrate to Goa and other places during the winter months to find similar work there. If the government can promote year-round tourist activity, it will keep people employed permanently,” he says.
Panki Sood, a camping and trekking organiser in Tirthan, says the initiative has also helped valley residents break free from the scourge of drugs and environmental damage.
Residents in Tirthan have also formed an association to check illegal camping, loud music or hooliganism, and report any cases of substance abuse to police, says Panki, 42, who himself battled disorders caused by addiction to heroin and other drugs before went into rehab 13 years ago.
“We have learnt lessons from Parvati Valley, which has been destroyed by drug tourism. Lured by easy money, youngsters there have fallen prey to substance peddling, which has landed them in jail. Places such as Kheerganga, which are ecologically fragile, have also been disturbed due to excessive footfall,” he says.
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