Have you ever thought about visiting the Himalayas one day? If so, you should have in mind that it’s a kind of different way of doing tourism. There is an incredible sense of community there. Locals are quite happy to welcome visitors into their own homes to experience their day-to-day-lives.
This is why it’s so important to have organisations such as Great Himalaya Trail that puts the tourism in the hands of the locals.After all, trekking on Himalaya must be an amazing experience but it’s the people you meet along the trail that will linger in your memory.
We talked to Robin Boustead about Great Himalaya Trail and his another project – MyGHTi that empowers local Himalayan women to have time and resource to host and provide transformative experiences along the Great Himalaya.
MT: Tell me a little bit about your background in business.
Robin Boustead: I’ve been involved with adventure tourism for over 25 years. As a child, I loved the outdoors and stressed my parents with my regular ‘wandering off’ moments. So, it was no surprise that I should love travelling and adventures later in life.
An overland journey from the UK to Australia fed my passion and I decided that I had to find a way to incorporate travel and earning some money. I built a business in Sydney selling outdoor gear and organising trips of both domestic and international tours.
It went very well but after about 10 years I decided that it was time to do something special and to really indulge my desire for a big adventurous challenge.
MT: How did you come up with the idea of your project?
RB: Perhaps the holiest mountain in the world is Mt Kailash in West Tibet. They say that you don’t decide to go to Kailash, rather, the mountain decides to let you come.
I made a plan for an ‘adventure pilgrimage’ to Kailash, starting at the eastern end of Nepal, next to the world’s third highest mountain, Kanchenjunga.
So initially, I called my idea the K2K – Kanchenjunga to Kailash. In 2008-9, I trekked for 5 months, linking every mountain range, called himals.
Just as I arrived at the border with Tibet and the last steps to Kailash, the Chinese closed the border. I still haven’t been to Kailash!
However, I realised that my journey had been useful in another way, for the first time, someone had linked all the himals of the Great Himalaya Range by the highest feasible route, so I called my adventure the Great Himalaya Trail (GHT)
MT: Tell me about the Great Himalaya Trail’s mission.
RB: For close to 10 years, there were a few international non-government organisations (INGOs) that tried to reduce poverty in remote mountain communities by supporting programs along the GHT, but they had little effect.
It took me a long time to work out why so much time and energy had resulted in such poor outcomes for local people.
It was only last year that I realised the INGOs hadn’t put the most important part of a ‘tourism product’ at the centre of their GHT development plans – the economic and sharing relationship between a guest and a host.
The INGOs had focused on infrastructure and policies, but what is needed are ways to empower women in communities so that they have the time and resources to host guests.
So, the MyGHTi mission is to empower women in remote communities to ‘own’ and control tourist experiences, these then become the drivers to local tourism economies and growing micro-businesses.
Put simply, we want to empower women to co-create transformative experiences that produce thriving regenerative micro-enterprises.
MT: What is unique about your business/project and what services do you provide?
RB: There are two things that are really unique about the GHT, first is the amazing environment and communities of the Himalaya, there is nowhere else on earth that has the same overwhelming and absorbing presence of mountains and open-hearted locals.
It’s the open heartedness that provides the basis for the second really important point of difference to other adventures, the locals are really happy to welcome visitors into their own homes and genuinely share their day-to-day lives.
Even when they have little to offer, they make every effort to treat visitors as Gods!
MT: What is MyGHTi about?
RB: MyGHTi is a way to put the communities, the hosts, at the heart of the tourism experience and management system. In the past, international and domestic travel and trekking businesses have organised your holiday to the Himalaya.
To do this, they had to rely on the compliance of locals to host, shelter and feed their clients but the hosts were frequently paid the absolute minimum to do so and very rarely, if ever, received profits either financially, or in skills, or levels of development.
This was added to by the clients, who often want places to ‘stay just as they are’. Of course, there are some areas that have been more successful at managing tourism compared to others.
The Sherpas of the Everest region, for example, have been more successful than other mountain areas of Nepal because they have had more control over tourism in their communities.
In many areas, the locals often end up suffering from a lack of development because the tourism system both exploits them and suppresses them.
This is especially true of women in communities who are the ones who do most of the hosting work, cooking, cleaning and caring for guests.
The situation for women is made worse because they also suffer from social restrictions when they are menstruating, many of which seem medieval to foreigners! MyGHTi is about linking guests and hosts directly.
This puts control of tourism into the hands of the locals, who are mostly women, which improves the experience for the tourist guests and for the community.
MT: What are the biggest challenges of a project like yours?
RB: There are a number of challenges that MyGHTi needs to overcome and the first is resources. Unfortunately, these days tourism isn’t a very attractive topic for development donors, so we need to find other ways to finance the start-up of the project.
Once the project has started, we expect that it will be easier to gain momentum and introduce more and more communities and build revenue streams. The second major challenge is technology.
We need to find practical and reliable ways to communicate regularly with remote villages, so we need to use both internet and SMS systems. It’s possible, but not as easy as only using wifi for example.
The third challenge is to generate international interest that leads to bookings. Operating in the competitive world of adventure travel marketplaces takes skills that the communities currently do not have, so we expect that it will take a few years to become self-sustaining.
MT: How can GHT help the community to join a more sustainable tourism approach?
RB: In many ways remote mountain communities are already sustainable, they have to be to exist in the harsh and isolated places where they live.
So, the big issue is to manage the impact of tourism in a sustainable way, which takes skill and knowledge at a local level.
A key question that we need to answer in every village is, ‘How can tourism create stronger, more sustainable and resilient communities?’
MyGHTi is developing draft training tools and education resources that will help locals ensure their communities will continue to receive positive benefits from tourism over the long-term, and all of these resources will be adapted to suit each village. This is a key part of our regenerative approach.
MT: In which ways, we could support women in Himalayan villages too?
RB: Please share our message with people you think are interested in the Himalaya, women’s empowerment and adventurers! Also, MyGHTi wants to co-create handicraft products made by mother’s groups in each community.
We’re hoping that these can be distributed and sold to folks who want to support the program but who can’t make it to Nepal.
MT: How are social media important to the success of your business?
RB: Facebook, Instagram and networks like Travel Massive are key to sharing our message and stories from the mountains, so we’re busy setting up pages and gathering information about the project!
MT: What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting a project like yours?
RB: Don’t be afraid to do it. If you feel that it’s important, then sure other people will too! And once you start, try to look at your ideas from different perspectives, you need to be able to see your ideas from the viewpoint of everyone concerned in your project.
MT: What does GHT have achieved so far?
RB: The Great Himalaya Trail has been around for about 10 years and we’ve created a strong volunteer community of trekkers who research and document trails across the whole Himalaya including Bhutan, India and Nepal.
So, the basic information about what to do and where to go is set up. Plus, there is a small but global community of adventurers prepared to help promote MyGHTi and get excited about the project.
MT: What are the next steps for GHT?
We want to win the Travel Massive competition! We believe this will draw some serious interest from the travel industry about what MyGHTi is trying to do and, hopefully, this will lead to travel companies wanting got support the program and possibly raise money from donor organisations to really get things moving!
Great Himalaya Trail on Social Media