Footfall without footprints

March 17, 2013 12:00 am | Updated 05:07 am IST

Tourism has received adverse criticism due to its perceived threat to the environment as it makes inroads into ecologically sensitive regions and biodiversity hotspots. This derives mainly from the perception that tourism, be it high-end luxury hotels or low-end mass tourism, can blight landscapes by leaving its undesirable footprints by consuming local resources and generating undesirable waste. Sustained accumulation of such footprints alongside unplanned and unregulated development far exceeds the carrying capacity of the locality.

SwaSwara , meaning inner voice, is a unique experiment where tourists literally do not leave any footprints behind. Surrounded by dense forests, the 26.5 acre property is located on the famous ‘om’ beach at Gokarna, some 180 km south of Goa. In addition to it being amidst a tropical forest, the built-up place has 11 acres of land covered with trees which consume every molecule of carbon dioxide generated by no more than 100 guests and staff at any given time on the campus. Crafted in colors of the earth, the built-up space is in perfect harmony with nature.

“Being on the coast, our first concern was to have year round supply of fresh water,” recalls Mini Chandran, General Manager. While buying water from the municipality would have impinged upon rights of the local population, setting up a desalination plant had proved prohibitively costly. After meticulously calculating the year-round fresh water demand for myriad activities on the campus, three large tanks were dug out to store as much as 25 million litres of rainwater for meeting the daily water requirements of the inhabitants.

SwaSwara neither draws water from outside its campus nor does it permit its waste water to escape its premises. Grey water from the washrooms and waste water from the kitchens is collected and filtered before it is fed into the polishing chamber. After secondary treatment, the recycled water is used for irrigating 4 acres of farm land where paddy and vegetables are cultivated for use in the kitchen. For the discerning tourists, the place is as much for being with nature as much to learn how indeed to keep nature in its pristine best.

The place is undoubtedly exquisite wherein tourists need to pay a price for being carbon and water neutral. “Our goal has been to create experiences that involve and immerse the guests,” quips Mini, “experiences that are not just enjoyable, but also environmentally aware and culturally rich”. SwaSwara has plans on the drawing board to harvest solar energy for which appropriate photovoltaic systems to meet the power needs are being worked out. Once that happens it will be one destination based entirely on the principles of ‘green economy’.

A unit of the CGH Earth, a group that is committed to promoting ecologically-sensitive and culturally-responsive tourism in the country, SwaSwara has entwined itself with the earth that cradles it. Not only does it disturb nature to the minimum, but it is an active participant in the community and cultures that surround. “By involving local shack owners on the beach, we have got them to participate in periodic beach cleaning drives,” says Devadatta Naik, the naturalist who keeps count of birds and terrestrial wildlife on the campus.

Curiously, SwaSwara is everything an up-market tourist destination ought not to be. Else, the principles of humility and participative ethos would not have sustained the soul of this property. No wonder, a third of its team is drawn from the local community in and around Gokarna. The bond goes beyond employment as there is close and consistent exchange of local wisdom and diverse perspectives between them. The fact that each member of the team dines together is clear indication of the values propounded.

By instituting community programmes that support local schools and women groups, SwaSwara seems to have taken its social responsibility seriously. Questions Mini, “isn’t it a privilege to return to nature and the society from which we draw so much?” While catering to niche clients, the experiment has demonstrated that carbon-neutral approach for high-end tourism is indeed economically viable and must therefore be pursued as a policy. If low-end tourism can resort to eco-tourism, luxury tourism can take lead in promoting green tourism.

Celebrating simplicity and purity, and saluting local ethos and heritage, SwaSwara takes its guests to the journey into the ‘self’. With yoga and meditation sessions through the day, the place has all the elements of nature embracing the human body without leaving ‘footprints’ on the sand!

(Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is with the Ecological Foundation.)

SwaSwara , near Goa, is a unique experiment in tourism where guests literally do not leave any footprints behind

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