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Beyond Ecotourism

Transformational Learning and Educational Travel in the High Himalayas of India

Prayer flags in the wind in Ladakh in the Himalayas, India.
Prayer flags in the wind in Ladakh in the Himalayas.

I found myself in a time of dizzying transition: my divorce had just been finalized, I was in the process of selling my half of a successful business, and beginning what would be a grueling 2-year path through graduate school. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, and needed a change.

A friend recommended I consider Crooked Trails, a Seattle nonprofit community-based travel organization that helps people connect with other cultures through education and responsible travel. The organization is also committed to programs that develop and nurture real relationships with the indigenous communities they visit.

Tammy Leland, one of the founders of Crooked Trails, described the experience that community-based travel offers and explained how the elements of mutual service and learning can tie two cultures together. She told me how her previous work with the hill tribes of Thailand and Vietnam, the Quechua Indians of Peru, and other indigenous communities around the world had opened her eyes to the myriad opportunities for learning, growth, and change.

Finally, she explained, we would travel with a purpose. Crooked Trails would ensure that we would all leave something of ourselves behind, in the form of carefully planned and targeted financial support or a community service project or perhaps both.

Our itinerary — 26 days in total — would include two days in Delhi on each end of our stay, a train trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, round-trip air travel to and from Leh, the capital city of Ladakh, where we would acclimatize to the high altitude prior to our trek. From Leh we would begin the 10-day round-trip trek to the remote village of Lingshed as invited guests of Geshe Ngawang Jangchup, a friend of Leland’s and the head monk of the main monastery in the area. Ours would be the first group of visitors ever guided and serviced entirely by residents of his village.

Community-based travel such as the kind offered by Crooked Trails is more than a culturally and ecologically sensitive alternative to traditional tourism. It is a unique opportunity for adults to have what I call a “peak learning experience.”

According to Malcom Knowles, author of The Adult Learner, Sixth Edition: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, adult learning is based on several assumptions that are different from more traditional models. First, adult learners need to know why they need to learn something before undertaking to learn it.

In addition to needing to know why they need to learn, adult learners must feel responsible for their own decisions. This was the essence of the quandary in my decision to travel with a group: on the one hand, I knew I couldn’t find what I was looking for alone, but on the other, I knew that my primary reason for going on this trip was to mend a piece of my life — and that this would require a great deal of autonomy. The experience delivered by Crooked Trails was the perfect balance of group interaction, planned itinerary, and freedom to explore. Each of us made decisions within the parameters of the support provided by our guides.

Third, adult learners come into a learning opportunity with a wealth of personal experience. This needs to be recognized and tapped as the experience unfolds. As a community-based traveler, I found the opportunities for self-organized peer-helping activities as opposed to more traditional tour-guide one-way communication. The community-based travel option provided the perfect balance between the group setting and traveling alone.

Next, adult learners require a life-centered as opposed to subject-centered orientation to learning. That is, adults will learn to the degree that they perceive they are ready to learn and that the learning will help them to deal with challenges they face in their daily life.

Finally, adults are most motivated by internal needs — the need for richer quality of life, for deeper understanding of self and others, for meaning. Again, community-based tourism proved to be perfectly suited to providing this quality of experience, not only in terms of its educational benefits and service components but also, in my case, the opportunity to place myself in a totally new context. The result was much more than the typical rejuvenation afforded by any vacation I had ever taken. I was changed. And, I was not the only one. Community-based tourism companies offer unlimited potential for providing transformative learning experiences, not only for their clientele but also for their guides and the local populations with whom they partner.

What is Community-Based Travel?

According to Crooked Trails, community-based travel includes the basic goals of ecotourism but with a few enhancements:

Travel to natural destinations inhabited by indigenous cultures: Community-based travel is all about learning from and directly helping the disappearing indigenous communities around the world through cultural exchange, financial assistance, and education.

Minimize impact: Like ecotourism, community-based travel seeks to minimize the adverse effects of tourism by encouraging and supporting environmentally sensitive practices, not only by travelers but also by local people.

Build awareness: Community-based travel is about the exchange of knowledge and wisdom for both visitors and residents of host communities alike.

Provide financial benefits and empowerment to indigenous people: Like ecotourism, community-based travel seeks to benefit local people by helping them to maintain their right to self-determination by giving them decision-making authority regarding the conduct of tourism in their lands.

Respect local culture: Environmental sensitivity doesn’t stop with the ecosystem but extends to understanding and respecting cultures in their own context.

For More Info

The following are recommended community-based travel service providers.

Crooked Trails

Culture Explorers

Global Exchange

World Neighbors International

Key Websites

These two websites serve as good starting places for those interested in community-based travel with a focus on ecotourism:

EcoClub, is based in Greece and spotlights eco lodges and activists around the world.

UN Environment is the UN’s collection of ecotourism publications. Excellent resource.

Related Topics
Responsible Travel, Responsible Travel, and Ecotourism
Articles and Resources on India

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