The pandemic exposed the dangers of ‘tourism monocultures’ – dependence on one product only – versus a more holistic approach to tourism fare. Gayathri Hegde has been researching the differing tourism experiences of Dandeli and Joida, neighboring towns in Karnataka, southwestern India.
The town of Dandeli, located in the serene, verdant green forests of Western Ghats in northern Karnataka, has become synonymous with ‘adventure tourism’ in the region, popularized as the river-rafting destination of southern India. Fueled by dam waters, the Kali River flows with robust furor, enthralling all visitors. The spike in tourists visiting this biodiversity hotspot brought considerable profits to tourism service providers, but it has also resulted in unchecked growth that has hampered the ecological and financial sustainability of this tourism model.
What was once a novelty experience has now been reduced to a gimmick in recent years. Rafting through the rapids was initially envisioned for a 12km stretch, which would allow the adventurer to have a complete experience of rafting through multiple rapids in the flowing river. However, to offer the experience to a larger number of visitors traveling on a smaller budget, the local tourism operators started offering the rafting experience for lower fees and a shorter distance. As a result, while the tourism experience in Dandeli has become more accessible across all economic classes of the society, the overall quality of the product has taken a massive hit.
In an attempt to cater to many, even the few are deprived of the delights of nature that this place truly has to offer. With no checks in place to regulate the tourism impacts, tourists are littering the area, and most service providers take no responsibility for restoring the disturbed places they leave behind. As a result, the once verdant landscape is now dotted with plastic and tin. The sensitive ecology is home to a multitude of flora and fauna that are endemic to the region. The unchecked spurt in tourism stands to upend their lifecycle.
Then, when the government banned water-sport activities as a preventive measure during Covid-19, many tourism service providers who had anchored their business model solely on adventure tourism took a major financial hit.
But what is unique about Dandeli? What can one take away from here? The actual potential of this place in the current tourism model does not benefit the tourist or the tourism vendor. It exploits the place without any regard to either maintaining the place or developing it more thoughtfully.
The Joida Model
Potential solutions to such challenges have been successfully and sensitively incorporated not too far away in the neighboring region of Joida. Both Dandeli and Joida are home to many native communities, some of them tribal, who have immense knowledge about the ecology of the place and have several unique skills in arts and crafts, which can be leveraged for the benefit of both locals and visitors. Even the cuisine that is consumed locally is unique, featuring an array of tubers, which have an annual festival. This cuisine ought to be to featured in restaurants menus and be celebrated accordingly.
In all of this, I see hope in a cluster of homestays of the region, which are modeled on the public-private profit (PPP) sharing approach for the purpose of providing the best experience of a nature retreat and a cultural taste of regional specialties.
Even when river rafting was closed and the bigger hotels and resorts suffered losses from their adventure-tourism business model, some homestays of the region were not affected by this decision. Rafting was only an add-on to their tourism products. These homestays are run by members of the local community who offer rare view into their own cultural diversity. In the remote village of Gund, last in the region, Amara Homestays offers Yakshagana (a local theatre and dance form) workshop for its visitors and offers meals typical of the Havyaka people. These opportunities are cherished by the visitors. The owner claimed that his business is sustained by repeat visitors who look forward to this experience.
In hindsight, Dandeli-Joida offers the perfect canvas to showcase a panorama of evolving tourism trends in smaller cities in India and their impacts on multiple levels. In my experience of having travelled across different parts of India over the years and of viewing it through a cultural lens, it struck me that often the ideal tourism experience for an Indian tourist in India is hinged primarily on material comforts more than having an immersive cultural experience. The representation of local cultural identity in built and intangible forms is lacking too.
When our tourist infrastructure does not reflect this in design or application, the disconnect is but a natural consequence. The gap here is due not only to the tourist who chooses familiar material comfort as his priority, but also to the way these experiences are curated. The idea of ‘ecotourism’ has found traction only in recent years, and we are still grappling with what it means. Textbook definitions and generic principles of ecotourism seem not very relevant for the region, while failing to recognize that the local traditional systems offer perfect solutions to this dilemma. [Editor: See instead the “geotourism approach”put forth via National Geographic.]
The contrasting tourism models I witnessed in Dandeli offer many lessons for building a sustainable tourism model in these eco-sensitive habitats, while creating a unique experience for the visitor and safeguarding the natural landscape and culture for the future.
Culinary expert Nikki Rose says Crete has wandered far from its roots as the “Garden of Greece,” losing traditional farms, villages, and cuisine in the process. Mass tourism has been partly responsible, and sustainable tourism could help reverse the trend, restoring Crete’s traditional, organic, more ecologically suitable agricultural methods. Consumer demand for health and gastronomy is on the rise. Catering to it could help Crete restore its 4,000-year-old agricultural heritage and once-robust ecosystem. The approach called “agro-ecology” shows the way.
Tourism in Crete can thrive anew with the farming ways of old
by Nikki Rose
Horiatiki, traditional Greek salad, on the coast of Crete. Photo: Nikki Rose.
People relying on tourism for their livelihood can make their industry more vibrant and progressive by forming alliances with organic farmers and agroecology programs. Both residents and visitors will benefit.
In March 2020, the Greek Ministry of Tourism and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council signed a Cooperation Agreement to harmonize the Greek tourism industry with international standards for sustainable tourism. Greek Minister of Tourism, Harry Theoharis, said “Our major goal is the restart of Greek tourism sector after the pandemic, capitalizing on sustainable tourism thematics, such as diving tourism, gastronomy tourism and mountain tourism….”
Travelers interested in these themes, especially gastronomy, are typically well informed supporters of organic food production and conservation. Consumer demand for organic food is increasing around the world. Data from 2018 reports the global organic market at over USD100 billion and growing. There are 2.8 million organic producers worldwide.
Agroecology entails more than producing food without toxins. It integrates conservation of indigenous traditional knowledge and food self-sufficiency. Agroecological farming has been shown to increase ecological resilience, improve health and nutrition, conserve biodiversity and natural resources, improve economic stability, and mitigate the effects of climate change. Agroecology aligned with sustainable tourism can also help us achieve several UN Sustainable Development Goals.
As tourism begins to recover from the conoravirus crisis, there’s an opportunity for residents of Greece to incorporate the concept of agroecology in the process. The island of Crete provides an excellent example of lessons learned and ignored.
Crete, the “Garden of Greece”
Crete’s Minoan history, mythology, and agricultural and culinary artifacts can teach us about our future. Four millenniums ago, the Minoans showed respect for nature, living in harmony with it. In the ancient city of Knossos, a sign reads: Pasi Theis Meli– Honey is Offered to All Gods. Around the world today, our bees and other pollinators are being killed by pesticides. This is a serious threat to our food supply, farmers’ livelihoods, and traditional cuisine. The notion of promoting “gastronomy tourism” is moot until we protect our pollinators.
Beekeeper, eastern Crete. “The notion of promoting gastronomy tourism is moot until we protect our pollinators.” Photo: Nikki Rose
The traditional Mediterranean Diet is on UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage list. Studies conducted in Crete before the introduction of industrial farming noted a primarily vegetarian diet based on wild sources and traditional organic cultivation. Today, only six percent of land in Greece is farmed using sustainable organic methods.
Crete is known as “The Garden of Greece,” but most commercial agriculture today is subsidized industrial monoculture and greenhouse farming. Small-scale organic farmers cannot compete in this “Big Ag” system. Yet this system has not worked well for years. Boreholes have depleted natural aquifers, causing desertification, biodiversity and soil depletion. Production decreases as climate crises increase, impacting all farmers and beekeepers. Amid archaeological sites dating back thousands of years you can find recently abandoned villages. All of the small-scale farmers and artisans are gone, along with their resilient communities.
Large tourist resorts can encroach on communities, increasing the cost of living and doing business. All-inclusive resorts import the majority of their food and stifle local business by their “no need to leave our compound” model. These resorts also extract large amounts of Crete’s natural resources, including fresh water, and erode biodiversity.
The Value of a Holistic Approach
Greece has a unique opportunity to support Community-Based Sustainable Tourism (CBST) and Agroecology, because some rural communities still exist and there are many organic farmers still struggling to make a living amid numerous barriers. There are well-established agricultural cooperatives producing organic food and beverages. There is a high percentage of organic-biodynamic vintners in Crete and other regions of Greece.
A CBST agroecology approach covers every section of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council Criteria:
A) Sustainable management, stakeholder engagement;
B) Socio-economic stability, social wellbeing;
C) Cultural sustainability, protecting cultural heritage;
D) Environmental sustainability, conservation of natural heritage.
That includes several aspects in particular:
Community benefits: Greece can collaborate with appropriate experts to support organic producers by providing incentives, training, and establishing sales and distribution structures that rely not just on tourism or exports but every avenue of opportunity, such as schools, hospitals, museums, and events. CBST initiatives in collaboration with neighbors involved in the arts, artisan food production, natural medicine, ecology, history, education, and small-scale accommodation will help to sustain resilient societies, better able to withstand tourism crises like coronavirus.
Youth: Greece’s financial crisis has triggered a “brain drain” of young, well-educated Greeks emigrating to seek a better life. One priority for Greece is to create opportunities for the youth to earn a real living at home. Rather than emigrating, many young Greeks have returned to their family’s villages to open small businesses, including organic farmer cooperatives. They are striving to sustain the life they cherish, which also appeals to many visitors. European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides said, “…without prospering farmers, we will not ensure food security. Without a healthy planet, farmers will have nowhere to farm.”
To promote Greece’s cultural heritage and gastronomy, we need to support our suppliers first
Fisheries: The small-scale fisheries industry, nostalgically depicted on postcards, is near extinction. Large-scale illegal operations throughout the Mediterranean, overfishing, and water pollution are depleting precious seafood supplies and poisoning aquatic species. Greece’s current 24% value-added tax rate is pushing small-scale traditional tradespeople out of business, including taverna owners. In order to promote Greece’s cultural heritage and gastronomy, we need to support our suppliers first.
Heritage plants: Local heirloom seeds provide the foundation for our extraordinary traditional cuisine. Policies that support industrial farming threaten their extinction. The Global Movement for Seed Freedom is growing, including the well-established Peliti in Greece.
Peliti Heirloom Seed Festival, Paranesti, Crete. Photo: Nikki Rose
Agronomist Stella Hatzigeorgiou, co-founder of Melitakes agricultural cooperative and heirloom seed festival in Pirgos, Crete, said: “Heirloom seeds contain multiple genotypes that give them strength to adapt to external changes, such as climate changes. Their resilience increases good harvests, and farmers have their own seeds for the next season. Plants from local seeds are well adapted to local climatic and soil conditions and external enemies (insects, fungi, bacteria). And rich natural biodiversity is crucial for all healthy cultivation.”
The Time Is Now
On May 20, 2020 the European Commission adopted a “Biodiversity Strategy and a Farm to Fork Strategy for a fair, healthy and environmentally friendly food system. The two strategies are mutually reinforcing, bringing together nature, farmers, business and consumers for jointly working towards a competitively sustainable future.” These strategies require support of the EU Common Agricultural Policy/Green Deal, Member States, and farmers, but it’s a positive start, which includes:
Reducing dependency on pesticides and antimicrobials, reducing excess fertilisation, increasing organic farming, improving animal welfare, and reversing biodiversity loss.
Protecting and restoring well-functioning ecosystems to boost resilience and prevent the emergence and spread of future diseases.
Agroecology should not be marginally connected with tourism, whether we call it agritourism, wine tourism, or gastronomy tourism. Real, safe food should be embedded into everyday life wherever we live or travel. Agroecology programs can increase the number of visitors supporting conservation programs. If we collaborate with our organic farmers and their communities, we can help leave a legacy of a healthier planet and food system for generations to come.
Appendix: For More on Agroecology Content as provided by Nikki Rose
Agronomist Dr. Vassilis Gkisakis, at the Hellenic Mediterranean University, Agroecology Greece, and Agroecology Europe said, “A major initiative of Agroecology Greece/Europe is the education of agronomists and training of farmers, not just in sustainable farming practices but also in a holistic, systemic approach to agriculture.” For further research, see:
International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems Communiqué:COVID-19 and the crisis in food systems: Symptoms, causes, and potential solutions, which states “A paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems is more urgent than ever.”
Pesticide Action International Report: “Replacing Chemicals with Biology.”
Archaeologists in Crete researching agricultural practices: Azoria.org
Organizations based in Greece, promoting Ecotourism: Ecoclub.com
Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Expert Guest Article, “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people.”
[Above: One stop on a food tour—a meat vendor at Madrid’s Mercado de Antón Martín.
All photos by Eugene Kim.]
Building Better Culinary Tourism by Supporting Local Businesses
The clues to a good, local food establishment were there, even before tasting their food: the silver-haired customers lining up with an assortment of families, single professionals, and students, and the exchange in Spanish coming from behind the counter as Jesús begins wrapping up some meats.
“Hi Maria! How are you doing? And how’s your dad?”
“Well, he’s better, but….”
Eventually, the food (excellentjamón ibérico and jamón serrano— Spanish celebrities in the cured meat world) proved the lines and repeat customers were warranted.
I had visited the meat shop in Mercado de Antón Martín, a market of fresh and prepared foods beloved by madrileños, with a food walking tour in early March. That tour, taken with Devour Madrid Food Tours, along with some exchanges with its co-founders, brought up the importance of supporting mom and pop shops. (Note—To keep the trade secrets of Devour Madrid’s food tours, I have, as much as possible, tried to keep the food and drink businesses visited during the tour anonymous.)
Key to having successful food tours? Be a responsible tourism operator.
Olive vendor at Mercado de Antón Martín.
Growth in food tours means greater need to do it well
Lauren Aloise, one of the co-founders of Devour Madrid, remembers that when she first started, there wasn’t a lot of competition. “In 2012, there were two companies I knew of offering evening tapas tours in Madrid— but no one, as far as I can remember, offered daytime food tours,” says Aloise. However, Madrid now has over a dozen food tours listed just on TripAdvisor alone. Devour Madrid, which offers both daytime and evening tours, currently stands at the top of food-specific tours on that TripAdvisor list.
James Blick, another co-founder of Devour Madrid, attributes the success of Devour Madrid to a few key factors: adhering to ethical business practices that value transparency (no cash transactions) and fair wages (paying its employees and the establishments it works with well), hiring storytellers with a passion for Spanish food and culture as guides, and crafting food tours that visit small, local food and drink businesses.
“A food tour is about more than food, it’s about telling stories and about sharing the history and culture of a place,” says Blick.
“It’s about promoting responsible tourism…supporting the local economy by supporting family run businesses that make Spain so unique,” says Aloise.
It bears repeating. Their entire business model is based on supporting small, local, family-run businesses, which has been a key element to their success.
A Spanish porra (thicker cousin to the churro) and chocolate (for dunking).
For example, instead of working with the most popular (most reviewed) churros con chocolate shops in Madrid (which happen to be a local chain), Devour Madrid works with independent businesses. Not that Devour Madrid has anything against chains, but the strong relationship it has with the friendly shop owner, along with the shop’s non-touristic, neighborhood feel (where you’re more likely to rub shoulders with locals than with other tourists) is the essence of Madrid that it wants to share with its clients.
Mom and pop shops: Sense of place guardians
Small businesses help create and reflect the character of a place – giving communities at the macro level (cities, regions, and nations) and the micro level (blocks and neighborhoods) their character and identity. For example, in the posh neighborhood of Salamanca, you’re more likely to find expansive, upscale cafes rather than the smaller, hipster coffee shops in the artsy neighborhoods of Lavapies, La Latina, and Malasaña.
A strong sense of place is crucial to attracting travelers and building up a loyal following for a place, a following who will not only share their positive experiences on- and offline, but also become repeat visitors. This, then, becomes mutually reinforcing, as the attraction and retention of travelers to a destination keeps that destination and sense of place living and thriving through tourism.
“‘Living like a local’ has become an essential part of getting under the skin of a destination for many travelers. They are looking for more authentic holiday experiences,” according to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). Because small, local establishments are often the ones frequented by locals, they provide “instantaneous, hospitable immersion into a foreign place.” That is not to say that chains can’t provide good, local fare and aren’t popular with locals, but it’s the smaller places where you can actually be a part of the local culture. It’s where the owner might have photos of their family members or local celebrities on display, where artwork from local, emerging artists might adorn the walls and be available for purchase, or local food and drink might be incorporated into the menu. A smaller establishment often allows for more opportunities for interactions with local patrons and with the owners themselves. And smaller establishments may also be more prone to creating their own homebrew or special recipes, such as vermut de grifo (vermouth on tap) or cocido (a traditional madrileno stew), offering food and drink that can be found nowhere else.
Vermouth on tap, a quintessential Madrid drink.
History and context
Storytelling and food have always gone hand in hand. Whether it’s sharing stories over food or the food itself telling the story. By visiting small, local businesses, you are often supporting a family or partnership – each with their own, unique story of how their restaurant, or bar, or market or other food business came to be, and how it’s been shaped by and shaped its neighborhood. Whether the business is 2 months old or 200 years old, each has a relationship with its neighbors and neighborhoods and provides a space for developing bonds among neighbors. For example, during my food tour, I learned about an 80+ year old wine and cheese shop that had almost closed when its proprietor was imprisoned for helping Socialists during the Spanish Civil War. But his family carried on without him, even during the very lean times of the war. We weren’t able to meet the third generation shopkeeper that day, but it’s good to know that he’s around and able to chat with visitors – to provide them with both a face and a story for his shop. Sure, you can read about the history of Madrid or its various neighborhoods and then visit points of interest. But why not also interact with a place and its history by talking with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and beyond generation of a family that has stayed connected to and supported an area by running a small business there? Or find out the untold stories of new small business owners who know a neighborhood first hand? That kind of engagement enhances the history and culture of a place. By often giving people more direct experiences with the unique people and places that are a part of a culture’s history, mom and pop shops can push the experience beyond just ticking the “I’ve been there” box.
This 80-plus-year-old family-operated tapas and wine bar includes a shop.
Cultural introductions and bridge building
Small, local food and drink establishments are often the gateway to new foods and new destinations. Because these businesses are rooted to a place and have developed relationships with and support other small businesses, they often carry products that can’t typically be found in some of the larger establishments. You might get introduced to a rare artisanal cheese that’s produced in very small batches by a new cheesemaker or a wine from a yet-to-be famous wine-producing region.
Cheeses from various regions in Spain (My favorite: a cow’s milk cheese from Galicia, accompanied by a sliver of quince paste, on the lower right).
And as you get your insider information and learn about new products—and perhaps, new destinations—you might be inspired (or hooked!) to keep buying those products or to visit the source of those products. For example, one soft cow’s milk cheese that I loved during a cheese and wine tasting on the food tour, showed up again in another establishment—only this time, in bulk form that I could take home with me! The tour also reaffirmed that the regions of Extremadura, Asturias, and Galicia need to be a part of my Spain trip list, as it featured excellent foods from these less traveled regions.
Of course, great trips mean great memories. And when paired with great food, great trips can turn into favorite trips, installing them into the memory banks’ hall of fame, where they have longer staying power and easier recall. By providing good food, stories that connect people to places, and a more authentic cultural experience, small, local establishments help build better destination memories for travelers. These memories, in turn, build up enthusiasm for a place, translating into better reviews and recommendations for that place and making repeat visits more likely. Living (for the moment) in Madrid, I know that I will be going back to at least a few places featured on the food tour and take visiting friends to those places. Because food memories are especially palpable, they have the power to change both hearts and minds. An especially good dish, such as the one featured in its namesake movie Ratatouille, can (spoiler alert) have the power to transform even the most demanding and fearsome critics into friends.
Longevity through diversity
Maybe the greatest strength of small businesses is how they contribute to the life of a community by providing the lion’s share of commercial diversity. It’s this diversity that helps give a neighborhood, a town, a city, a region, its quirkiness and character and what influential (and prescient) urban activist, theorist, and author Jane Jacobs identified as being not only “an indicator of a vibrant, social place, but also economic vitality.” Although Madrid has lost many small businesses to the global recession in 2008 and to a rent-control scrapping law that took effect in 2015, many still remain, giving Madrid’s neighborhoods their distinct identities and feel. Feel like stepping back to old-school Madrid with stores as specialized as ones dedicated to selling honey or embroidery supplies? Check out the neighborhood of Prosperidad. Need to find a neighborhood with a mixture of old and new restaurants, bars, and shops, but that has more of a residential vibe instead of a touristy one? Head to Chamberi. And while Madrid may not have the level of racial or ethnic diversity that can be found in other, larger cities or in countries more heterogenous than Spain, it does—through it’s diverse small businesses—encourage a diversity of ages and socioeconomic background among its patrons.
Whether I’m waiting in line behind Señora Maria for some jamón serrano from Jesús or behind a group of school kids for some horchata at a local horchatería (a business specializing in horchatas), my patronage at these small businesses is not just feeding my cravings for Spanish food, but also, the soul of the city itself—helping to preserve Madrid’s identity and past, while at the same time, supporting its future.