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Can Responsible Tourism Address Poverty In India Without Reinforcing Tired Clichés?

09/09/2014 14:50 BST | Updated 08/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Our latest 2 minute travel guide is also our most ambitious. How do you coax and cajole the immense nation of India into a short paragraph? How do you summarise the hugely diverse landscapes, people, cultures, cities, towns and villages into an 8 page mini-guide?

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Varanasi. Credit: neverbutterfly

The answer, of course, is you don't. Instead we have picked out individual highlights; underrated experiences which allow tourists to connect with the authentic India, starting points for them to then go off and explore this vast nation. Try walking in the Western Ghats, a lesser-known, mountainous area of Kerala offering a perfect platform for hilly adventures before a backwater and beach break, or heading out of the Golden Triangle and its bustling bazaars into rural India, for local lodgings and homestays. However, when talking about the responsible tourism issues facing India we've had to discuss more generally the issues present across the country. Although varying greatly per region, India's issues are mostly driven by poverty and inequality, and sometimes sheer inefficiency. But is this simply adding to the tired, clichéd conclusion reached by many tourists that India is just full of beggars and thieves?

Responsible tourism can address these issues without reinforcing stereotypes and it can also be the catalyst for change in people's perceptions of India. For tourists to be able to ensure their presence is of benefit to local people, they need to be aware of the issues communities face, and how poverty can drive and exacerbate the negative impacts of tourism. In Kerala, for example, houseboat tourism is one of the biggest sources of income for local people and as such many boats are still polluting the backwaters on a daily basis, the money earned from elephant rides can feed a family for a week, even though the treatment of the animals is unethical and haggling or hassling tourists for money is a quick fix and much easier than setting up a legitimate tourism business.

Tourism will never be the answer to alleviating India's poverty - the country is too big and too complicated for a fix-all solution. However, individuals can create positive change through tourism. Sometimes this can be as simple as just getting off the surprisingly well-trodden tourist trail and spending a day or two somewhere more remote, more untouched. Using local guides, supporting new, responsible enterprises such as backwater kayakers or literary festivals, cycling to villages outside the guidebook pages and eating in family-run restaurants, supporting wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves to give value to keeping the animals alive and out of the reach of poachers. All these are easy to do, will drive change and will increase the areas being supported by tourism and recognised by tourist boards.

Poverty in fact needs to take a backseat in India's tourist activities. Yes, a responsible tourism industry needs to be acutely aware of how it can help support local people, and tourists need to be aware of the impacts they can have, both positive and negative. But poverty itself should not be a reason to travel to India. Tours of slums in Mumbai and other cities are growing in popularity, yet these can be little more than an experience of a human zoo, with residents on the receiving end of the camera lens, but little else. However done well these tours can not only provide an income boost for local communities, as well as highlighting amazing street food, vibrant cultural festivals, talented artists and craftsmen and colourful, bustling and innovative neighbourhoods. It is our responsibility as tourists to discover this side of India and share it, to start changing the tired old clichés and drive change in India itself.

No guide to responsible tourism in India can ignore the underlying issues of poverty and inequality, no matter what the existing stereotypes of the country are. However, what it can do is highlight where and to what extent responsible, well managed tourism can be effective in narrowing gaps in income and support local communities. It can also show how this type of tourism can lead to much more authentic, memorable travel, a deeper connection with local people through homestays and cultural experiences, or a chance to immerse yourself in the hidden corners of a place with the people who love the landscape, wildlife and nature of it most.

Don't let India overwhelm you before you even go, read more about responsible tourism in India, and the inspiring, exciting opportunities for authentic travel in responsibletravel.com's latest 2 minute travel guide: http://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/india