High in the Himalayas, Paras Loomba the CEO, and founder of Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE) is a social entrepreneur providing clean solar energy and livelihood opportunities to remote communities.
Along with electrifying several villages, GHE has also created a community-based tourism program to help women establish homestays and utilises sustainable tourism to provide jobs to local residents, reduce migration, and preserve the traditional culture of the Himalayas.
In this podcast interview, Anula Galewska speaks with Paras Loomba, about electrifying remote villages in India through tourism, engaging with communities and the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Anula: Hello Paras, thank you so much for finding the time. Paras Loomba is the founder of Global Himalayan Expedition, I hope you can tell us more about yourself and the company you are representing.
Paras: Thanks Anula. I am Paras and I am the founder of Global Himalayan Expedition short form GHE. We had started this initiative or a firm in 2013, almost a decade back. It is mainly focused on providing clean energy access to remote mountainous communities of India. And it’s been almost 9 years and here we are electrifying villages through tourism.
Anula: Can you bring us to the beginning of the company? How inspired you to start this initiative?
Paras: I am an electrical engineer, and I am not a tour operator. I have no expertise in tourism and tourism happened to me. In 2012 I went to Antarctica on an International Antarctica Expedition by Robert Swan, and he had led a group of people and I was part of that team. The whole journey to and from Antarctica was an inspiration. I did see some impacts of climate change in Antarctica. I was working on green energy in India anyways and when I came back, I thought why not merge tourism and green technology and see if I can impact the remote communities in India because we were lacking energy access at that time. That’s how we started in 2013 so the inspiration came from Antarctica, from the impact of climate change I saw in Antarctica. I thought in Antarctica there is no civilisation, there are penguins, wildlife, and biodiversity but you don’t have humans from Antarctica. But in the Himalayas, remote indigenous communities are living. The impact of climate change is also coming in this part of the world. And they are migrating as well. So, the idea was can we access these communities, provide them with tangible infrastructures, and then see if we can stop migration and create livelihood opportunities through clean energy and tourism. So that was the basic idea of how we started in 2013.
Anula: Why tourism? There are different ways of reaching the communities and empowering them. Why have you decided to use tourism to empower the communities?
Paras: If I do any social intervention in these remote communities, there must be sustainability to it. I may install a solar microgrid for a community and I did a good job with it. But when I come back to the same community after 5 years, will they be able to maintain it? And to make sure that the community has maintained it there has to be livelihood opportunities. I cannot set up a factory or create industrial jobs in those remote areas. The only best and fastest way job can come in this area is through tourism. So, the tourism-based livelihood opportunities will help the people to maintain this social intervention which we had done like electrification of villages, health centres or schools. They all remain intact when people start earning money, not only they can maintain it but can scale it. That is the reason why tourism was the only and probably the first opportunity which came our way.
Anula: How did people react in the beginning?
Paras: It is difficult to embrace tourism. Because for some people it is fine, and they want to connect to the world. But for some people in the remote areas, they don’t see many people every day and it is difficult to connect. Luckily, we were able to show the positive side of tourism and those communities needed infrastructure. We were able to show the tangible impacts and positive future for the generations to come to the members of the communities. It was not easy, but we were able to convince them of the positive impacts that tourism has in the community.
Anula: Can you also explain some key initiatives so that everyone can understand exactly what you do? Give us an overview of those cool initiatives.
Paras: Basically, we work in 3 different domains.
Impact expedition: We do expeditions that require people to go into remote areas in mountains over 19000 ft. But the idea of an impact expedition is to create a positive impact in a community which must be a tangible impact. It could be providing solar electricity to a village, a school or health post. Anything that brings positive change and development in that area is what impact expeditions are all about. Whatever impact we do, the financing is not done through outside sponsors and tourism acts as a financing mechanism for this opportunity. For example, if I must electrify a village and I know there are 20 people interested in expeditions and want to contribute to these communities. I ask these people to take out 3-5 days to electrify a village and if they are really interested, I tell them they can pay 30% extra of what they are paying for the expedition to help support these communities. With those extra funds we have for the expedition, we buy the material needed for the electrification project, ship the material to the village, traveller reach the village and see those materials. They will be part of the process with GHE and engineers from the community on setting up the project. Even the travellers who have no knowledge of clean energy can contribute to the process with the help of the training we provide them as solar engineers.
Homestays: After the electrification of a village, we go ahead with more opportunities for the village. We set up homestays in these villages like in Ladakh, a part of the silk route where trade used to happen. It has wonderful valleys and old villages with old houses. These houses have 10-15 rooms which are appropriate for using them as homestays. We modify some of the rooms for travellers to stay. And a traveller can pay 20 Dollars a night for food and shelter which is a very good income for that family. So, we create livelihood opportunities for these remote villagers, and we promote these homestays ourselves through booking.com and Airbnb.
Removing carbon from the atmosphere: With these projects of electrifying a village, the use of solar and the removal of kerosene we are removing carbon from the atmosphere. We stop the source of carbon consumption by providing the family with solar light and electricity which stops the use of diesel, kerosene, and fossil fuels. There is a huge amount of carbon exchange market. We try to use smokeless stoves for cooking and the amount of carbon removed from the environment can be exchanged for some credit in the market and the money can be used in these projects.
Anula: Add a little about the education project that you offer.
Paras: Every time we do an expedition we do not go back to the same area. So, every time we need to create new itineraries. So, we need to find a new village and create an impact there. So, we find a local guide, a representative of the community and go with that person to mobilise the community members. We try to convince them to provide them with infrastructure with their contribution such as helping us in the transportation of guests and the materials needed for the project and host the guests with cultural shows. We try to bind the communities so that the change that we make remains intact. So, the first step is to find the village and convince them, create itineraries for that expedition, and estimate the cost for the interested people. We find 20 like-minded people who have clear objectives and clear missions. After the successful electrification of the village, for every 10 villages, we electrify we also set up a local service centre run by local entrepreneurs. We train them to fix any problem that comes with solar grids or panels in the future like changing the panels, batteries, and others. So that way the project runs within the community, and we are out of the picture. We have electrified more than 150 villages and 100 are from Ladakh. 40% of people who got power from us with electricity and the livelihood opportunities created by homestays have been able to invest in TV. Now they have access to information from all around the world. For any intervention, there must be someone to locally manage it. The community should be able to value them and there have been instances where we had no idea about the failure of the grids. And they have come back to their old ways of using kerosene. So, we want to make sure that they get addicted to clean energy and light. Even if there is no light for an hour, we want to make sure they care and get it repaired immediately.
Anula: What are some principles when you enter any village to engage the local communities?
Paras: Any community we want to engage in we try to find a local leader who knows the local language and who they can trust. I will take a local person with me and introduce him to the project. After he is convinced, we go to the village and mobilise them. We answer all their questions and make sure they know what we are coming with.
We go with some solar panels and batteries, and we demonstrate our project. We show them this is what we are going to give you and you will have to contribute to the form of kinds.
Pull models where they want to know when the project will start. We let them know when we will start as the expedition also depends on other external factors.
We try to find a local future leader from the community, a local changemaker. We train them to be local leaders and entrepreneurs, the ones who will support us and are interested in the project.
We go in, train them, and pass them the responsibilities and we move on. We don’t want to intervene in their way of life. We don’t give them the internet to access Facebook and Twitter. We give them basic human rights. Right to electricity, clean water, health care access.
Anula: How has the COVID crisis impacted the communities?
Paras: The expedition has stopped in the last 2 years. The group tours are difficult due to covid. We have taken more than 1500 travellers from more than 63 countries around the world. Most of them have come to experience the change and some have come to learn these things and imply in their own countries as well. We are trying to create a chain of change-makers. Luckily, we were able to source some Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds and we were still able to do some ground activates, do some electrification. We started a new thing of electrifying health centres as safety is of big concern now. We provide the health centre with electricity and medical equipment in the same village we worked in before. Our homestays however have taken off because the lockdown opened in June in India. We had lots of domestic tourism and it was overcrowded but we were able to manage it online. At the end of the day, ownership and entrepreneurship is good but if you try to promote the communities then you are also responsible for the impacts that tourism can have in those communities.
So, there should be a balance in promotion as well. We don’t decide to bring development in those areas. We have no right to decide for them, we present our ideas and if they want change, we bring change. We are enablers and facilitators. The rest follows automatically.
Anula: Is there any training or code of conduct for the tourist to behave in these villages?
Paras: We launch our expedition 8 months in advance and train the people coming on the expedition 3 months in advance. We also inform the locals 3 months in advance so that they are mentally ready. We tell them to live their simple ways of life like they always do when tourists come. So, the experience is real for both tourists and the locals. We do multiple webinars for sensitising our travellers, the way they are approaching, and the history of that area. So, the travellers and villagers are both ready for each other in advance. We also tell the locals ‘Do not think travellers who are giving you light as gods or as some superior humans, we are all equals. We are here for collaboration.’ So, we make sure we follow the SDG goals of equality by creating an equal status for travellers and the locals. They are interpreters who help in the project to break the language barrier. Hence, the bond between the travellers and tourists just happens while working with good intent.
Anula: How does the booking work for the homestays?
Paras: Assuming 80% of the villages are tourist destinations we invest in the material needed for homestays. We select the house and train the house owners to run the homestays and host the guests. We provide them with hospitality training and materials needed like cutleries and mattresses. A traveller needs three things, good food, a good place to sleep and a good place to take his leaks. We have 70 homestays in Ladakh and most of them are online. When a booking comes, we have 2-3 days to respond, and we ask the house owner first if they are interested in hosting. We make sure the safety regulation for COVID is fulfilled with the cleaning and sanitisation of homestays and leaving 2 days gap in the booking. We are a combination of agent and on-ground company as we train, implement, and promote homestays. We also look if there is an equal income distribution in the community and make sure the best host gets rewarded. We look at the reviews and feedback from the travellers and decide on which homestay should get rewarded so the others can also get inspired from them. We also try our best to control tourism in those areas by educating the villagers about the good and bad aspects of tourism.
Anula: Where do you get all these clients who are environmentally and socially driven?
Paras: It takes a lot of time to talk to the guests and convert them. We let them know about our initiatives and create awareness about where they are going and what they are getting into. Not every guest is very receptive to understanding sustainability. We also suggest that the guests find other options for their stay if they are not interested in our homestays. It’s not a feasible business idea but it helps us create guidelines for future automation.
Anula: Are travellers willing to pay more just for the impact?
Paras: Absolutely, post-COVID the travellers have had different mindsets altogether. They want to enjoy themselves when they go out as life has become unpredictable. We have amazing homestays where there is astral tourism. We have trained local women of the village to use telescopes and let the guests enjoy the night sky. There have been issues, but the important thing is their experience. Everyone is concerned about sustainability and embraces it.
Anula: Is everything included in the price of the homestays, the additional service that you talked about? Is there separate funding to set up a homestay?
Paras: To set up the homestays we combine the CSR funding and the profit we have made through the expedition. earlier. We don’t have a big team or a small group of people like a family. I am not here to make billions of dollars; I am here to impact billions of lives. We try whatever sources we can find. We also make sure that the homestay owner contributes financially, whatever he can to make sure he feels value in those things. We try to keep revolving the money here and there.
Anula: What is the secret to finding and building a strong team?
Paras: The important thing is to find people with diverse viewpoints. If you take similar kinds of people who will say yes to everything you say, it’s not the right team. I want people who want to confront and debate me. Diversity is a strength in a team. Teamwork is dreamwork. Everyone here is motivated by the same theme that we may be a small company in India, but the kind of leadership we have shown, how we have mitigated climate change with tourism and the impacts that we have done practically on the ground inspire us daily. For us members who are diverse, with missions and members who are young are important.
Anula: What has the COVID crisis taught you?
Paras: Future is very unknown, but it is not gloomy. It has taught us to be resilient and patient enough. It has taught us to enjoy small things in life and we have tried to incorporate that in our travel itineraries and the real human connection which was lost initially. Post-COVID the travel and hospitality sector will be closer with issues of climate change and how one can help each other. Community tourism will be a big thing going forward. Point and shoot travel will be replaced by experiential travel. And the new generation will take over and transform tourism. We are an open-source company, so we are happy to help and collaborate with anyone who is interested.
Anula: What is your advice for those tour operators and businesses who want to start and do good in the travel industry?
Paras: Understanding sustainability is important. All our expeditions are climate positive. The main point is to create an impact in the community. Even in luxury tourism, all the tourism operators can embrace a few points of sustainability like avoiding plastics, try, and using electric vehicles, trying to do more trekking than going forward with vehicles, planting trees and other things. There is so much information, and these operators can just pick and choose what to do. Tourists will love it and pay for it. just because they feel what they were doing is good for the community they will pay that extra amount. He should not be carrying guilt and experimenting with these initiatives will do no harm. We must believe that travellers are educated, and they want to do more. Anything can happen if you want to make it happen.
To learn more about Global Himalayan Expedition, visit them via:
Paras Loomba is the founder of Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE) and has led several leadership expeditions to the Himalayas in order to provide clean energy access to remote Himalayan communities. An electrical engineer by profession, Paras merges technology and tourism with an approach to create local entrepreneurial models for remote areas advocating sustainable tourism solutions. Paras is a 2012 International Antarctic Expedition member and part of WTTC’s jury for Tomorrow for Tourism Awards.