Rural Tourism Project Inception Workshop, New Delhi and Dehradun, November 2019

Inception Workshop for the Rural Tourism based Social Enterprise Project for Sustainable Development and Gender Empowerment in South Asia
New Delhi and Dehradun/ Jadipani (Uttarakhand), November 25-28 2019

SWAN Delegates during workshop in Tehri Chamba, Uttrakhand Sunil Binjola

Among the flagship projects of the South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN) is the Rural Tourism based Social Enterprise Project for Sustainable Development and Gender Empowerment in South Asia.  SWAN is deeply grateful to Tata Trusts for their support in convening the Inception Workshop for this unique project.

Vision Statement : Tourism is a natural avenue for revenue generation across South Asia. It is also the most instinctive and successful way to bring the peoples of South Asia closer to each other. Ecotourism is environmentally responsible tourism. It inculcates respect for different cultures and sub-cultures, and is essential for sustainable development of regions and people. SWAN emphasizes the vital role of ecotourism for integrating women into the process of sustainable development. Women play a central role in rural communities in executing agricultural processes (from sowing to harvesting), in crafts and textiles, waste management, arts and music, cuisine and hospitality, preservation of the environment and culture, and inculcating traditional values in the next generation. All these are core values for the development of ecotourism. By making local communities the principal beneficiaries in ecotourism projects, the aspect of gender empowerment for the women in these communities receives the highest priority. Ecotourism becomes the vehicle for skills, livelihood and sustainable development for the women of South Asia. Creating an e-portal to develop rural tourism will enhance knowledge and bring the women of South Asia closer to each other.
Project Background : The South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN) started work on this project in 2014. On the eve of SWAN’s Sixth Annual Conference, held in Thimphu in August/ September 2014, the Tourism Council of Bhutan and SWAN co-organized the Special Workshop on “Ecotourism for Sustainable Development and Gender Empowerment in South Asia”. The Ecotourism Society of India was the facilitator for the Workshop. The Workshop particularly emphasized the need to ensure the centrality of women’s agency, voice, participation and leadership in every activity of the village-based micro and small enterprises that form the core of sustainable tourism development in the rural sector. The very nature of the rural tourism value chain encompasses within itself sub-sectors like handicrafts, textiles, arts and music, home-stay management, cuisine, culture, organic farming, water and waste management, and the promotion of agro-products, including horticulture. These are predominantly women-centric sectors, the development of which would yield viable and sustainable ecotourism entities, while ensuring gender empowerment for the women directly involved.
SWAN’s Sixth Annual Conference in Thimphu endorsed the Workshop’s decisions and agreed to develop a rural tourism based social enterprise project with the focus on empowering the women of South Asia. The process of project formulation was completed by April 2016. Himmotthan Society, Dehradun, has been the lead agency, with the key central role in project conceptualization and formulation, in coordination with SWAN and through the active participation of eight countries. The eight participating countries have identified sites in their respective countries for development of rural tourism. These are :

  • In India, one site in Uttarakhand, at Jadipani, Chamba, Tehri district
  • In Bangladesh, seven Khasi villages in Sylhet district and four villages in Tangail district;   
  • In Afghanistan, four areas, including Kabul, for developing ecotourism-oriented capacity building of women;
  • In Bhutan two villages each in two southern districts, Dagana and Tsirang;
  • In Maldives, two island atolls, respectively in the north and south of the country;
  • In Nepal,six districts (Rasuwa, Nuwakot, Sindupalchowk, Kavrepalanchowk, Makwanpur and Kathmandu valley), principally those areas that were worst-affected by the 2015 earthquake, for rehabilitation of women through rural-tourism activities;
  • In Pakistan, one site in Cholistan (Punjab) and another in Nathia Gali (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa);
  • In Sri Lanka, one site in Hikkaduwa (Galle district) for women-centric ecotourism development.
    The principal objectives of this project are
  • Gender empowerment through the involvement of women and their families in the development of rural tourism enterprises in the identified locations across eight countries. The project aims at harnessing the latent potential of rural tourism as a powerful tool for gender empowerment and community development;
  • To build a network of tourism destinations across South Asia, to be connected by the e-portal, so that they can be effectively marketed as tourism products, thereby promoting entrepreneurship development among women, and year-round employment opportunities in rural areas. The e-portal is vital to establish the all-important market connect between the participating countries of South Asia aimed at strengthening tourism business linkages, cross-exchange of experiences and best practices in rural tourism among these countries;
  • To establish and strengthen associated services with the objective of spreading the benefits associated with rural tourism, with the focus on empowering women. The capacity building for service providers in rural tourism associated areas includes farm and off-farm based activities such as agro-based industries, the handicrafts sector, preservation of traditional knowledge, including in medicine and the performing arts, local cuisine, management of home stays, nature guides, organic agriculture, water and waste management, and related adaptation and mitigation strategies to combat climate change. The focus here includes business development services to provide hands on inputs to help the rural tourism entity members develop business plans for sustainable tourism centered enterprises, and travel agency operations for marketing and promotion of tourism products.
    The project leverages the activities that rural women are already engaged in and familiar with (agriculture, cuisine, traditional knowledge and traditional crafts, household care) into rural tourism based social enterprises. This critical factor (traditional familiarity with the activities involved in the rural tourism social enterprise project) considerably facilitates the process of leadership development and capacity building, both of which are essential for the success of the project, thereby strengthening its sustainability. With closely monitored implementation, including networked marketing, the project can reach self-sustainability at the end of three years.
    In April 2016, Himmotthan Society coordinated the submission of this project for financial support to the SAARC Development Fund (SDF), Thimphu.  However, despite continuing discussions with SDF, and several re-submissions incorporating responses to comments received from SDF, the financial approval has not been forthcoming.At SWAN’s Tenth Annual Conference in New Delhi (31 August to 2nd September 2019) SWAN’s rural tourism project was reviewed in informal discussions. During the Valedictory Session, several speakers requested efforts to revive and re-start the project. Indeed, the participating institutions from India and Sri Lanka have independently started work on their respective rural tourism projects. This is why, with the support of Tata Trusts, this Inception Workshop has been convened.
    The UN ESCAP South and South West Asia Regional Office (SSWAO) in New Delhi has in June 2019 launched their three year project on E-Commerce Capacity Building for Women-Led MSMEs (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises) in South Asia. The focus of this project is on capacity building to enhance the knowledge and capability of SME women entrepreneurs in the application of e-commerce platforms to expand their business and participate in local, regional and global supply chains. The project includes setting up an online e-commerce platform dedicated uniquely for use by the women of South Asia. This project is expected to benefit around 500 to 700 women entrepreneurs from the goods and services sectors.  
    SWAN participated in the Inception Workshop for the launch of the UN ESCAP SSWAO project, held in Kathmandu in September 2019. SWAN Founding Trustee has proposed the collaboration with UN ESCAP SSWAO for capacity building followed by the launch of a regional e-commerce platform, an e-portal, dedicated to women-led rural tourism enterprises across South Asia
    The UN ESCAP SSWAO, New Delhi’s active participation in the SWAN Rural Tourism project Inception Workshop, in the Inaugural Session, followed by the Brainstorming, augurs well for a potentially fruitful collaboration with SWAN. 
    Among the path-breaking issues taken up at the SWAN Rural Tourism project Inception Workshop was that of Certification for Ecotourism. Our SWAN colleague, Ms Seema Bhatt, National NRM and Biodiversity Expert, UN FAO (New Delhi), and Hony Vice President of the Ecotourism Society of India, made the Key-note presentation on this subject at the Inaugural Session. The rapid growth of ecotourism businesses, including rural tourism, has brought with it the practice of ‘green washing’ where tourism enterprises present themselves as ‘green’, ‘ecologically friendly’, or ‘responsible’, with no benchmark to measure or establish the veracity of these claims. It is vital to prevent such unethical practices by setting standards for best practices and then, developing and implementing a certification scheme. Certification for ecotourism can be viewed as a tool that helps promote social equity and a sustainable environment. Certification adds credibility to an enterprise and ensures the professional nature of the initiative. This also provides an opportunity for self-evaluation and subsequent improvement of operating standards.The principal anticipated outcomes of the SWAN Rural Tourism project are :
  • Empowerment of rural women through gender mainstreaming in rural tourism-based social enterprises.
  • Across South Asia, rural women are among the most disenfranchised and marginalized groups in society. Their substantial and irreplaceable contribution to the rural economy, in agriculture, in traditional crafts and homestead related activities remains essentially unevaluated and excluded from GDP estimates. The SWAN Rural Tourism project will correct this by monetizing a significant part of their activities through the development of rural tourism based social enterprises.
  • The women-centric development of rural tourism based social enterprises will contribute substantially to employment generation and skills development, with a positive ripple effect far beyond the areas where these are based. The proposed e-commerce platform is an important example of the transformative changes that are being planned.
  • Rural tourism generates home-grown and home-based entrepreneurship opportunities in a wide range of sectors. Entrepreneurship and leadership development among rural women through the sharp increase in the number of women-led, women-owned and women-managed rural tourism enterprises is vital for gender empowerment;
  • Community development leading to rural prosperity with achievement of SDG targets. Rural tourism enterprises contribute to infrastructure development for resident communities, through encouraging Improved facilities for roads, water supply, health facilities, electricity, and communications. Rural tourism projects can have built-in support for conservation measures, including adaptation and mitigation strategies, and social education processes for meeting the challenges of malnutrition, among other issues.

The Inception Workshop : The program for SWAN’s Rural Tourism project Inception Workshop and the List of Participants are at Annexures I and II below.

SWAN Delegates at Tehri During workshop By Sunil Binjola-
SWAN Delegates at Chamba, Uttrakhand during workshop

The Inception Workshop was structured with three components. First, the opportunity for the project participants to meet the project partners, principally the leadership of Tata Trusts and the UN ESCAP SSWAO. Tata Trusts has supported the Workshop, and the Tata Trusts Rural Tourism team has shared with the delegates from South Asia the experience and success achieved by Himmotthan Society, Dehradun, in their rural tourism project in Jadipani, Chamba, Tehri district, Uttarakhand. UN ESCAP SSWAO, New Delhi sees great potential in working towards an e-portal for the South Asia region through SWAN’s women-led rural tourism project. The second component was the Brainstorming Session, where each participant from South Asia explained their respective projects, and put forward their suggestions for the implementation of the project. The third component was the visit to the Jadipani Ecotourism Custer, planned and supported by the Tata Trusts Rural Tourism team and their field group at Himmotthan Society, Dehradun.

Day 1 : The Inaugural Session. Ms Veena Sikri, Founding Trustee & Convener, South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN), welcomed the dignitaries and delegates. She warmly thanked Tata Trusts for supporting this Workshop. She explained the details of the project background, and SWAN’s vision for implementing the project, including the e-commerce platform, and the proposed work on the certification for ecotourism.
Dr Nagesh Kumar, Director and Head, UN ESCAP SSWAO, New Delhi, explained the rationale behind the E-Commerce project launched recently by UN ESCAP SSWAO, targeting capacity building among women-led MSMEs. Gender empowerment is vital for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and this project brings together ICT (Information and Communication Technology) and women’s entrepreneurship for empowerment and increasing the female labor force partnership rate. Dr Nagesh Kumar highlighted that in the context of rural tourism, the e-portal c a serious sustained effort which is necessary to attract domestic and international visitors to the ecotourism projects throughout the year. Once the proposed e-portal is up and running, it will provide the vital impetus to manage ecotourism projects with viably and sustainably.
Ms Shireen Vakil, Head Policy and Advocacy, Tata Trusts, delivered the Inaugural Address. She highlighted the commitment of Tata Trusts to gender equality and gender empowerment in all the work they do. The sector of rural tourism receives particularly high priority in Tata Trusts because it combines the three vital elements of livelihood development, women, and the rural non-urban sectors. Ms Shireen Vakil expressed her satisfaction that Himmotthan Society, Dehradun, a Tata Trusts enterprise, is collaborating with the SWAN delegates from South Asia while showcasing their developmental work through the ecotourism cluster in Jadipani, Tehri District, Uttarakhand.
Ms Seema Bhatt, National NRM and Biodiversity Expert, UN FAO (New Delhi), and Honorary Vice President, Ecotourism Society of India, New Delhi, gave the Keynote Address on Setting Standards for Ecotourism. She emphasized that setting standards for the emerging ecotourism industry is vital. The eminently reasonable route for doing this is to create a certification procedure, that would first set criteria (management, social, cultural and environmental, among others), and then assess, audit and give written assurances that a facility or the service provided meets specific standards. This (certification procedure) is important for ensuring that the ecotourism industry in South Asia meets international standards. This would lend credibility to tour operators and to local community-based tourism initiatives, and would ensure that the ecological impact from the development of ecotourism is monitored. Equally important, this would help tourists make informed choices. Two significant certification procedures being used across the globe, including India, are the ECOTEL and the GREEN GLOBE programs. The Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC) and indicators have been developed, with 37 criteria. In August 2014, the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, launched the Sustainable Tourism Criteria for India (STCI). All personnel working in the field of rural tourism should receive periodic training in keeping with their role, whether in management, or in environmental issues (reducing pollution, waste management, water conservation, conserving bio-diversity), in socio-cultural issues, or dealing with health, safety practices, and hospitality in general, including reasonable pricing and specific standards of cleanliness. There is the process of ensuring and measuring customer satisfaction, and taking corrective action, where appropriate. It should be ensured that design of home-stays follows traditional architecture, and that the information circulated to visitors about local cultural heritage and natural surroundings is accurate. There is a Code of Conduct for visiting tourists as well, and this should be carefully explained through a Note placed in each room. Ecotourism should maximize socio-economic benefits to the local community and minimize negative impact. Ms Seema Bhatt recommended that the participating countries of South Asia should coordinate on (a) relevant and appropriate ecotourism policies that should be followed, including coordinated and/ or collective formulation of the certification process; (b) this could begin with a review of the existing ecotourism policies or guidelines in each country, with a documentation of good case studies and best practices; and (c) setting up an e-portal even in the early stages of the project, will be valuable for quicker communication and improved sharing of experiences.
The Brainstorming Session, held immediately after the Inaugural Session,  was co-chaired by Veena Sikri and Rajan Sudesh Ratna, Economic Affairs Officer, UN ESCAP SSWAO, New Delhi.

Mr Rajan Sudesh Ratna began by presenting a synopsis of the UN ESCAP SSWAO project on E-Commerce Capacity Building for Women-Led SMEs in South Asia.  This three-year project, which began in June 2019, covers the countries of South Asia, with special focus on the LDC members, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. The project aims to strengthen the capacity of women-led micro, small and medium enterprises in the application of e-commerce platforms to expand their business and participate in global, regional and global supply chains. The women would be given basic and advanced training. The e-commerce platform will be registered for them, the performance of the platform will be monitored and free on-line support will be provided. Participants will be trained on how to create profiles of their products/ services, and how to interact with other e-commerce platforms in the process of developing business. It is expected that about 500 to 700 women entrepreneurs from MSMEs will benefit from this project. The outcome and knowledge products will be linked to another UN ESCAP project on Catalyzing Women’s Entrepreneurship : Creating a Gender-responsive  Entrepreneurial Ecosystem. UN ESCAP SSWAO is looking for partners who can support them in organizing the trainings, use the knowledge products and assist in their dissemination. UN ESCAP SSWAO will bring the training experts and train the women entrepreneurs in cluster-towns, if the local partner provides training venue and local support.

 Veena Sikri, Founding Trustee & Convener, South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN), while thanking Rajan Sudesh Ratna for his detailed presentation, expressed the keen interest of SWAN for partnering with UN ESCAP SSWAO in this project. SWAN’s Rural Tourism Project fits in most uniquely and naturally with the requirements of the UN ESCAP SSWAO project. SWAN is willing to provide and fulfill all the requirements of local partner, and to work closely with UN ESCAP SSWAO, New Delhi in order to ensure capacity building for the women-led rural tourism enterprises. 

Veena Sikri invited each of the county delegates to describe their respective Rural Tourism projects.  

Ecotourism in Afghanistan : Waiting to Happen by Zulaikha Rafiq, Independent Consultant, & Executive Director, Be The Change Organisation (BTCO), Kabul. Afghanistan has all the ingredients for ecotourism development, including rugged mountains and lush valleys, rich civilizational culture and lifestyle, agricultural traditions and strongly rural environment, women-led cottage industries which included naan-making and other aspects of cuisine, crafts, textiles and embroidery traditions. It is the volatile, violence- related instability that has prevented the development of tourism in any form, including ecotourism. Nonetheless, as part of SWAN’s rural tourism project, the BTCO has selected four areas, including Kabul, for developing ecotourism-oriented capacity building of women. We envisage activities that will be home-based, involving skilling and scaling up the traditional home-based activities women of Afghanistan are involved in. That is why we strongly support capacity building through the e-commerce platform, the e-portal, which will connect the women of South Asia through rural tourism.

Socio-economic Development of Bangladesh Through Ecotourism by Ms Rokia Rahman, President, Bangladesh Federation of Women Entrepreneurs (BFWE), Dhaka, and
Ms Farida Akhter, Executive Director, UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternatives), Dhaka
The Bangladesh team for SWAN’s rural tourism project has selected two areas, seven Khasi villages in Sylhet district and four villages in Tangail district.
The Khasis are among the most vulnerable tribal communities of Bangladesh. Their unique traditional heritage, be it in architecture, cuisine, music, dance or dress, is fast disappearing because of poverty, migration, influence of western culture, and lack of opportunities to preserve these traditions. Women play a uniquely important role in this matrilineal society. Today, most Khasi villages are located in remote areas, with no access to electricity. Water scarcity is another major challenge for the community. Women collect water from long distance and carry it manually back to their homes. With the objective of reviving the Khasi traditional way of life while bringing in socio-economic prosperity, the Khasi Community Development Proposal has been prepared. This includes interventions for revival of culture and heritage, development of ecotourism, ensuring drinking water supply, sustainable lighting and irrigation. Plans have been drawn up for designing an eco-tourism hub, and for using solar energy for ensuring drinking water and irrigation. Electricity will be made accessible through solar lanterns. The e-commerce platform will greatly benefit the Khasi community through reaching out across South Asia and globally.

The four villages selected in Tangail district (Upazila Delduar) are Hinganagar for Shitalpati (mat making) and agriculture, Pathrail Kormokarpara for weaving (Tangail Nakshibuti), Gorasin for biodiversity based farming, and Gomjani for pottery. The Ajiyer Community Based Tourism Village has been developed. A Nayakrishi Andolan (New Agricultural Movement) is being developed for biodiversity based farming which includes livelihood strategies for women’s empowerment, the Community Seed Wealth centers (CSW) with seed huts for organic seed preservation (women are the seed-keepers), home stays that include engaging with local artisans and farmers, cultural and cuisine festivals, like the Shak Festival on Chaitra Sangkranti where 14 different types of shak (herbs and leafy vegetables) are cooked. Tangail is fairly close to Dhaka : 100 km or three hours by road. This biodiversity based ecotourism project targets young visitors from among the city-dwellers to create in them the interest and knowledge about the vital need to preserve the environment for universal benefit and prosperity. Visitors are also familiarized with traditional community based cultural practices like Shong Jatra and Kirton.  

Bangladesh has major laws and regulations related to tourism, and the National Environment Policy of 2018 has six policy guidelines to promote ecotourism. An Action Plan has been introduced to achieve the SDGs and popularize ecotourism. The delegates from Bangladesh felt that introducing the concepts of certification and setting standards for ecotourism are vital, and SWAN should take a strong initiative on this. The UNESCAP SSWAO proposal for capacity building for e-commerce and setting up an e-portal will give a significant boost to the success of the two proposed rural tourism projects in Bangladesh, especially through market access.
Sustainable Tourism as a Catalyst for Rural Transformation by Mridula Tangirala, Head Tourism Tata Trusts, New Delhi. Sustainable tourism occupies a special place in the Tata Trusts’ Rural Upliftment Portfolio. The vision for the Tata Trusts’ Tourism portfolio is to pilot a scalable, responsible and sustainable community-led tourism model, with the focus on women-led community tourism, that organizes the community around the conservation of local, natural and cultural assets, and attracts visitors and institutions through innovation and a market-led approach. Among the key principles is using a cluster-based approach to develop high quality, unique experiential offerings to the visitor. In the State of Uttarakhand, under the leadership of Himmotthan Society, Dehradun, Tata Trusts has developed a pilot ecotourism project at Jadipani, where in a cluster of 15 villages, around 700 women from 70 Self Help Groups (SHGs) have formed the Him Vikas Self-Reliant Cooperative (HVSRC). The five step approach they have followed is Step 1 : Find the Narrative (research local resources and evaluate options); Step 2 : Design the Tourism Offering (Hardware design and Software design); Step 3 : Attract the Right Market (identify target customer); Step 4 : Galvanize Skills (Building Local skills and mobilizing External skills); Step 5 : Engagement Framework (establish standard operating procedures).

In Jadipani, Tata Trusts has been present for 15 years through Himmotthan Society, Dehradun. Working with the HVSRC, Step 1 has included water (rain-water harvesting, solar powered lift drinking water scheme, spring-shed rejuvenation, afforestation, reviving cultural traditions, waste management). In Step 2, for attracting a wide range of tourists, they have connected with two local schools, motivating them to participate in activities like the water knowledge hub, the community camp-site, the forest trails, and the cleanliness drives (waste management0, and the local food heritage. This has helped greatly in Step 3, attracting the right combination of tourists, the right market, including educational institutions, NGOs, tourists’ groups, special interest groups and so on.  Step 4, galvanizing skills, will greatly benefit from the establishment of an e-commerce platform, which would help HVSRC with connectivity with each other and market access.

Community Based Tourism in Maldives by Dr Maryam Shakeela, Former Cabinet Minister, Chairperson, AWA (Addu Women’s Association), CEO, SIMDI Group of Companies, Male. In Maldives, the Addu Women’s Association (AWA) is coordinating the planning and implementation of SWAN’s Rural Tourism project. Tourism and fisheries are the largest contributors to the GDP of Maldives. Eco-tourism is among the fastest growing segments in tourism, around 10 to 15% annually. The AWA Sustainable Tourism Project, headquartered in Addu City, has two components, working with the Ekasdhoo Island management, and the Goidhoo island Council. The vision is to develop model eco-tourism sites in the Maldives, in order to foster a sustainable environment and encourage conservation of the natural and cultural environment through partnerships with the local community. The objective is to offer visitors unique and exciting opportunities to experience traditional living, local cuisines and tourism experiences that inculcate an appreciation of natural and cultural heritage; and to encourage the wider use of sustainable technologies and realize the tourism potential through sustainable economic development following best practice principles. In Ekasdhoo, the proposal includes wetland and lake conservation, creating awareness through educational materials, women-led agro-tourism and farming enterprises, and development of local cuisine and crafts. In Goidhoo island, the ecotourism proposal includes development of an eco park for activities such as making paper from sea grass and leafy waste, revival of traditional handicrafts, educating visitors and the locals on Addu Atoll’s culture, traditions and history, establishing theatre and art classes in Addu School, so that a theatre group can be formed, and building into all this, important messaging with the aim of changing mind-sets on gender sensitive issues, and creating income generating activities for women and girls. In view of the very specific geographic constraints in the Maldives, the online e-commerce platform will be of great value for the development of sustainable ecotourism. 

Eco-Tourism in Nepal
by Yankila Sherpa, Vice President, T-HELP (Trans-Himalayan Environment Livelihood Program Nepal) Kathmandu. Tourism has always been a major industry in Nepal, but now, Sustainable Tourism is the new paradigm for the development of tourism. Sustainable Tourism includes eco-tourism, community-based tourism, and rural village-based tourism, with home-stays and the development of handicrafts, cultural and agro-products. Since 71 % of Nepalese population lives in villages, there can be no sustainable development in Nepal without the development of rural areas. Rural tourism has the potential to contribute strongly to the overall harmonious development of the country, provided it maintains the right focus through being women-led, and ensuring conservation of all key environmental resources such as water, soil, waste management and agriculture. 

Among the big success stories in ecotourism is the village of Sirubari, Syangja district, south-west of Pokhara.  It is popular since in Sirubari, the first village model was introduced together with the concept of community forest/ nursery. The Sirubari Tourism Development and Management Committee has been created as a public-private partnership, with clear financial and other sustainable benefits to the local community. However, there are constraints, such as lack of joint marketing and inadequate resources to use marketing tools. The proposed online e-commerce platform will be very important for the future success of the Sirubari model.

Gender Empowerment Through Ecotourism by Ms Chanda Malla, on behalf of Ms Ambica Shrestha, President of Business and Professional Women BPW Nepal), Kathmandu. The BPW Nepal was established in 1975 and has been a member of BPW International since 1985. BPW Nepal has established a Business Service Center and 13 Chapters in 13 districts. BPW Nepal focuses on entrepreneurship development and provides a comprehensive service package to women-led enterprises, including technical training, product development and marketing. They have worked in areas like IT, jewelry, organic farming, and natural dyes. They have now actively taken up the program on Gender Empowerment Through Ecotourism, centred around Nuwakot, a place of historic significance, center of attraction for tourists, showcasing unique culture & lifestyles, situated in close proximity to the Langtang Himalayan Range. BPW Nepal has established a good network/ partnership with the Nuwakot community. Training has started in organic farming in partnership with Tarayana Foundation of Bhutan. Training has also started to promote coffee farming. Baseline survey has been conducted on food and nutrition to find out/ establish the degree of nutritional gap among lactating and pregnant women. BPW Nepal is a keen participant in the SWAN Rural Tourism Project. The online e-commerce platform, with capacity building for women leaders from Nuwakot, will be of great value in carrying forward the work already started by BPW, Nepal.

Building Capacity of Women-Led Rural Eco-Tourism Entrepreneurs Through E-Commerce in Nepal by Deepak Tamang, Chief Executive Officer, SEARCH-Nepal, Kathmandu. Deepak explained that the SWAN Nepal Chapter had participated in full strength and with great enthusiasm in the National Inception Workshop organized by UN ESCAP SSWAO in Kathmandu on 11-12 September 2019 for their project on E-Commerce Capacity Building for Women-Led SMEs in South Asia.  The participants from Nepal included SEARCH-Nepal (SN), Shtrii Shakti (S2), Himalayan Snow Lion Trekking Foundation (HSLT), Nepal Business and Professional Women (NBPW), and T-Help (Trans-Himalayan Environment Livelihood Program Nepal). The SWAN Nepal Chapter as a group would like to collectively work with UN ESCAP SSWAO in Nepal in order to promote e-commerce, in full implementation of their project. This could be just for the Nepal SWAN Chapter, or with the participation of the SWAN Rural Tourism project representatives from other South Asian countries as well. The modus operandi can be a two pronged strategy. The first part is the Trainers’ Training (ToT) of women entrepreneurs who are operating rural tourism projects in Nepal (and other SWAN countries). In this phase, at least two digitally literate women entrepreneurs will be identified from each of the rural tourism projects (in Nepal and other countries). Each of the rural tourism units should be registered and functional. The identified women would participate in the Training Courses (beginners and advanced) being proposed by UN ESCAP SSWAO, New Delhi. The trained trainers will then ensure that the “spillover effect” takes place by training other digitally literate women entrepreneurs in e-commerce in their respective areas of intervention. In the second part, as soon as the training process is complete, the e-commerce platform can be initiated, both to facilitate communication among the individual participants in the SWAN project, for sharing knowledge and best practices, as well as for market access.  

The Hikkaduwa Ecotourism Project in Galle District, Sri Lanka, by Mr Palitha Gurusinghe, President, Sri Lanka Ecotourism Federation (SLEF), Colombo. After the 2014 Ecotourism Workshop held in Thimpu and the subsequent decision of SWAN’s Sixth Annual Conference in Thimphu to start work on formulating the Rural Toursm project, the Sri Lanka team was fully convinced, motivated and enthusiastic about the importance of ecotourism in empowering women in Sri Lanka. Immediately on return to Colombo, we embarked on conceptualizing the  Ecotourism Project in Sri Lanka.  This is probably the first women-centric Ecotourism Project ever to be initiated in Sri Lanka. By December 2015, we completed our project formulation, and sent the proposal to SWAN and Himmotthan Society, Dehradun, along with the detailed budget. Although we have yet to receive any funding from SWAN or the SAARC Development Fund (SDF), already in 2016, we initiated all basic activities of the Hikkaduwa Ecotourism Project. SWAN delegate and former leading Sri Lanka banker Madame Rohini Nanayakara and Sri Lanka Ecotourism Foundation contributed approximately Sri Lanka Rs.5 million so that the project could take off. Madame, Nanayakara contributed Rs 4 Million and the SLEF Rs 1 million. Currently, we have secured a Bank Loan of Sri Lanka Rs.5 million from the Bank of Ceylon. The Heritage Bungalow identified for locating the Hikkaduwa Ecotourism Project is being renovated. The Hikkaduwa Ecotourism Project was formally inaugurated on 2nd March 2018. As a conservative estimate, the number of direct beneficiaries of this project are 450 women from 350 households. Currently, every effort is underway for the restoration, development and promotion of the Hikkaduwa heritage building as the centre for off-beat tourist destination. Among the activities being developed are home-stays, village walks, handicrafts, marine ecotourism, cinnamon trail, camping, Sri Lanka cuisine, river boat tours for mangrove watching, canoeing, bird watching, and coir rope-weaving. The Hikkaduwa Ecotourism Project urgently needs capacity building to scale up its activities and continued funding suport. The proposed e-commerce platform will provide a vital boost through capacity building, dissemination of information about the project, and market access. Certification for Homestays and Setting Standards for Ecotourism are equally important to ensure the viability and sustainability of each ecotourism project.

Days 2 and 3 : On 26 November, 2019, with the support of Tata Trusts, the SWAN delegates visited the Jadipani Ecotourism Cluster (near Dehradun) being developed by Himmotthan Society, a Tata Trusts initiative. For the SWAN delegates from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, this was the highlight and the most valuable part of the SWAN Rural Tourism project Inception Workshop. This visit to Jadipani had three components.
The first component was the detailed briefing from Ms Mridula Tangirala (Head, Tourism, Tata Trusts) and Mr Sanjay Bahti (Himmotthan Society, Dehradun) on the objectives, structure and functioning of the Jadipani Ecotourism Cluster. They explained that Tata Trusts has been active in Jadipani through their associate organization Himmotthan Society for 15 years, working with around 700 women from 15 villages. More than 70 SHGs (Self Help Groups) have come together to form the Him Vikas Self-Reliant Co-operative (HVSRC). Micro finance  facilities are being extended to about 125 families. Over these years Himmotthan Society, working collaboratively with the Uttarakhand State Government, has tried out several sectors of activity for livelihood development and gender empowerment for the women of this region. Initially horticulture was visualized as a viable avenue for income generation. Given the prevailing challenges that emerged, livestock rearing (goat and buffalo) was added as another viable solution for quick income generation. After this, Himmothan created and worked with women’s SHGs by mobilizing business interventions in several areas, such as micro-diary (dairy milk production is high in winter but consumption is low), vegetable growing and fodder collection.

At this stage, rural tourism or ecotourism came in as a side business, as a totally new intervention. Home stays in houses and tented camps were started on a trial basis in the rural villages of Jadipani. Ecotourism activities were started on an experimental basis with school groups. The tented camping projects are run by the cooperatives. This gives extra income to the village women who are members of the cooperatives. All the other activities like goat and buffalo rearing and vegetable growing have become part of the ecotourism product, with direct linkages to development of the community as a whole. Located 3 hours (75-80km) from both Dehradun and Rishikesh, the tented camps and homestays with typical village ambience and beautiful views of the mountains and the valley below have become a viable ecotourism product. The ecotourism activities run by HVSRC generated 7% of total revenues last year, which has increased to 20% this year. Today, the major challenge is how to grow and further develop the ecotourism business by accessing the right markets so as to bring in larger numbers of tourists. The Jadipani Eotourism Cluster seeks to target (over and above the regular tourist) boarding schools in and around Mussoorie, Dehradun and even as far away as Delhi, educational institutions and NGOs, promising the usp of an immersive experience, together with creating awareness and dialogue about mountainous regions.

The second component was the interaction with the entrepreneurial women leaders who are managing the Jadipani Ecotourism Cluster, through the HVSRC. The SWAN delegates were impressed with the direct sense of involvement by each of these women leaders, their acceptance of ecotourism activity as individual stakeholders, and their commitment to the success of their efforts. These women stake holders, ranging from young to aged (older) members, are very efficient and mindful, precisely because their ecofriendly activities such as preparation of compost, setting up rain water harvesting systems, and tapping spring water for drinking purposes, are unique for visitors, but are vital ingredients to improve the everyday life and health of the community. The SWAN delegates visited Chaukhal village (27 November), where they met the women-leaders from the Him Vikas Women’s Self Reliant Cooperative, at their camping site. The delegates visited the home-stay facility and interacted with the women household members and the head of the Campsite stay facility. The village all around was neat, clean, pristine and beautiful. After Chaukhal, the delegates walked down to Silkoti Danda and had spirited discussions, including singing songs and much laughter with Silkoti Danda Self Help Group (Sanjeevani SHG). They were served delicious local cuisine, all the while listening to a small pipe band!.

The third component, which actually took place on 26th November immediately after arrival in Dehradun, was the visit to Woodstock School, Mussoorie. The SWAN delegates had the unique opportunity of interacting with school teachers and senior students from the School Outdoors Division and Community Engagement Division about their association with Himmotthan Society’s ecotourism activities. The presentations by the students on the community activities and community development programs that they are involved in, with the particular focus on women’s empowerment, provided interesting new perspectives. This is an innovative way to develop social consciousness among the children from an elite school like Woodstock, imbuing them with the concept and realization that tourism is not just a “product” to consume, but an activity from which one can learn how to engage with the community in improving their lives, especially those of women. The students who presented their activities were “enthusiastic and respectful to the people they were interacting with”, in the comments of the delegate from Bangladesh. The significant guidance of the teachers was reflected in their presentations.

Conclusions and the Way Ahead :
The Inception Workshop for SWAN’s Rural Tourism project has been an outstanding success. SWAN thanks Tata Trusts for supporting and facilitating this Workshop. The outcomes and conclusions of this Workshop have strongly validated SWAN’s views on rural tourism as a social enterprise project that supports gender empowerment and sustainable development for the women of South Asia. Building on these outcomes and conclusions, SWAN proposes to move ahead with developing the e-network of rural tourism projects across 8 countries of South Asia, as a vital input for connectivity and market access. Both are necessary to ensure the success of the project.    

The principal conclusions of the Inception Workshop, and the suggested way forward are outlined below:

  • Ecotourism for gender empowerment and sustainable development needs to be developed as a composite whole. Home-stays are one important and perhaps indispensable part, but for the project to be viable throughout the year, several other local activities need to be coordinated together. Each of these taken independently are important for rural development, but it may not be easy to convince the village women to take on these tasks in addition to their daily routine. However, all the identified tasks taken as an integrated whole and combined with rural tourism become a powerful modality, bringing together sustainable development and gender empowerment. These activities should be income-yielding and, at the same time, interesting and attractive to all visitors, including tourists coming for home-stays. There is a vast range of activities to choose from, including water management, waste management, organic agriculture, weaving, embroidery and textiles, sheep/ goat or cattle rearing, demonstrations of local cuisine using home-grown vegetables and spices/ ingredients, preservation and demonstration of traditional knowledge, including indigenous music and dance traditions, and many more. Each of the eight participating South Asian countries is being requested to prepare a composite list of women-centric activities relevant for their respective rural tourism projects, so that the capacity building and other relevant preparations for project implementation can be taken up in a time-bound manner.
  • Selection and identification of the most appropriate organizational structure is critical to the success and viability of the ecotourism project. Self Help Groups (SHGs) or Cooperatives (such as the Him Vikas Self-Relaint Cooperative at Jadipani) or micro-finance groups are perhaps the most appropriate because they provide the all-important sense of involvement and equal responsibility for all the community members, especially the women. Rural women are so busy with their routine chores, that they are reluctant to accept any further responsibility except or unlessthis gives them a share of the decision-making, the sense of direct involvement and the profit-sharing! Each of the eight participating countries is being requested to consider the most appropriate structure for their respective eco-tourism projects.
  • Market outreach is critical. There can be no success, either through gender empowerment or sustainable development, unless the efforts put in by the women ((i) above) and the organisational structure they establish ((ii) above) attracts visitors and audiences. A serious sustained effort is necessary to attract visitors throughout the year, through a combination of local visitors (from within the region, including school and college students). domestic tourists and international tourists. The principal issue here is how to reach out to potential visitors. This is where the e-portal idea is uniquely valuable, through the proposed collaboration with UN ESCAP SSWAO Office, New Delhi. The SWAN e-portal can initially serve as an in-house communication tool for exchanging information about project development and best practices. Subsequently the SWAN e-portal, with full descriptions about each participating project can function independently for direct market access. Alternatively, the e-portal can be linked with other web-sites, such as AirBnB, for wider outreach.
  • Simultaneously, as SWAN prepares for project implementation through points (i) to (iii) above, all participants agreed that it is vital to pursue the task of Certification and Setting Standards for Ecotourism. Participants agreed that it would be valuable and useful for all the countries to work on this together, preparing policy recommendations and guidelines for consideration by the relevant government agencies. As a first step, each country team will be requested to make a synopsis of the existing country regulations and laws, if any, on ecotourism.
  • Finally, to take this forward, SWAN proposes, in collaboration with Tata Trusts and UN ESCAP SSWAO office, to convene the Rural Tourism Project Development Workshop which will focus on three aspects. First, discussions on certification and setting standards for ecotourism; second, on reviewing/ discussing the project design being proposed by each of the participating SWAN delegates and the interaction/ learning from each other; and third, training at Basic and Advanced Levels for e-commerce development throught the e-portal for rural tourism.

Veena Sikri
Professor & Ambassador,
Founding Trustee & Convener,
South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN)


Program for the Inception Workshop for the Rural Tourism based Social Enterprise Project for Sustainable Development and Gender Empowerment in South Asia
New Delhi and Dehradun, November 25-28 2019

Monday, 25th November 2019
Morning :
Arrival of delegates
Stay at the India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road, New Delhi

 1730 : High Tea at The Cypress Meeting Room, India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road, New Delhi

1800 : Inaugural Session of the Inception Workshop :

Welcome Address and Project Background by Veena Sikri, Founding Trustee & Convener, South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN)

The UN ESCAP SSWAO E-commerce Project by Dr Nagesh Kumar, Director and Head, UN ESCAP SSWAO, New Delhi
Inaugural Address by Ms Shireen Vakil, Head Policy and Advocacy, Tata Trusts, New Delhi
Keynote Address “Setting Standards for Ecotourism” by Ms Seema Bhatt, National NRM and Biodiversity Expert, UN FAO (New Delhi), and Honorary Vice President, Ecotourism Society of India, New Delhi

 1845 ; Brainstorming Session :
Co-chairs : Veena Sikri,
Founding Trustee & Convener, South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN), and
Dr Rajan Sudesh Ratna, Economic Affairs Officer, UN ESCAP SSWAO, New Delhi
E-Commerce for Women-Led MSMEs by Dr Rajan Sudesh Ratna, Economic Affairs Officer, UN ESCAP SSWAO, New Delhi
Ecotourism in Afghanistan: Waiting to Happen” by Ms Zulaikha Rafiq, Independent Consultant, & Executive Director, Be The Change Organisation (BTCO), Kabul
Socio-economic Development of Bangladesh Through Ecotourism by Ms Rokia Rahman, President, Bangladesh Federation of Women Entrepreneurs (BFWE), Dhaka, and
Ms Farida Akhte, Executive Director, UBINIG, Policy Research for Development Alternatives, Dhaka
Sustainable Tourism as a Catalyst for Rural Transformation by            Mridula Tangirala, Head Tourism, Tata Trusts, New Delhi
Community Based Tourism in Maldives by Dr Maryam Shakeela, Former Cabinet Minister, Chairperson, AWA (Addu Women’s Association), CEO, SIMDI Group of Companies, Male
Eco-Tourism in Nepal by Yankila Sherpa, Vice President, T-HELP (Trans-Himalayan Environment Livelihood Program Nepal) Kathmandu
Empowerment Through Ecotourism by Ms Chanda Malla, on behalf of Ms Ambica Shrestha, President of Business and Professional Women BPW Nepal), Kathmandu.
Building Capacity of Women-Led Rural Eco-Tourism Entrepreneurs Through E-Commerce in Nepal by Deepak Tamang, Chief Executive Officer, SEARCH-Nepal, Kathmandu
The Hikkaduwa Ecotourism Project in Galle District, Sri Lanka, by Mr Palitha (Frederick de Silva) Gurusinghe, President, Sri Lanka Ecotourism Federation (SLEF), Colombo
Summing Up by the Co-Chairs
1930 : Dinner at Cypress Room
Tuesday 26th November 2019
1100 : Departure for Dehradun
1200 : Arrival Dehradun
1215 :  Departure by car
1415 : Arrival at Woodstock School. Refreshments. Interaction with School Teachers on their association with Himmotthan Ecotourism activites through the School Outdoors division and Community Engagement Divisions
1530 : Travel by car to Jharipani Ecotoruism Cluster.
1630 : Arrival at Hotel Club Mahindra for overnight stay
1700 : Tea and Refreshments.
Briefing and Discussion on the Himmotthan Society Ecotourism Cluster Project
1830 : Dinner around Bonfire
Wednesday 27th November 2019
0830 :
Breakfast and walk around the Club Mahindra premises
1000 : Departure by car for for Jadipani Ecotourism Cluster. Interaction with Him Vikas Women’s Self-Reliant Cooperative and Himmotthan Society at Camping site of the Cooperative
1130 : Travel to Village Silkoti Danda
1200 :  Interaction with Self Help Group (Sanjeevani SHG). Participation in SHG Meeting. Interaction with SHG Group Members
1330 : Lunch at Silkoti Danda hosted by Shrishti SHG Silkoti Danda
1430 : Departure by car for Dehradun Airport via Chamba
1955 : Spicejet Flight to Delhi.
2950 : Arrival New Delhi. Overnight Stay at Lemon Tree Aerocity Hotel

Thursday, 28th November 2019
Departure of delegates for respective national destinations



  1. Ms Zulaikha Rafiq, Independent Consultant, & Executive Director, Be The Change Organisation (BTCO), Kabul
  1. Ms Rokia Rahman, President, Bangladesh Federation of Women Entrepreneurs (BFWE), Dhaka.
  1. Ms Farida Akhter, Executive Director, UBINIG, Policy Research for Development Alternatives, Dhaka


  1. Veena Sikri, Professor & Ambassador, Founding Trustee & Convener, South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN)
  1. Ms Seema Bhatt, National NRM and Biodiversity Expert, UN FAO (New Delhi), and Honorary Vice President, Ecotourism Society of India, New Delhi
  1. Ms Mridula Tangirala, Head Tourism, Tata Trusts, New Delhi
  1. Mr Sunil Binjola, Programme Coordinator, South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN)
  1. Mr MM Sharma, Programme Officer, South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN)


  1. Dr Maryam Shakeela, Former Cabinet Minister, Chairperson, AWA (Addu Women’s Association), CEO, SIMDI Group of Companies, Male
  1. Ms Fathimath Nasrath, Board Member, Addu Women’s Association (AWA), Addu, Maldives


  1. Ms Yankila Sherpa, Owner and Managing Director, Snow Leopard Trek, & Vice President, T-HELP (Trans-Himalayan Environment Livelihood Program Nepal) Kathmandu
  1. Mr Deepak Tamang, Chief Executive Officer, SEARCH-Nepal, Kathmandu
  1. Ms Chanda Malla, Federation of Business and Professional Women Nepal (FBPWN), Kathmandu

  1. Ms Mano Alles, Board Member, Women’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce (WCIC), Colombo
  1. Mr Palitha (Frederick de Silva) Gurusinghe, President, Sri Lanka Ecotourism Federation (SLEF), Colombo

UN ESCAP South and South West Asia Office, New Delhi

  1. Dr Nagesh Kumar, Director and Head, UN ESCAP SSWAO, New Delhi
  1. Dr Rajan Sudesh Ratna, Economic Affairs Officer, UN ESCAP SSWAO