Nihar Sharma, Founder at Sustainable Tourism Foundation
Great Companies: How did you get your idea or concept for the business?
Nihar Sharma: The thought occurred to me on a travel to the Himalayas. I saw the devastating impact of increasing tourism and commercialization of the remote destinations in the Himalayas. The menace of garbage, with no means of proper disposal or recycling is witnessed everywhere, increasingly polluting the rivers and erstwhile pristine locations. There is an increasing pressure on the resources and the need to realize that the current model of growth is not sustainable, for either tourism or the communities affected. The need for sustainability became blatantly apparent and I did not find many operators in this area providing holistic solutions for the same. Hence, I took the plunge myself.
Great Companies: What are the various Services provided by Sustainable Tourism Foundation
Nihar Sharma: Our services are classified in three categories: Advocacy, Advisory and Action. The service vehicles for our Advocacy Services and creating awareness include - Seminars, Conferences, Webinars, and Training Programs (offline & online) on sustainability and responsible tourism for Hotels, Tour Operators, and Travel Companies. We conduct experiential awareness camps for schools, educational institutions, corporates, and general travelers.
Our Advisory services for the hotels, tour operators, travel agencies, local authorities and corporates include consulting & advisory for development of policies, SOPs, best practices, and standards etc. for responsible travel, energy & resource efficiency, community based tourism, water conservation, waste management, environment restoration, local heritage & culture preservation, empowering local communities, planning for circular economy and carbon footprint reduction and offset etc.
In a nutshell addressing how the organization can contribute to circular economy, keeping triple bottom line as fulcrum of growth and minimizing carbon footprint of the organization, their employees, clients, and the communities the live within.
Our Action engagement is through research and the interventions recommended based on research findings, conducting trainings for sensitization, awareness, capability building & skill development. We engage with stakeholders to manage sustainability at destination & responsible tourism development projects. Executing self-initiated and sponsored projects / campaigns related to sustainable tourism, responsible tourism, ecotourism, community development etc.
Great Companies: What makes Sustainable Tourism Foundation different from hundreds of other similar service providers?
Nihar Sharma: There are few service providers in our area of work. Those that are providing the services in this area, are fragmented and focus mostly on training and rating the industry members on a certain criterion or they work on one aspect of the problem. But the problem needs to be looked at holistically, with a Systems thinking. Similarly, the solutions can only work if they are well rounded from a Systems perspective. We do that.
Our aim and actions are holistic, and we close the loop with on-ground action. We begin with creating awareness about the issues and solutions, then help the industry plan and implement changes; to close the loop we ensure appropriate actions, bridging the gaps in implementation, and upskilling the stakeholders to continue the work sustainably.
Great Companies: What are the struggles and challenges you face?
Nihar Sharma: Well, there is no dearth of struggles and challenges, and I would classify these into two segments. One is from the organization sustenance perspective and other from the industry environment perspective.
Initially, soon as we started up, the tourism industry was hit its worst, due to covid pandemic, and the funding we were about to get, was promptly withheld. That lead to a sudden crisis as some of our industry experts backed out. We became short of funds and of people. We had to park some of our projects. But we continued our efforts on a smaller than planned scale. With help from family and friends, we managed to see through the worst phase. We are hoping that it would be easier to secure funding for projects in the near future.
The other challenge is the mindset of people, organizations, and polity. This will be our most challenging issue, for some time to come, as it is difficult to change the apathy, of the entire generations, to empathy. There is a near absolute apathy towards the environmental causes and consumerism is still usurping a large population across the globe. There is, unfortunately, a denial for the cause of carbon footprint, climate change, and the need for sustainability, which is the ultimate beneficiary of our work. However, we are hopeful and optimistic in the wake of more people gradually becoming more aware and the younger generation understanding the need. We are gradually getting better responses compared to a couple of years ago.
Great Companies: How do you plan to grow in the future? What does 5 years down the line look like for Sustainable Tourism Foundation?
Nihar Sharma: We have planned our growth trajectory on four factors; the number of active engagements, projects, geographical coverage, and quantum of community members benefitted. We are currently enhancing our consultant base and enrolling volunteers so that we can expand our physical and intellectual presence. We are also collaborating with, and grooming some of the local agencies, for projects in various geographical locations.
In the next 5 years, we foresee ourselves present in at least 10 Indian states/ UTs, doing projects worth 100 crores, with help of volunteers from across the world and about 5-6 experts in each domain on our panel. We also foresee partnering with major international players beginning the next six months.
Great Companies: If you had one piece of advice to someone just starting out, what would it be?
Nihar Sharma: The cliché reply would be - believe in yourself and give it your all. But I’m tempted to add, do your homework well before you incorporate your company, build relationships (network) as soon as you have your idea, gather information about the clients, industry, and the challenges, then go with all your might and perseverance. It helps to have a mentor, especially in the early stages, to deal with the challenges, lest it becomes a lonely journey.