Advocating and promoting ‘sustainable’ Sikkim tourism | Kanupriya Raniwala

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How many of us have scrolled through our social media feeds, liked photos of mountains and beaches and promised ourselves that someday, we would take a long break and finally go on that one trip that would change our lives forever? Not all of us have mustered the courage to make such a significant change but Kanupriya Raniwala is someone who did exactly that.

She is a person who wears many hats – an architect, an avid photographer and owner of a travel company called All India Permit. Yet her most natural state is as a traveller. Having grown up seeing photos, of the road trip in an Ambassador car her parents took on their honeymoon, taken on self-timed cameras they carried and then following their footsteps by travelling the Western Himalayas extensively in the last decade, she believes that travelling is in her genes.

Kanupriya Raniwala leading a trek to Goecha-la

Having moved to Sikkim in 2014 from Rajasthan, where for 4 and a half years prior to the big shift, she was conducting art classes for students, screening documentaries. She says that the decision to move here had been in the works for quite some time. “After those four years, I thought it was finally time to move. I had been telling my friends about it for the longest time but it was only when they asked me when I would finally do it, that I decided to plan things seriously. I got in touch with Prashant Pradhan, an architect based in Sikkim and asked if I could join his firm. He agreed and informed me that if I wanted to join, stay and travel, that was okay. I was a senior architect there for 3 years. So, I guess it was a pretty smooth process”.

In the course of the conversation, she mentions that before she began travelling, she used to always wonder – “how could I want to live my life?” but once she arrived in Sikkim, she says, “somehow everything fell into place – as a woman, an independent person and a traveller”.

Her travel company – All India Permit, provides a local cultural experience, where the point is not to stay in big hotels or visit only hotspots (although sometimes that does crop up in itineraries). She says that living in the mountains has changed her life and now the whole idea of starting a travel company and bringing people to experience new places is to change their process, bringing alignment to what they really want.

Kanupriya with tourist visiting Lachung monastery

Were her parents taken with the idea of her travelling for a living? Initially, she recalls them being anxious as parents are but since she had been financially independent since 2009, they already knew that her settling down in life was in physically not doing that. Her parents were supportive and have accompanied her on various trips by now. “I think with parents, you have to have constant communication or else you zone out. The road trips my parents took and the experiences they had, they did not do it for social media because that didn’t exist then. They didn’t do it to prove anything to anyone”.

In her travels within Sikkim, she has quite literally taken off the well-beaten path, having come across villages where the residents do not understand Nepali or Hindi and have little to no concept of large scale urbanisation and technology. “Once, I met a like-minded guy in Pelling with whom I went on a five-day hike to Khechopalri, Tashiding, Yuksom, Ravangla and beyond. That is when we met Lepcha settlers in remote villages who did not understand the language we spoke”.

Kanupriya with tourist exploring Dzongu, North Sikkim

If she ever doubted her decision to stay in Sikkim, all of it was erased when she trekked to Goechala. “Right after I arrived from Rajasthan, I went on the trek. It was crazy! I was kind of a savage person because I never wanted to stay at home. For me, trekking was like meditation. It was my idea of a pilgrimage. So in 2014, along with two other foreign trekkers, I began my journey.”

She recalls that the language barrier between the three came as a blessing since she was happy about keeping to herself and focusing on walking instead. “We were all on a different journey. For me, it was sort of self-cleansing”.

When they finally reached their destination, dawn had just begun to break. The silence and changing colours of daybreak moved her. “I had tears in my eyes when I first saw Mt. Kanchendzonga. It had been a soul-filling walk. You know how there is always a turning point in life? That moment was it for me. I knew I had to bring people here.”

Sikkim has been tagged an ‘eco-tourism’ destination but how far is that true? Many travellers still use packaged food and drink for their trips and some still discard it irresponsibly. Kanupriya sticks firmly to her decisions of who should go on the trip and who should be asked to leave.

Kanupriya with a group of female trekkers out on an adventure

When it comes to environment-friendly travelling, she puts in all her best effort to create trips that take into consideration the locals, nature and guests to keep it all in harmony. “The people we stay with and drive us to these places are like my family. I have built trust and respect from both sides”.

It has been three years since she has not bought packaged food or drink. Sometimes, she says that the people who she takes on trips see her consciously make those decisions and follow suit, some of them even involving themselves in picking up trash.

A lot of her work is through references so those willing to travel with her are already explained about the kind of travel she does. Notably, she spends a lot of effort in explaining to prospective guests the history of Sikkim and people’s stories so that they understand that a certain etiquette and behaviour is expected from them. “Pre-details and a kind of narrative from my point of view are given to the travellers – the where, why and how. I spend a lot of time with my guests and that’s why they keep coming back, because of the ease in planning”.

Kanupriya on her third summit to Goecha-La

In most Himalayan states, organic and eco-friendly travelling is the preferred mode of tourism, with backpacking, homestays and more rustic experiences opted over a luxurious or commercialized one. The big trend that dominates millennial travel is to have a more holistic experience in new places, where interaction with locals and immersive experiences are actively sought out. Kanupriya gets many young travellers and she believes that this is because we want to go back to our roots and resist the pull of capitalism. “In the 80s and 90s, Earth saw the highest levels of development and now, it is damaged. I think people have started wanting organic food and travel because we want to go back to our roots, sort of like an evolutionary process. We are drawn towards Nature and intuitively, we all want to travel.”

Like most of us, she has always asked herself the ways in which she could be useful to society. After finding her purpose in never being still, she now leads others to have an experience that would last a lifetime. When she is asked where she feels most at home, without a pause, she replies – “Dzongu”.

“Once you go to a place, forget everything else, forget who you are and accept the culture offered to you”, says Kanupriya. “I am a marwari who came here and my life changed! Now as a guide, I feel every bit Sikkimese. You don’t have to do something big to prove yourself. Do whatever makes you feel content and little by little, put all those dots together to find the bigger picture.

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