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An Interview with Marcus Cotton, Managing Director of Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge, TIES' Newest Lifetime Member!
TIES welcomes it's newest Lifetime Member, Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge which fully supports and practices the policy of sustainable tourism. Located in the foothills of the Annapurna range of Nepal where the surrounding area is under diverse pressure, there is a need for sound and sensitive management. As well as being committed to the protection and enhancement of the natural environment, Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge feels privileged that the local people and communities are partners, stakeholders, and vital resources in their business.
Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge endeavors to develop and improve its commitment to the environment, guests, employees, and the local community. The follow is an interview with Marcus Cotton, the Managing Director of Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge.
When did you first hear about ecotourism and sustainable tourism?
When the ‘new buzzwords’ were invented! However, I had been practicing eco- / sustainable tourism for many years before this, working in Nepal, first for King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation (now National Trust) and then for Tiger Tops and Tiger Mountain Pokhara.
From childhood, I’d been brought up to enquire, understand, and respect the natural environment on our farm in England – leading to some dusty arguments with my father at times. Of course, I had rosy idealism on my side and he had the harsh realities of making ends meet in a challenging agricultural environment on his. These days I see the arguments in a more nuanced manner.
I was privileged to work at the famous Tiger Tops from 1990 first in Kathmandu and then later at the iconic Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge in Chitwan National Park. Tiger Tops pioneered responsible conservation tourism since the 1970s, somewhat before others. This was largely thanks to hunter anthropologist turned tiger conservationist, Dr. Charles McDougal – the Wildlife Director of Tiger Tops who put the pragmatic reality to the conceptual enthusiasm for conservation of his business partner, Jim Edwards. They made a good team in those early days, experimenting and promoting wildlife tourism in a responsible / sustainable manner that we call Responsible Conservation Tourism.
On moving to the award winning Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge in 2001, I applied the concept to this young lodge started in 1998 and, working with a strong team at the lodge, we evolved a format of responsible conservation tourism suited to a village setting in the middle hills of Nepal rather than a national park with all the legal protections and regulations in place. Developing this is, as we all know, an ongoing and evolutionary process. So we all continue hard at it, ever pushing at the envelope to see what can be achieved (and, of course, what fails) in our community setting. When we see a Leopard sitting on our verandah, we take some quiet pride in the clear evidence of our minimum environmental impact!
What sustainable tourism achievements at Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge are you most proud of?
Working with JUSTreport UK on the design and roll-out of a clear, easy, and effective Responsible Tourism audit / verification system is perhaps one of the biggest achievements for the team at Tiger Mountain. JUSTreport took Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge as its hotel role model when designing the scheme and we continue as a major partner and client in the ongoing evolution of the scheme. Working on this was a team effort of all the lodge staff and seeing Jenefer Bobbin, JUSTreport’s founder, having to tell the staff ‘enough, enough, we cannot measure everything at once’ was a heartening moment as one gained an insight into the level of enthusiasm and commitment to responsibility among the team at the lodge.
Similarly, for the first time in Nepal Tourism, the lodge launched a Sustainable Action Group – a voluntary staff forum for the discussion of all issues pertaining to sustainability / responsibility for the lodge. This group is ongoing and attracts up to 66% of all staff at periodic meetings. The group considers new ideas / projects and issues that need to be tackled as well as monitoring performance of actions already implemented. Over time, we plan to include members of the wider community in the Sustainable Action Group and other stakeholders to help us widen the remit and impact of the group into the community.
Have you obtained any green certifications and/or awards?
We are currently working with Sustainable Travel International for certification – this we see a complementary to the JUSTreport Verification. The problem with so many of the certifications schemes is that they are, inherently, ‘one size fits all’ which does not work well specially for smaller idiosyncratic properties! They can also be very expensive and often relate more to the source country or region where they are designed, than to the realities of the Himalayan foothills where we are located.
We have also won awards and accolades such as:
Conservation International Ecotourism Excellence 2000
Conde Nast Traveler EcoAwards Best Lodge 2000
Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Heritage & Culture Gold Award 1999
TravelAsia Best New Ecotourism Product 1999
National Geographic Adventure November 2008 – Global Top 50 Eco-Lodges
Richard Hammond’s Top 30 Green Places to Stay Worldwide - Recommendation, Mountain Section 2006
In recent years we have not been nominating the lodge for awards, as we have preferred to focus on internal development of our sustainable action agenda and achieving verifiable results. National Geographic invited Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge in 2014 to join its prestigious ‘Unique Lodges of the World’ programme on the recommendation of one of the world’s leading responsible tourism promoters. That was perhaps the highest compliment or ‘award’ we could have hoped to receive.
How do you communicate sustainability to your guests and business partners?
This is an easy area in which mistakes can be made. It is all too easy to sound hectoring or dictatorial when aiming to spread the messages of responsible conservation tourism. As Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge is aimed at a guest with certain levels of discernment, we aim not to be too overt or direct in our approach, preferring to introduce subtle messages about the environment, sustainability and our work to achieve this. So much will be through the interpretation skills of our expert local guides, Hari P, Sajan and Hari B who can show how we adapt what we do to mitigate adverse impacts and generate positive results; through conversations with guests of an evening or over dinner with Jhalak Chaudhary, our Guest Relations and Operations Manager. We also ensure that our room information – printed on sustainable local paper and locally bound – gives plenty of discreet and gentle prompts to encourage appropriate responses from our guests. The aim is more to show by example and let our guests draw the inferences.
With our business partners, we also aim to lead by example – promoting ethical business management ideals, timely payments to creditors, excellent remuneration packages to staff and similar concepts. One of the toughest areas and one in which we have yet to make headway is in supply chain management. We control what we buy and from whom, but to engender that essential partnership atmosphere with suppliers and their confidence that we are asking questions of them solely in order to manage our supply chain better is proving a difficult challenge. There is too much suspicion that we are off to establish a rival business to our suppliers! However, we will adopt a long-term approach and gradually build the necessary confidence and rapport needed to develop a really sound supply chain management system.
Within the local community, we follow a similar approach – showing, for example, how we Reduce, Re-use and Recycle our waste. We also support community initiatives for waste management. We have a well-established Community Support Partnership Programme, through which we help community-based and led projects developed by the local community for enhancement of the village. To date this has particularly focussed on education – where we have an ongoing programme with our local secondary and two primary schools. This includes capital funding, teacher training, and provision of computer education. We do this through direct funding, the generous support of our guests, and through partnership with other charitable and commercial organisations. We are however, firm in ensuring that first, the government has made its fullest commitments – we are not in the business of paying significant taxes and then letting the government off the hook on the expenditure side! Second, we see what level of support has been generated in cash or in kind from the local community itself – this is essential if the community is to retain a real ownership of the project. So we then become the donor of last resort – but this ensures that key criteria for our support, namely that projects are community-based and led. As an example we had an excellent Teacher Training Programme in one primary school working closely with a UK partner People & Places, an award-winning volunteer placement agency. The school provided commitment and real support, the lodge provided the linkages, supervision and volunteer support. People & Places sought top-level teachers, did all the essential (but sadly not required) background checks, provided full pre-programme briefing, and sent us some fantastic volunteers. This was an excellent partnering example. Sadly, this had to end when government rules on volunteering made it impossible for us to continue the programme. However, we hope to re-start once the regulations are updated to make such programmes viable once more.
What do you see as the main as the main challenges for sustainability in Nepal?
In a word, the biggest challenge at a national level is, of course, Poverty. However, within this are the seeds of sustainability as consumerism has yet to take too firm a hold on Nepal. Every challenge is inherently an opportunity.
Nepal’s roller-coaster ride politically in recent years has not helped – the country is emerging from traditional leadership styles to more modern approaches and concurrently undergoing an industrial revolution in decades rather than centuries. As can easily be imagined, this puts enormous strains on society and political structures. It also forces those of us eager to pioneer and promote sustainable best practices to devote additional time and energy to basic business sustaining strategies of a more short-term nature.
The foregoing notwithstanding, Nepal is ideally poised to be a powerhouse and role-model for global sustainability. Work done already on Community Forestry, as just one example, is a global success story and this is now evolving into new concepts for REDD+ that will provide world class examples. The country’s abundant hydro-power potential could be harnessed to make a significant impact on climate change adaptation as a major source of clean power for the country and its immediate neighbours. Tourism, if thoughtfully and imaginatively managed, can be an enormous force for good in the national economy as well as providing sustainable livelihoods for Nepalis, mitigating the need to seek foreign employment.
As the world is well aware, Nepal faced a significant earthquake in April 2015. While this did not ‘flatten the country’ as some media review might imply, it did have serious impacts in several districts and communities. To see how Nepal’s tourism industry morphed into relief workers and logistic experts was deeply heartening. As a country with a burgeoning youth population, seeing the way social media was embraced in the relief mapping efforts was cutting-edge and another world-leading example. Tourism has an enormous and ongoing role to play in the country’s bounce-back. Sustainable Tourism Leaders in Nepal have a vital role here to encourage and lead the bounce-back-better strategies.
At Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge one of our biggest challenges is water conservation and we are excited to be developing constructed wetlands with two local partners to help us recycle grey water with reed-bed filters. Once implemented this should save 90% of our laundry water, provide 100% water irrigation for our organic vegetable gardens and reduce swimming pool losses to evaporation only.
As a vision for the future, I would like to see a green energy and zero emissions vehicle that has the capacity of a SUV and one that can climb steep Himalayan hills without running out of power… Probably a challenge for beyond Nepal, but one that would be an enormous benefit to Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge!
Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge is pledged to play its role as an exemplar and role model by quiet example and steady local progress. The lodge faces the challenges faced nationally too – and we relish them!