Sanjay Saxena has been traveling for as long as he can remember. Born in 1958, the son of a Brigadier General in the Indian Army, Sanjay moved with his family every other year or so throughout his childhood. Sanjay says, “I developed a positive attitude, looking at the constant change as new kids to befriend, new places to explore, new trees to climb.”
As a college freshman in 1977, Sanjay had the opportunity to put his travel experience to use, leading a group of American tourists to the mountains in Kashmir. The role of guide was a perfect fit, and Sanjay immediately knew he had found his calling.
But finding work was not always easy. “American tour operators never hired local people like me to lead trips,” he says. “Instead, they would send an American as trip leader even if that person had never been to the destination.” After many years of navigating this troublingly disconnected tourism industry, Sanjay struck out on his own, founding Destination Himalaya in 1989 to create travel opportunities that were both ecologically responsible and culturally sensitive.
Sanjay explains: “Tourism has always been what I call a ‘boom and bust’ industry; travelers discover a pristine lake by the mountains and soon more and more people start visiting, leading to development and suddenly it becomes very crowded. What happens next is that the tourists just find and go to the next pristine beach or the next pristine lake, leaving the locals to deal with what is left—an overbuilt vacation spot, boarded-up buildings, higher taxes, and garbage. This process was even more pronounced in the areas that I worked—deep in the Himalayan Mountains, populated by small villages of indigenous tribes or wilderness areas. Though environmentally sensitive travel—especially amongst the trekking groups—has always been very good, what was dramatically lacking was the social sensitivity and the empowerment of the local people— sharing with the local people a little bit of the wealth that the tour companies were making.”
Having his own operation has enabled Sanjay to address what he calls his “moral obligation and social responsibility” to the lands and the people he visits, ensuring that while tourists have a great vacation, indigenous communities are helped to prosper through new jobs and programs that are ongoing, surviving even when and if tourism declines.
To illustrate how this works, Sanjay describes a school lunch program he helped create in Kumarakom, India: “The principal at the primary school told me that if she could bring kids in the door at the kindergarten or first grade, she could get them hooked on learning and keep them through high school. Since many children were subsisting with their parents on a poor diet of rice and dal, we came up with a scheme to provide nutritious, free lunches to all children in the school—regardless of whether they were enrolled or came just for the meal.
Destination Himalaya helped the school create a Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) to administer the lunch program and helped the PTA contract with nearby farmers to grow the produce, local fishermen to provide fresh catch, and local cooks to prepare the meals, thus keeping all of the proceeds of the program within a five mile radius of each school. The children who came for a free lunch were invited to stay for lessons, and a great many did just that. In the first two years, enrollment in the school went up by 38 percent; in the first five years, the program served 150,000 lunches. The lunch initiative is still in place and growing today.”
Destination Himalaya today guides visitors to India, Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Sanjay says, “The goal for me is to integrate the best of travel—exposure to cul- ture, art, geography, history and recreation— with the best of human nature—the desire to connect and improve each other’s lives.”