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Thrills with spills
It was only the third time that Sarah Fernandez, a young foreign journalist in India, was out rock-climbing. The first two times went off well but the third time she suffered a bad fall and split her helmetless head open. "We were climbing hundreds of feet without a helmet. The rope, while climbing, is supposed to be between your feet but I learnt that eight stitches later, " says Fernandez, adding that there was only one extensively trained person in the group, but he wasn't climbing with her. The experience has put her off activity holidays in India.
The recent incident of a young man falling to his death while rappelling at Greater Noida mall, which was touting adventure activities as its USP, has made many do a rethink about such pursuits.
This sector of tourism, be it rafting, trekking, surfing, parasailing, has been growing as Indians look to transform their image from boring to daring. The Adventure Tour Operators Association of India (ATOAI) says that membership has doubled in the past five years.
But not all is hunky-dory in this sector. Although there is a license system to run an adventure outfit, many run unlicensed companies - the 35-kilometre stretch adjoining the Ganga, which is inundated with river rafting camps, is just one example of the uncontrolled proliferation of adventure companies. Tejbir Singh Anand, president of ATOIA, agrees that in spite of regulations, hundreds of camps exist without licenses.
"Rishikesh is a sad story, " he says. "Years ago, a few groups started these companies but locals were angry at not getting a piece of the business. The government then started giving licenses to everyone though obviously not every porter can become a guide and every guide an owner. Now it is a totally political issue - anyone can go pick up a raft and start a camp. There are about 70 camps there and a traffic jam on the river. "
To get a license, a company in India has to first operate for a year and then apply for one with the year's balance sheet. The premises are then inspected by a committee, including someone from the ATOIA, and a license is granted for five years. But no one has an answer to how a company can operate for the first year without a license, as, indeed, is happening. Anand points out that the scariest part is when schools, one of the biggest client segments, hire unlicensed companies. "Almost every school we have approached has gone with unlicensed operators, " he says. "It is quite terrifying. "
However, Anand chooses to defend the standards set by the industry and government policies. "If you review the number of accidents in the last decade, you won't get very high figures, " he says. "Adventure by its very nature is a calculated risk. Some accidents could be due to system failures ie when the equipment is not handled properly. "
Other industry experts claim that such accidents are not the norm. "Of course such sports can be risky but people have to take responsibility when they practise them, " says Jonathan Walter, the British director of Flying Fox, the only company that offers the adventure sport of ziplining in India.
Walter moved to India from the UK in 2007 to start Flying Fox. "The adventure sports segment is growing at 40 per cent a year according to ATOIA, double the speed of any other form of tourism, " he says. "But the interest in India is in soft adventures like ziplining, hiking and rafting. " Because ziplining did not exist in India, Walter and his partner, Richard McCullum, brought European safety standards to the sport.
The ministry of tourism is in the process of updating its minimum standards of safety in the sector.
Adventure tour operators say that a critical issue is the tendency of some operators to undercut others and offer such trips on smaller budgets. "There is a risk in cutting corners. Tight budgets come with the risk of older equipment and not hiring the best instructors. The public needs to be made aware of this, " says Walter who, despite spending five years in India, does not buy equipment here. His company imports all its equipment because he and his partner don't feel there is a domestic provider they can rely on. They also import their training managers from Europe.
The major lacuna in the field, most agree, is the lack of training by way of formal institutes as well as innovation in the courses for guides and instructors. "The Nehru Institute of Mountaineering courses produce mountaineers but not mountain tourism, " says Sunil Kainthola, who runs Mountain Shepherds (MS), a trekking tourism outfit in Uttarakhand. "You might learn to climb peaks but you can't take care of people with you. That is a component of their course but not the prominent one. These courses are not really modern and don't create manpower for tourism. " Kainthola points out that backcountry medicine courses are the norm in EU and the US, and to be a guide in these countries, one needs to earn a certificate, which, moreover is valid for only two years. MS has now launched an institute near Nanda Devi with a US company that will hold courses on secondary medicine for guides, conducted by US trainers.
Walter says that what enthusiasts really need in order to use this sector fully are short, customerfriendly training courses. "UK has many such courses. In India there are very few reputable providers, and most people don't have a month's time to go for the training course in Darjeeling, " he says. The shortest course in mountaineering in India is for 30 days.
Whiplash is a common complaint of jumpers, as is "bungee slap" - an injury such as a split lip or a black eye from the cord hitting the jumper in the face. To minimise risk, experts advise travelers to make sure that the jump site they choose has a manual that includes safety protocols. Before the jump, at least two people should check your system, anchors and attachment points
Nonfatal injuries most often occur while landing, and include broken ankles, back injuries, and leg and foot problems
Go for a licensed operator and ask in advance about the difficulty of the river you're interested in rafting and how fit you are expected to be
Often, trekking injuries involve the inability of the traveler to adjust to high altitude. Lack of physical fitness also increases risk of injury and mishap
Choosing an experienced guide is the best way to minimize risk. Also check references and talk to people who have used the guide before
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