As part of Virtuoso’s ongoing commitment to sustainable travel, we’re profiling the experts, trendsetters, and industry leaders making a difference in sustainable tourism today. Here, a conversation with Shanti Kohli, the managing director of Amber Tours, a Virtuoso tour operator specializing in bespoke adventures to India and surrounding Asian countries.
In 1972, Avi Kohli revolutionized luxury tourism in India when he founded Amber Tours with Sawai Bhawani Singh, the former Maharaja of Jaipur. The two men wanted to move away from cookie-cutter monument jaunts and give travelers access to the “real” India – full of glorious history, grand royal palaces, breathtaking landscapes, and local people with unique traditions and customs. Amber Tours helped open many tourism destinations in India as it began offering custom holidays and private tours. As an adventurer and avid lover of nature, Avi Kohli understood not only what to see in India, but how to experience it all in the most discerning way possible.
Today, Avi’s family – including daughter Shanti and son Naveen – honors his legacy. From hiking in the Himalayas to wandering the bustling markets of Old New Dehli, Amber Tours creates bespoke itineraries in India, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and other surrounding countries. We recently caught up with Shanti Kohli to learn more about her personal and professional commitments to sustainability, the lessons she’s learned from Indian culture, and how she sees travel changing in a post-Covid 19 world.
How do you practice sustainability in your own life?
My childhood was truly incredible, and it impacted me tremendously. Every school break, we spent time in the jungle and mountains, and on the rivers of North India and Bhutan. In the 1980s, my father started white-water rafting on the Ganges. For him, it was always imperative that we leave no trace behind in the wild. We were taught from a very early age never to harm nature and eat only what was in season.
Today, those values remain with me. In my personal life, I do my best to take care of the earth and support local economies. For example, as a family, we plant trees and grow our own organic vegetables and fruit – many of which are shared with neighbors and friends. I’m also growing plants that add more oxygen to the atmosphere and have medicinal value, including Neroli, neem, snake gourd, and aloe vera. When I buy clothes, I check to see if materials are sourced locally. My Indian garments are all handmade from local weavers. Overall, I consume less.
How does Amber Tours promote sustainability?
We believe every little act counts. All our gifts – pillow gifts, welcome bags, folders, travel show goodies – are all handmade in India, supporting local weavers and artisans directly. Our uniforms are handmade from sustainable fabrics. We’ve upgraded our vehicles to meet the latest pollution standards. We provide travelers with mineral or filtered water, and our snacks are sourced from local growers. Finally, we always make a point to share lists of local weavers and craftsmen that produce sustainable products to all clients and arrange visits to them upon request. We work hard to source places where handicrafts are made ethically and organically and where the proceeds are going back to the craftsmen or community.
What’s one of your favorite sustainable experiences for travelers?
There are many, from supporting Tibetan nunneries to learning handicraft skills with local villagers in Jaipur and Udaipur. In the small northern Indian town of McLeod Ganj – the seat of the exiled Tibetan government and the home of the Dalai Lama and his Namgyal monastery – travelers can visit the Norbulingka Institute to learn about the Tibetan arts of appliqué, carving, metallurgy, and thangka painting. These arts are no longer encouraged in Tibet, but are practiced here to ensure the culture stays alive.
What can India’s culture teach travelers about living a harmonious life?
While India, like many countries, struggles with pollution, over-population, and other environmental and societal issues plaguing our world today, its ancient culture can serve as an important lesson to us all. Our Vedas, ancient scriptures written 4,000 years ago, explain how one should live with nature. When we share them with our guests, it’s magical to see how they embrace these small sustainable rituals: bathing with a bucket of water versus a shower, using natural oils such as almond and jasmine instead of creams full of chemicals, lighting an oil lamp in the morning and evening to clear the air in your home, practicing yoga, meditating, taking care of what you eat and put in your body. Many of our guests return home with these small traditions and rituals and realize that they took nothing away from their travels, but gave a lot back instead. By doing so, they greatly diminish their consumption.
Do you believe that Covid-19 will affect sustainable travel?
I believe that the lessons people learn during this pandemic will have an impact on how they view travel. We’ve all seen how nature has rejoiced while most of the world has been kept indoors. Our travelers are very aware and sensitive people. I believe that following this crisis they’ll be wary of traveling only to tick off a city or a country from a list. They’ll still travel, but while trying to make a minimum impact. Hopefully, travelers will be more sensitive to cultures and nature. They’ll want to see the same beautiful state maintained, and it will be up to local governments to sustain that. It’s already become clear that a few weeks of being boarded up can lead to brilliant recovery. We don’t have to continue poisoning ourselves. I strongly believe that sustainability, in varying degrees, will be a cornerstone of luxury travel.