At a time when reports of social, economic, political and religious strife dominate the media, and the pain of people’s poverty, powerlessness, homelessness and hopelessness is felt all around the globe, any far-reaching initiative that promotes tolerance, interfaith harmony and shared opportunity really stands out, especially in the world of travel.
Such is the case with The Region Initiative (TRI), a broad-based, tri-regional responsible-tourism partnership founded in May 2010 and spanning South Asia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe with the goal of connecting communities along the ancient Silk Road. By working with a coalition of nongovernmental stakeholders, including tour operators, nongovernmental organisations, tourism experts, academia and youth, TRI hopes to push beyond the similar threats and challenges faced by destinations along the Silk Road and sharpen the focus on the regions’ shared opportunities, particularly with regard to responsible travel and tourism.
An Enduring Ride on the Silk Road
What is known today as the “Silk Road” (also called the Silk Route) is a vast network of interconnecting routes that was arguably the most important transcontinental trade road in history. It once extended nearly 12,000 kilometres and linked many powerful civilisations across ancient China, India, Tibet, Egypt, the Persian Empire and the Mediterranean. Beginning around 200 B.C.E., merchants managed highly lucrative businesses along these interweaving long-distance tracks, bartering for all manner of goods that included spices, tea, gold, jewels, ivory, silk, carpets, porcelain and much much more.
But the Silk Road was more than just a channel for trade. Following in the footsteps of these tradesmen, other travellers, such as nomads, missionaries, pilgrims, conquerors and early explorers (some of them long before Marco Polo), set forth from all corners of the world, forging cross-cultural connections that encouraged the spread of spiritual wealth, religious doctrine, great scholarship, art and architecture, and resulted in numerous intellectual exchanges. Strong echoes of the ties born in these early times still exist to this day.
The modern “Silk Road” also remains an inspiration and magnet for curious and intrepid travellers. In fact, for decades, the growth of tourism in regions along the Silk Road has been steady, bringing with it new challenges as well as the strong potential for improving local economies. And now, in a good 21st-century twist, there’s growing community-led unity behind a quest to promote sustainable tourism and travel along the Silk Road.
Creating Sustainable Tourism Connections
While governments often put politics ahead of policy and sometimes fail to establish strong international collaborative ties among those in the tourism sector, other groups, like TRI, are leading the process of building cross-border partnerships in the industry and to encourage responsible tourism.
TRI has already established its presence in 15 Silk Road countries: Armenia, Bangladesh, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Tajikistan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Tourism operators in each of these countries have adopted the aim of encouraging local travel professionals to share ideas and strategies that minimise the negative impacts of mass tourism and instead encourage sustainable, long-term and responsible practices, focusing more on history, people and culture than on the their outer trappings.
Unfortunately, the way ahead is not as smooth as silk. With current or recent armed conflicts in Afghanistan, India, Nepal Pakistan and Sri Lanka in South Asia, as well as economic and political unrest in several Central Asian republics and in Eastern Europe, there are many obstacles to overcome. But high hopes persist through the efforts of The Region Initiative to support small community-based tourism stakeholders who work as accommodation providers, tour operators and guides.