Spotlight Series: Q&A with Taruna Seth, Founder of Encompass Experiences

We caught up with Taruna about her expert insights into the future of travel and how she views sustainability in the slow travel industry.

Travel might just be part of Taruna’s DNA. Having spent the most formative years of her life studying, traveling and working abroad. Taruna has had a passion for travel ever since she can remember. She has lived in 3 continents and her travels have taken her across the world. Her passion to explore the world, along with her education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and University of Manchester in International Relations has led her to a 15-year career in marketing, public relations, alternative education, developmental work and a stint in television media. 

At her latest venture Encompass Experiences, she swifts through the melange making connections to conceptualise immersive experiences for their circle of explorers. Taruna’s life experiences and work have allowed her to define her skills and relationships in radically different ways. She thinks working within diverse setups allows us to celebrate our common drivers: curiosity, the need to give back, and an unabashed passion to learn something new. 

Taruna was bestowed with the award of ‘Exceptional Women of Excellence creating a better world for all’ by the Women’s Economic Forum in 2017 and the ‘Women Super Achiever Award’ at 7th Edition of World Women Leadership Congress in 2020.

What is your ethnic, academic and professional background?

I was born and raised in New Delhi. After completing high school I went to University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA for my higher studies in Political Science and Organizational Studies. After graduation, I travelled around Europe and after returning home, I joined an international PR firm. After getting some work experience, I attended University of Manchester to attain a MA in International Relations. 

Since then I’ve had a short stint in Germany in a corporate set up but soon realised it was not for me. After returning back to New Delhi, I joined Youthreach, an NGO that works as a bridge between grassroots organizations, corporates and international organizations to facilitate funding and projects in the development sector. Post that I joined NDTV a leading television media company as a journalist and anchor. Since travelling and experiencing new cultures was something I was always passionate about, I started Pearl Luxe, an experiential travel consultancy which has now evolved into Encompass Experiences.

What inspired you to act as a catalyst for sustainable practice? Is there a particular story you can share?

I visited Soneva Fushi, an island resort in the Maldives back in 2012 and I was really impressed with their sustainable practices, whether it was growing their own organic vegetables, recycling all their waste on the island, giving back to the local communities or encouraging biodiversity on the island – I was deeply influenced by all their practices. It formed a blueprint for sustainability for me as far as the tourism and hospitality industry was concerned and what we as a travel company can encourage our clients to experience over other mainstream tourism offerings in the market.

It’s still a niche in our business but we take pride in creating awareness about conscious and sustainable tourism and how travellers can demand experience providers to be more sustainable and environmentally conscious if they indeed want their business.

It’s still a long road ahead but we are at a solid start. 

Can you tell me about your career so far and work for Encompass? What inspired you to take on and promote sustainable travel?

I’ve been into the luxury experiential travel space for over a decade now. Sustainable travel is the only way forward for us on this planet. Educating our audience and raising awareness about sustainable travel is our way to make an impact in a space where we feel we can make a difference. I believe in the positive influence travel can have. Not just for individuals and their experiences but for the destinations that receive them and the world as a whole. Travel has always helped fund local economies and in recent years, in particular, become increasingly adept at preserving the culture and supporting conservation of lands and protection of ecosystems.

Travel creates empathy and understanding, can inspire and educate. It creates the human to human and human to nature connection that the world needs right now.

What have been your biggest successes and learnings to date? 

2020 has been a great learning experience and the whole sustainability movement has become more mainstream than ever before. This year has taught us to slow down and be in the moment. Even when it comes to travel the trend of immersive travel experiences has gained momentum and is here to stay. People will travel to fewer places and stay longer at each destination, really engaging with the locals and experiencing a destination in depth. The coming years will see a growth in travellers establishing repeat connections to people and places that have captivated them before, ditching “bucket list” tourism in favour of putting down roots and creating a home away from home. “Slow travel” is here to stay. Travellers now realise it’s the best way to discover a destination’s nuances and, over time, to feel like a local. 

Being South Asian, did you face any pressure from family, friends or society at large to choose the career path you did? Would you have done anything differently if given the opportunity again? 

Not really… I was always encouraged by my family and friends. (I guess my experience would be different from how South Asians migrated to Europe, for eg.)

How have you actively changed your daily practice to be more sustainable?

We have our own organic kitchen garden at home and we create compost from vegetable waste that is used as manure for our organic garden. Now I buy much less fast fashion and invest in fewer classic outfits that are evergreen. I’m also trying to buy almost no plastic toys for my daughter.

Do you feel there is a stigma or lack of understanding of the climate crisis among South Asian communities? What do you believe the blockers to be and how would you go about solving the issues?

Vibs, I think this will be different for Indians and South Asians in the UK or the developed world… Because each country is at a point on the trajectory of awareness and taking action. In India traditionally, we have been a country with sustainable practices, but lately due to the recent economic boom, liberalisation and development – pre-covid –we have become consumption oriented. 

We have major issues we need to tackle – managing pollution levels is the top of the list right now. There is part of the population that understands the climate crisis but there is a lack of a solid game plan to tackle it. Having said that, India’s contribution to carbon emissions is still lower in comparison to some developed economies. 

We need to tackle these issues sooner than later. 

I guess there is a lack of political will at the moment due to other more pressing issues that take precedence over the climate crisis here in India. 

Being carbon conscious on a practical day-to-day basis but also for travel and life experiences can be quite costly (e.g. vegan/organic food supplies, electric powered transport, resorts/culinary experiences more expensive overall). How can people easily and cost effectively make a difference? Do you think being sustainable is accessible to everyone?

It is easier than I thought – especially here in India. Since it has been a way of life for most south Asians for centuries. It’s just about going back to the basics and trying to adopt practices that our forefathers used. In 2020 many people here, in urban centres have started growing organic vegetables in flower pots, for instance. But each country is at a different developmental trajectory. Consumption and economics go hand in hand. A vast Indian middle class just saw an economic boom in the last two decades so mass consumption has been on an upsurge – which as we know is not always sustainable. 

Why should everyone start to consider more sustainable travel? What is there to gain? Are you seeing any growing trends in the travel industry? 

In an ideal world, yes. In the high end travel space it is slowly becoming a reality with raising awareness but in the low end / mass tourism sustainable travel is definitely not a priority, yet.

With transport and particularly air travel being a huge contributor of carbon emissions on a global scale, do you believe tourism and travel truly can be sustainable or even net-zero? 

One could argue that tourism cannot be sustainable, that sustainability is impossible. Negative effects on the environment are inherent to the industry, such as the emission of greenhouse gases and waste generation, that are currently difficult, if not impossible, to avoid.

Slow travel might be the answer.

It should never be about ticking off the boxes, but staying at one place for longer and immersing. Take fewer flights. It’s a long road ahead. We hope there will be a day when we can power airplanes with zero emissions. Battery operated cars are already becoming reality… So we are treading along on the right path. 

Broadly speaking, however, the tourism sector’s commitment to sustainable development is rather weak. It’s understandable when considering tourism, which is, like most other industries, growth-oriented and profit-driven with a relatively short-sighted approach to planning and development. The primary focus is generating a return on investment to increase shareholder value as quickly as possible which is similar to many politicians, to appease constituents to foster the probability of re-election.

You mentioned ‘sustainability’ being a buzz-word used by all businesses now, both in a good and bad way. Good as it shows there is some level of engagement, progress and education even if small, but bad because some companies brand themselves as sustainable without knowing what it even means. How are you ensuring Encompass truly is sustainable and spreading awareness of climate change effectively?

The term sustainable tourism means different things to different people in the industry. But like ecotourism, sustainable tourism has become virtually meaningless as it is often tied to cursory efforts, which are very limited, rather than organization-wide commitments, strategies, and actions.

We at Encompass promote sustainable travel experiences as part of our portfolio and do our bit to raise awareness. We can’t claim to be 100% sustainable, but we take conscious steps in this direction on a daily basis. We do this by being transparent in our communication and educating our audience about the best practices in sustainable travel and promote conscious tourism. 

If we feel one of our partners are in gross violation of sustainability protocols we red flag them. However, in the high end travel space most hotels and experience providers are already on the conscious tourism bandwagon – so it’s a good place to be in. 

What advice would you give to younger generations in relation to sustainability and the environment? 

Keep educating yourselves. Demand sustainable practices from experience providers. We are nothing but the sum total of our experiences so invest in them. Seek out destinations and hotels that leave minimum carbon footprint. It’s a long road ahead and every little action will have a long standing impact.

Email: taruna@goencompass.in

Instagram: www.instagram.com/taruna_seth

Website: www.goencompass.in

Encompass offers unique, authentic and sustainable experiences for the mind, body and spirit.

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