As quoted on yourstory.com on August 17, 2016
India is on its path to become the greatest nation in the world…Some back this statement not with mere words but capital, like Masayoshi Son of Softbank while others believe in its very essence and are committed to actioning it. I’m a believer and this is why I think tourism shall go a long way in kick starting India, in making India!
In this 3 part series I aim to decipher strategies relevant to the nuances that make up tourism in India and how our unique situation can help create jobs, reduce inequality and ultimately empower various relevant social sectors.
Part 1 – Local Business
Tourism is often synonymous with luxury. And that’s what we are trying to create – small hamlets of luxury in places, which are off the beaten track. By encouraging tourism, we are stirring the pot. And by stirring the pot, things start to happen.
Naveen Negi wakes up at 5 am everyday. He lives in Surya Gaon, a small village situated in Sattal, an offbeat hill station close to its more famous counterpart – Nainital. Naveen treks down more than 5 km to the Sattal lake before sunrise everyday where he finds his boat (one of the ten licensed ones there) tethered to a short stump. Untying the rope, he proceeds to attempt cleaning his wooden boat with a scrap of cloth and an indigenous Jhadoo. After helping himself to hot tea, served in the most minuscule cup, he moves on to the hardest part of his day – waiting of the all elusive customer. For you see, this is not Nainital a well known destination, its a small forgotten hamlet where tourists veer through chance. And oft Naveen awaits the whole day in vain.
When we started operations in Sattal in 2011, we saw these boatmen clustered around the shores of the lake – a lake so pristine and untouched that we were surprised that it existed and shocked that no one had discovered it! We found out that these boatman waited for busloads of people to come from Nainital for day picnics – a phenomenon that existed only in peak seasons of travel – the summer months of April, may and June. Moreover, while each boat ride cost Rs. 200, the boatman would earn only Rs. 50, the remaining money went to the owner of the boat. When quizzed about their yearly income, most of the oarsmen looked lost…though Naveen did say it was on the lines of Rs. 50,000 for the entire year!
What could we do to help these boatmen?
For starters we made boating complimentary for our guests. This meant that each one of our guests would do the boat ride at least once during their stay. And we would pay the boatman directly. So for once these people started to see a trickle of customers even during the lean season. As our occupancy rose, so did the income for the boatmen. In that first year, we had about 2000 customers who stayed with us. At Rs. 200/- per trip, the boatmen were able to earn Rs. 400,000 from us alone! Given 10 boats, it still meant Rs. 40,000 per boatman, almost equivalent to what they earned from day tourists alone. Each year the tourists kept increasing and each year the boatman earned more. And then something happened, something we didn’t expect. For as Sattal became a well known tourist destination, new resorts and hotels had cropped up over the years. Yet we never faced competition, intact we started getting more customers who simply walked in to our resort and asked us for rooms.
The beauty of the lake stays unique. Tourists flock to Sattal now but the locals have kept it beautifully clean. Now, boating in Sattal has become a popular activity and people come from all over just to experience it. I believe they ask the boatman about this place and its history. Do you know what they say? They narrate our story and tell customers about a time when they were poor, when they considered looking for other avenues of livelihood. And they tell them, ‘ Yaha ek hi jagah hai rehne layak’ (there is only one place worth staying in).
As a resort management company, we haven’t really done anything. We haven’t tried to scale a business. We haven’t tried to develop something new. We’ve just been able to put to use the resources that are available. And in doing so we’ve been able to create a sustainable business for people at the local level.
Part 2 – Reviving Art
Indian design has been applauded for ages, though absurdly we see Indian towns, cities and even the more affluent villages emulate western design, concrete structures and modern architecture. Ironically the poorest villages retain the forgotten Indian designs – mud structures, thatched roofs and tiles and make for the most beautiful settings. Even the currently held Make in India week focused on Indian design, trades forgotten, heritage revived. How could we use tourism to promote Indian design, lost old ways of making Indian wares?
Kanta Bai works in a small home, one of the 2 last remaining households that works on the beautiful — but vanishing — art form of Bidri developed in the 14th century. This metal handicraft flourished in Aurangabad under the patronage of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Bidri is prepared by inlaying silver on a blackened alloy of zinc and copper. Traditionally, black mud is used to make it. But today, it’s in desperate need of support in the region and only 2 households still work on retaining this art. While traditions of weaving the famous Paithani sarees, another craft of the Aurangabad region, is 2000 years old, Bidri artifacts boast an even older history, though the dwindling demand has reduced the number of people still making them today. As we’ve opened our resort in Mhaismal, a hill station outside Aurangabad, we make sure each of our customers are able to visit Kanta Bai’s home and appreciate the metal art. Of course, this leads to some of our more discerning guests ordering more of the metal worked objects and we are confident that the Bidri art will revive and flourish as the trend catches on.
We have so many such examples and we continually push the envelope to give our guests a fascinating glimpse of the regional art, craft, music and dance forms. For instance, guests can explore how local Rajasthani artisans near our Sariska resort carve out exquisite local marble and other stone figurines. Or experience the living terracotta tradition practiced by the master craftsmen at Molela village (close to V Resorts Lake Alpi, Kumbhalgarh, Rajasthan). They can hear locals sing the folklore of how Laxmanji, Ram’s brother visited the old town of Pauri and settled there; see orphans of leprosy ridden parents sing the Ganga Aarti on the banks of the Ganges in Rajaji national park and other such forgotten arts, crafts and heritage.
At the very least Indians will remember how rich our culture truly is, at best they will help sustain these communities.
Part 3 – Micro Supply Chains
The plight of our marginal farmers is a constant source of contention with economists propagating further price reduction in agricultural commodities to aid the poor. While customers still pay high prices due to supply and logistics constraints. So how does tourism help?
Meet Bashir Khan, a marginal farmer in Ramgarh with a plot of land just 1000 square yards long. Bashir Khan chooses to grow lemon grass – a herb with growing importance in Indian communities with usage primarily restricted to its extract, the lemon grass oil. He owns a rusted piece of machinery, an extractor which he uses for distillation and collection of the oil itself. From his sparse land available, Bashir is able to produce roughly 500 gms of oil. An essential oil, which the unsuspecting customer usually buys at Rs. 200-500 per 50 ml, Bashir, is forced to sell his entire produce for a meager Rs. 150 per litre!
When we started operating our 4 room cottage at Ramgarh, we were aquatinted with Bashir Khan right away. For his farm was just a few feet from our cottage and the lovely lemon grass scent wafted to our balconies. Moreover, it conferred upon us another advantage, no insects! for the lemon grass herb is said to be natural insect repellent. Suitably intrigued, we decided to conduct tours for our customers so they too could experience lemon grass in its natural state and learn about its many properties. However, it was one of those very customers who gave us an idea that is now one of the cornerstones of our business. She asked us if she could buy directly from Bashir Khan as she felt that the produce was natural and fresh, a far cry from its diluted versions available in the Delhi markets. Aghast at the price he offered, the lady ventured a price that was fair though still at huge discount to the market.
After this incident, we decided that Bashir’s lemon grass oil was indeed valuable and customers would pay a premium for it if they had access to the product. Of course what was still lacking was the fancy packaging that customers received when they bought these essential oils from well known brands. So we helped Bashir with an earthy packaging to his product and started stocking Lemon Grass oil at our resort. Customers are happy to buy the product, for it is still cheaper than its counterparts. Though what really gets them excited is meeting Bashir in person, hearing his story and seeing the wonderful farm that houses the lemon grass.
Tourism has the ability to create a market for local products and match demand supply at that very destination. What we could achieve for a marginal farmer was the correct price for his product, while eliminating the middlemen so that the price remained attractive for our customers as well.