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Former Facebook employee sets up experiential travel startup, aims to promote sustainable eco-tourism

Hema Vaishnavi
26th Dec 2017
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The brainchild of Vandana Vijay, Hyderabad-based Offbeat Tracks focuses on putting together trips that are off the beaten track and give travellers local experiences, be it culture, cuisine or more. 


Fill your life with adventure, not possessions; have stories to show, not things. Over the last few years, one thing has been added to bucket lists across the world: travel.

But in the past, travellers have often tainted and scarred the most beautiful places on the planet.

Keen to address this concern and also promote the concept of eco-tourism among local and rural communities in the Himalayas, Vandana Vijay, a 30-year-old former employee of Facebook, decided to start Offbeat Tracks. Her startup is an experiential travel company, focusing on sustainable travel across India. Set up in April 2016, it works with various rural communities and integrates with locals in the region.

After working with Facebook for three years, Vandana realised that climbing up the corporate ladder was not her true calling.

She had always dreamed of working with people in rural India and making in impact at grassroots level. It was during a volunteering stint in Ladakh in May 2014 that realisation dawned. She realised she would be happiest working in the experiential travel domain with rural communities in the Himalayas.

For a growing number of people the world over, the idea of travel has changed from ticking off places on your bucket list to gaining and gathering new experiences from their travels. Keeping this in mind, Offbeat Tracks focuses on experience based-travel with the intent to promote sustainable eco-tourism, Vandana says.

Change in travel plans

Millennials are changing the way the travel industry functions.

In a survey conducted in 2016, Topdeck Travel, a provider of group travel for those in the age group of 18-30 years, found that this generation is no longer seeking a party-animal atmosphere when traveling. It instead “wants to fully immerse themselves into new cultures, and feast on local cuisine”.

 

In the group surveyed, experiencing a new culture (86 percent) and eating local foods (69 percent) were listed as common determining factors for motivating people ahead of partying (44 percent) and shopping (28 percent).

The United Nations estimates that nearly 200 million travellers– or 20 percent - of all international tourists are young people, and that this demographic “generates more than $180 billion in annual tourism revenue, an increase of nearly 30 percent since 2007”.

No wonder experiential tourism seems here to stay.

Promoting eco-tourism

Vandana’s Offbeat Tracks aims to “promote eco-tourism among local and rural communities in the Himalayas, promoting the concept of sustainable and experience-based travel, and creating rural micro entrepreneurs via the concept of homestays and local experiences.”

We want to use eco-tourism as a means for infrastructure building in rural Himalayan regions. We also try and ensure all our meals are local flavours from the land and locally produced as much as possible, she adds.

Offbeat Tracks offers stays that are exclusive homestay-based accommodation provided for by local families. This gives the guests a unique insight into local living and a peek into the daily life of host families.

The startup, in an attempt to create aesthetic, unconventional and authentic tours, has also been focusing on local experiences. This could be a culinary tour by a local host in her kitchen, a day spent in the farm learning how to sow paddy, basket and shawl weaving classes organised by local Naga villagers.

Early challenges

Vandana bootstrapped this initiative and faced quite a few challenges early on. They included identifying a sustainable and reliable supply channel of vendors, be it transport, accommodation, food, or experience providers in the remote regions.

“Given the fact that the regions were remote and connectivity is very sporadic it was vital that we set up useful and reliable service providers all over. I personally travelled to all the destinations we initially introduced to vet the regions and experiences we had. We formed personal relationships with our service providers,” she says.

Last year, Ladakh was totally cut off from internet connectivity for over three months due to heavy snowfall. Working out logistics and supply with our vendors was quite a challenge during that time frame, she recalls.

Most destinations Offbeat Tracks operates out of are in remote regions, either politically unstable or prone to geographical hazards. For instance, this year the trips to Sikkim and Bhutan were severely hampered owing to the Gorkhaland crisis. The team had to think of ingenuous ways and alternate routes in order to facilitate the trips.

Rural empowerment

Offbeat Tracks firmly believes in supporting and promoting rural economies, and supports local cottage industry by encouraging their guests to purchase local handicrafts, pickles and jams made by the host families.

Keeping eco-tourism as one of the main premises, the team collaborated with 14 volunteers from California to have them come and install solar lighting units at remote homes in the Himalayas.

The project – from July 14-21, 2017– was organised in Takmachik village in Sham region of Ladakh. The solar units were created by middle-school children in the US and crafted specially keeping the village and its geographical location in mind.

Our primary objective was to power 10 houses that were totally off the grid due to their geographical location with solar lights. We also spent time in the village with local families, supplementing them with additional income and learnt their methods of organic farming and other methods of livelihood that are practiced by the villagers, Vandana says.

This project also helped promote eco-tourism within the village and provided villagers with an additional source of income.

“Over a span of the team’s five-day visit to the village, the community’s total earnings were Rs 1,00,000, which gave a great boost to the locals and their village economy,” Vandana says.

Going places

There are different companies, initiatives and models in the eco-tourism industry.

For instance, there’s GHE (Global Himalayan Expedition), which has setup homestays in its solar electrified villages to promote income generation through eco-tourism in places like Zanskar and Ladakh.

“In Nagaland, Bhutan, groups are experimenting with experiential travel. Urban Indian millennials don’t want packaged tours as they lack personalisation,” she says.

All our experts are locals, they have a specific connect with locals and the local environment, they present to the guests something that’s not readily available on the internet, Vandana adds.

Future plans

Offbeat Tracks has organised over 100 tours in its 14 months of operation, primarily operating out of Ladakh, Kashmir Valley, Sikkim, Bhutan, Meghalaya, Assam Valley and Nagaland.

Vandana, who currently works with a team of three members, plans to explore other areas in Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand soon.

She hopes that her future projects will be funded through government incentives, but is open to angel investors as well.

We are looking to increase our network of homestays and locally curated experiences in our already existing geographies. We are also planning to partner with local solar companies and undertake their CSR ventures for solar electrification projects. We plan to begin with rural solar electrification with communities in Ladakh and the Kashmir Valley, Vandana says.

Offbeat Tracks is keen to keep the focus on experiential travel rather than visiting places and ticking them off your bucket list.

“We believe that a vacation to a new destination is made truly unique and memorable by interacting with locals and assimilating the local way of life, with its traditions and culture,” Vandana ends.

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