Be it the Himalayas, Spiti Valley, Ladakh, or even Karnataka and Odisha, experiential and eco-travel options have are attracting people of all ages.
With the Internet and social media playing a great role in the dissemination of information, people are travelling more than ever before. People from various age groups, even from smaller towns, are choosing experiential travel as an investment on gaining a fresh perspective, for personal growth and holistic enlightenment.
“Experiential travel is a form of tourism in which people focus on experiencing a country, city or particular place by connecting to its history, people, and culture. This has led to a range of tour packages that strike a balance between personalisation, independence, and “in-the-know” support and assistance,” says Yogi Shah, the founder of The Villa Escapes.
Another tourism experience that is gaining a mass following is ecotourism.
Ecotourism is nature-inspired tourism, that largely supports the conservation of the environment while creating economic opportunities for local people. India over the past two decades has witnessed tremendous growth in ecotourism. With a vast forest cover, constituting 20.64 percent of the country's geographic area, there is scope to develop 160 national parks and 698 wildlife sanctuaries (source), creating immense opportunities for ecotourism in the country.
One of the earliest ecotourism organisations in India is Ecosphere, founded in early 2000s. Travel Another India and India Untravelled were founded between 2009 and 2011.
These centres generate employment and livelihood opportunities for the locals where indigenous culture, handicrafts, cuisine, lifestyle are showcased.
Today, be it the Himalayas, Spiti Valley, Ladakh, or Karnataka and Odisha, experiential and eco-travel options have become a popular travel options for people of all ages. Below we list a few startups that took the leap and have ventured into sustainable and development based tourism.
1. Desia Eco-Tourism Camp
Odisha’s Koraput valleyhosts tourists from Spain, Italy, and Germany, thanks to Yugabrata Kar, who is using ecotourism to not only employ and empower the local youth but revive an interest in the art and culture of the land.
Yugabrata’s ‘Desia’ is an initiative that encourages different tribes (primarily the youth) in the environmentally rich Koraput valley of Odisha to make their ancestral and traditional way of living, the source of their livelihood. Apart from creating employment as operating staff, the camp also functions as a marketplace for these tribes living below the poverty line to generate income by sale of handicrafts.
“It works as a win-win for both, as the tourists get to enjoy the beauty and serenity that nature has to offer and at the same time experience the rich cultural heritage of various local communities,” says Yugabrata.
The site, with its two cottages, is a blend of Indian décor with modern amenities, and is a modest one. An art camp and jewellery-making workshops are some of the other initiatives hosted by local women. Further, every tourist not only gets to live amidst the local tribes’ townships, but also dine and converse with them, swap stories of their respective lands, and not to mention also visit nearby tourist spots.
Ecosphere, founded by Ishita Khanna located in Spiti Valley, is an organisation that promotes responsible and sustainable ecotourism with an approach that simultaneously tackles economic empowerment with conservation and sustainable development. Founded in 2004, it began its projects when even the concept of homestays, and the revenue it had the potential to generate, was alien to most.
Ecosphere introduced ways in which the community’s agricultural practices could adapt to changing climate; being in higher altitudes means that villages are highly dependent on winter snowmelt for irrigation. The organisation introduced artificial glaciers in the region and built check dams where water can be slowed down just enough to freeze, which then melts just in time for spring. It has so far built 10 check dams, which have proved to be successful.
Another source of revenue for the local community which had remained untapped was traditional crafts, most of which were dying, among then yak wool spinning and pottery. Ecosphere worked with families that had traditional knowledge and trained them by strengthening their practices and introducing modern techniques. Travellers now spend time with local communities to learn these techniques.
“Our basic premise for all our projects has been that if you’re trying to develop a livelihood without wanting to compromise on conservation, you try to link the two up,” she adds.
By involving local communities, and keeping their needs at the centre of all projects, Ecosphere has stayed true to the concept of ecotourism itself. Out of the 66 villages in Spiti, Ecosphere has covered 80 percent and has been able to introduce, some if not all its projects in all the villages.
3. Offbeat Tracks
Vandana Vijay, following a three-year stint with Facebook, chose to leave her job and at 30, started Offbeat Tracks. Her company focuses on experiential, and sustainable travel across India. Set up in April 2016, it works with various rural communities, integrating with the local population.
The startup attempts to create aesthetic, unconventional and authentic tours. Vandana’s Offbeat Tracks aims to promote eco-tourism among local and rural communities in the Himalayas, advancing the concept of sustainable and experience-based travel, and creating rural micro entrepreneurs through 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.
4. Rainforest Retreat
Approximately five hours west of Bangalore in Karnataka is the Kodagu district in the Western Ghats where Sujata and Anurag Goel decided to start up Mojo Plantation in 1994. In doing so, they had hoped to leave behind the rat race of urban living to explore an organic way of life and a more harmonious existence with nature.
Modelled on an organic farm, Mojo Plantation works on ecological principles; gleaned from the experience of the founders in botany, plant biochemistry, genetics, ecology and molecular biology.
Also on the plantation is a Rainforest Retreat, a unique eco-tourism project that enables tourists to experience the harmony of living with nature. “The Retreat provides a platform for exchange of information, farming practices, research programmes, with like-minded people, farmers and students from India as well as from other countries”, adds Anurag.
Both Mojo Plantation and the Rainforest Retreat fund the Goels’ other project – their NGO entitled Worldwide Association for Preservation and Restoration of Ecological Diversity.
The goal of all these organisations however is similar – to ensure that farmers in the Kodagu region and beyond are aware of the perils of conventional agricultural practices and to promote the adoption of organic farming that preserves soil and fosters biodiversity.
5. Nirvana Nomads
Nirvana Nomads, an alternate travel outfit based in Bengaluru, conceptualised and designed “funky, offbeat, responsible and low-cost” travel experiences. Its aim is to offer offbeat weekend travels around Bengaluru for those that are interested in doing much more than the usual touristy pilgrimage. Journeys at Nirvana Nomads are much more about people, conversations, cultural immersions, learning something new through travels rather than visiting a popular destination.
“We see ourselves as a community of like-minded travellers more than a business. We are focused on creating alternate travel journeys centered on interests of people – wildlife, culture, art, history, photography and so on. The idea is to use travel as a tool to enable positive social change, connect people, and open them up to issues facing our world today,” the team explains.
Nirvana Nomads also facilitates offline events such as Nomads Jam, talks by people from different facets of life, potluck dinners, etc to ensure that people connect with each other beyond the virtual world.
The startup was also awarded and recognised as one of “Top 100 SMEs in India” by Franchise India Magazine.
6. The Blue Yonder
In 2004 Gopinath Parayil set up The Blue Yonder (TBY) as a social enterprise focusing on responsible tourism in a small Kerala village (the company is now based in Bengaluru).
Today, it stands as a stellar example of how a social enterprise can focus on a specific geography and bring about long-lasting social impact by using tourism as a tool for sustainable development.
It began on the river Nila (Bharathapuzha), which had sadly slipped into a state of steady depletion. By reinvesting revenues into community development initiatives the fate of river Nila has been reversed. TBY’s core focus is around the river Nila and their unique travel experience model connects fishing communities, sand smugglers, potters, bell metal workers, folk artists, bamboo weavers, carpet makers and hand-loom textile weavers.
At present TBY offers unique holiday experiences in Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Rajasthan, Kerala, and Karnataka through its three main themes of people, culture and wilderness. Outside of India, they customize travel trips to countries like Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh, South Africa and Nepal.
TBY goes beyond the call of duty by helping its employees earn a dual income. For example, a plumber or an electrician working for TBY, earns extra revenue by being a singer in one of the village music groups in the evening. Such a model protects them from the economic vagaries that go hand-in-hand with seasonal travel.