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In the lap of nature

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For the new age traveller who has roamed the world and has experienced many of its glitzy sights and sounds, the new attractions are more simple – the joy of picking leaves in a tea garden, watching the evening sunset from the verandah of a century old bungalow, or living the life of a planter for a couple of days. There are many unique experiences that plantation stays offer to the discerning traveller. Interestingly, these experiences are not just marketed as a tourism product, but as an eco tourism experience to an evolved segment of clientele.

Cherian Ramapuram

Apart from the eco tourism aspect which is at the heart of a plantation stay experience, the fact remains that a holiday in a tea estate or a spice farm or a coffee plantation is the unique attraction of unspoiled version of nature at its best – from nature walks and bird watching tours to Orchid spotting. The accommodation is also a highlight – from heritage homestays in spice gardens of Kerala to colonial bungalows in Darjeeling’s tea estates. “Plantation stay becomes unique because it is a combination of an exclusive lifestyle, while touching the soul of the land. It also gives one an opportunity to see the precious commodities that they buy or use in the day-to-day life. Apart from this it is a very exclusive experience which can be enjoyed only in a plantation,” says Cherian Ramapuram, director – sales, Orange County Resorts & Hotels. Pointing out that his property in Coorg promotes ‘exclusive local experiences’, Ramapuram adds that guests are offered a unique experience of living like a planter for a day, going on a plantation trail, and this is what a discerning traveller looks for. Guest profile has also shown a continuous evolution. “Today’s guests have more educated tastes and is more refined as they have travelled around the world,” he concedes.

Christine Jamal

Those interested in plantation stays include travellers looking for experiential holidays, nature lovers and adventure seekers, and retired people. Yet another significant category are corporate executives who wish to get away and senior corporates who are interested in using the setting for their strategy meets, small meetings and conference. “The key trend we are observing is that travellers are seeking experiences rather than just ‘sightseeing’. Concepts such as voluntourism and experiential holidays are gaining popularity in India which is further supported by a general consciousness to the idea of using their recreational time to contribute to the socio economic/ environmental causes they believe in,” states Christine Jamal, consultant, Tata Coffee Plantation Trails.

Plantation lifestyle experience

Tata Coffee’s Plantation Trails offers its guests ‘an authentic plantation lifestyle experience’ in its eight colonial and heritage bungalows spread across Coorg and Chikmagalur. According to Jamal it is a unique holiday proposition, combining the grace and grandeur of a bygone era with contemporary comforts and warm service. “History and heritage blend gently here with the fragrance of fresh coffee and the cool mountain air to provide our guests an unforgettable experience. Nestled amidst the lush plantations and cradled by the verdant hills of south India, the bungalows create the perfect destination to refresh and rejuvenate,” she states.

Not only do the guests stay in original planters’ bungalows located amidst lush plantations, but even the food and service is in true plantation style. The staff are also from plantation workers’ families. There are guided coffee tours – guests drive in a jeep through the coffee plantations and receive firsthand information on how coffee is processed from bean to cup. Other activities include a nine-hole golf course, badminton, table-tennis, trekking, boating, and white water rafting. Coorg, acknowledges Jamal, is one of the fastest growing destinations in India. “Our focus continues on providing the guests with the local plantation experience. In the process, we continue to work with local communities towards improving their quality of life,” she adds.

George Scaria

With a special focus on south India, Keralavoyages (India) promotes special experience tours in connection with the tea plantations in Munnar, tea making experience in Periyar, tea plucking experience in Munnar, cardamom plantation walks near Periyar and coffee plantation trails in Coorg and Chikmagalur. “We are basically into inbound markets and we have a strong base in Europe especially in German speaking countries namely Austria, Germany and Switzerland. We also have regular clients from countries like Poland, Denmark,USA, Canada, Australia and UK,” says George Scaria, director – Incoming Tours, Keralavoyages (India). He avers that only the high end domestic travellers appreciate plantation tourism initiatives.

Sejoe Jose

Marvel Tours is focused on two types of plantations tours – first is based on the spices and rubber and the second on fish farming and paddy cultivation. Tea plantation tours are also conducted along with tea tasting. Sejoe Jose, managing director, Marvel Tours explains that majority of the guests are from cities and most are not aware of which products come from which plant. “Stay in plantation house is also called farm house stay where the guest along with host experience the life as a farmer. The farmer could have products like rubber/spice/paddy depending on the area the guest wishes to stay. This will not only help guests to understand the farm but also to know the different traditions and customs followed in different villages,” he adds.

Tea tourism

The popularity of tea tourism has given a fillip to plantation stays in the north east. For almost two decades Help Tourism, an ecotourism organisation, has been working to promote tea tourism in the Eastern Himalayas. Raj Basu, founder, Help Tourism and his team have managed to convince a significant number of tea gardens and estates to look at tourism as a product. “The basic idea had come from wine tourism and the key mission was to lead tourists to explore the ‘actions behind a cup of tea’. The people involved, the landscape and the heritage. The best part was the hospitality, a culture which developed during the British in India, the Dak Bungalow of the tea estates, which we now call the Tea Bungalow,” says Basu.

The first tea estate to start tea tourism was Phaskhowa in the Buxa Tiger Reserve area of Dooars. “The most successful tea tourism till date is Glenburn. The first to show the way in Assam is by the Jalans at Mancotta, while the most responsible model till date is Makaibari,” states Basu, who is also the coordinator of teatourindia.com, a project of Help Tourism to support tea tourism in east and northeast India. The tea estates that have been surveyed in Darjeeling and Dooars include Damdim, Rangapani, Looksan, Bundapani, Lankapara, Phanskhowa, Marrionbarrie, Makaibari, Selim Hill, Glenburn, Takdah, Tukvar, Margarete’s Hope, Tumsong, Singell, etc. In Assam, the tea gardens include names like Balipara, Sangsui, Rehamabad, Mancotta, Limbuguri, Padumini, etc. “This is a fast growing sector and has added activities like golf and horse riding to the luxury hospitality. The Tea Bungalows though isolated are safe places even for visit of all women groups and individuals because of the age old culture,” he mentions. The homestays at labourer houses mainly are used by voluntourists.

Vaivhav Todi

Assam-based Greener Pastures is extensively promoting experiences in tea plantations. Guests stay in heritage bungalows which are a reminiscence of the rich heritage of the early British tea growers. “Plantations such as that of tea have a very rich history. Growers, since the time of Britishers, have always been enthusiastic people who live elegant and charming lifestyles devoted to their passion of planting. Staying in a plantation gives the guest a chance to experience this piece of history, while at the same time live in a place of serenity and learn about plantation processes,” states Vaivhav Todi, director, Greener Pastures. Apart from serene walks in lush green tea gardens, visitors can also learn more about tea production by visiting a factory and get to taste the various grades of the finest Assam tea. Other activities include visiting the villages of the tea tribes and Assamese people, safaris in nearby wildlife areas, cooking lessons and cultural programmes.

Green Pastures provide accommodations in three different tea estates across Assam. “Plantation stays deserve popularity because of their uniqueness and rich heritage. It is not everyday a guest can experience a grower’s lifestyle and the breathtaking beauty of large plantations. This segment certainly has a lot of potential as the experience offered is something of value and is a good getaway for families and couples living in cities and other urban areas,” adds Todi.

Unique accommodation

Rekha Goyal

Plantation stays are attracting those people looking for different stay options other than hotels and resorts. Namastay.in offers travellers the option to stay on plantations – accommodations on its network are small independent places offering anywhere between two to 10 rooms. “We do not work with large hotel chains, so our experience is a lot more intimate. People are moving away from the hotel experience and are actively seeking something new. Most of us living in cities crave to see an expanse of greenery. Plantations are ideally suited to offer that and when you live in a homestay or a bungalow on a plantation, there is not a better sight to wake up to. That, coupled with a cool climate, quiet and serenity make plantations an ideal getaway for overworked city dwellers,” says Rekha Goyal, co-founder, Travacco/namastay.in. She reveals that the interesting thing about those who opt to spend their getaway at plantations is that they come back to experience it again in a different season. “Repeat clientele is high and they do the best marketing for us, which helps in attracting like-minded people,” adds Goyal.

There are different types of accommodation options in plantation retreats. The basic ones are like more of a homestay attached to the small farm owners home. For example, Pepper County and Elathottam at Periyar. “These kind of accommodations are run by the family members and like a home only. The next level may be a kind of guest house accommodations in estate bungalows like Cherakara and Talapoya in Wayanad district of Kerala or Coffee Plantations Bungalows of Tata Coffee in Coorg and Chickmagalur. Also, the Windermere estate in Munnar is a unique plantation theme resort set in the midst of a 40 acre cardamom plantation,” says Scaria. The next level is luxury and theme resorts like Orange County in Coorg, Serai in Chikmagalur(both in Karnataka), Carmeliya Haven in Vandanmedu in Kerala, Elephant Valley in Kodaikanal in Tamilnadu, etc.

Some of the properties promoted by Marvel Tours are – Shembaga Villasam (located in 500 acer of farm in Pollachi); Parayil homestay in Kerala – the biggest prawn cultivation centre near Kochi; Elam Thotam – a homestay giving the experience of staying in a rubber plantation which is located in Kanjirapaly, in Kottayam district; Nelpura – a homestay on an island in Allepey district which is in the middle of paddy fields. “There is a lot of interest in plantation homestays with rise in occupancy by 15-20 per cent. In the beginning our target clients were British in particular. But today the trend has changed as we have now people showing interest from Europe and the US,” states Jose. The NRI crowd is another interested segment. Indians visitors from metro cities are also interested in the concept in particular to educate their children.

Many challenges

Despite its vast potential plantation tourism has not developed as a sector due to many factors. Scaria rues that operators like him are not been able to choose a steady marketing of plantation tourism products because of government orders to close down the bungalows. “They also come out with regulations restricting the planters from doing any other commercial activities other than farming. In states like Kerala, the Land Reforms Act etc does not permit the plantation owners to utilise their land for any other commercial activity. If the idea is formulated in a better way with proper licensing and strict monitoring, it can bring a good volume of foreign currency to the country,” says Scaria.

Lack of policy for tea tourism is the biggest handicap for the sector. “We have been lobbying to bring in an amendment that the existing bungalows in no or less use in the tea estate should be allowed for tourism, which means that if all the tea estates agree, there will be more than 2000 quality room nights available for North of West Bengal (Darjeeling Hills and Dooars),” said Basu. They have a demand that all Tea Bungalows with four or less rooms should be exempted from any taxes, service or luxury as such infrastructure are not as profitable to make it a business for tea estate owners.

Sustainable practices

Goel family

Eco tourism is an integral part of plantation stay experience, with many of those involved in developing and promoting plantation stays actively involved in sustainable tourism practices. Mojo Plantation spice farm and the Rainforest Retreat are located in Kodagu (Coorg) district of Karnataka state. Mojo Plantation and the Rainforest Retreat fund the activities of the WAPRED Research Foundation (Worldwide Association for Preservation and Restoration of Ecological Diversity), an environmental NGO. “At Rainforest Retreat, we welcome travellers from different parts of the world. Most express their desire to learn more about sustainable living, ecological agriculture, sustainable farming practices. All our crops here are grown organically under the canopy of the rainforest trees. We bring out all aspects of the ecological agriculture through an interpretive plantation tour to our guests,” says Sujata Goel, who calls herself a farmer. The Goels also grow fresh fruits and vegetables which are used for creating meals for the guests. “They often participate in several plantation related activities as well,” says Goel.

Since its inception in 2000, Rainforest Retreat has attracted ecologically-aware clientele who seek to enjoy the forests and learn about sustainable living and farming practices. “This category of visitors has grown in the past few years. We do get more school and university students now as we host more programmes and workshops customised towards their learning through experience,” informs Goel. The activities at Rainforest Retreat include treks in the local hills with a trained guide; birding and orchid spotting with an in-house naturalist.

Help Tourism’s proposal for eco tourism at Makaibari was first accepted by Raja Banerjee, the owner of Makaibari Tea Estate, which is a biodynamic tea garden with 40 per cent natural cover. “We initiated the first eco tourism committee in Makaibari Tea Estate by the name ‘Hum Tera’, we thirteen, a 13 member committee from the five Labour Lines,” says Basu, adding that, labour quarters were identified as homestays and an alternative livelihood was started for the youths of the tea estate for the first time. Now after six years, many volunteers from Europe are staying at these homestays from four to 12 weeks, who support social activities.

An extremely niche product, for a segment of travellers plantation stays are an attractive new holiday option, which provides excellent diversity in terms of destination, accommodation types and experiences. Social media and word-of-mouth publicity have been very effective in highlighting this segment.

With inputs from Steena Joy

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