The real India lives in its villages and rural tourism is slowly emerging as a niche, albeit nascent, segment. An integral part of any village based tourism initiative is the engagement of the local villagers and the opportunity it can provide to enhance their income. Villages Ways that is involved in several successful community tourism projects in India, is now looking at involving villages in Ethiopia and Kenya in similar initiatives. Village Ways currently has 11 guest houses in Uttarakhand (six in Binsar and five in Saryu and Pindar Valley) along with a campsite near Nanda Devi mountain, a guest house in Rajasthan’s Thar desert, a spice house in Karnataka and the recent project of a houseboat in Kerala. All these accommodation projects are owned and managed by the local villagers.
The communities are partners/share holders in Village Ways. “Our effort is to tie up with either like-minded organisations or help in refurbishment or general standard of whatever accommodation are available,” says Himanshu Pande, director development, Village Ways.
It had all started when Pande who was running his family hotel Mountain Resort, in Khali Estate, Almora, Uttarakhand realised that people from nearby villages were migrating continuously due to lack of employment opportunity. “Khali Estate is inside Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. Binsar was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1990 and there were a few restrictions posed on the local communities. This had a direct impact on the people who started migrating from the sanctuary. The idea of Village Ways is to benefit the villagers from tourism activities,” states Pande. A private limited company was formed, Village Ways raised money and started working in five villages of Binsar. “We have set up little guest houses in the villages, each has three bedrooms, a living room, dining room, a separate place for the guides in the same house to stay. These guest houses are basically for walking holidays. Tourists come to my hotel in Khali Estate and then move onwards for one/two/three nights stay in different villages depending on the duration of their holiday,” mentions Pande. There are guides who walk with guests from one village to another. These villages are far from the roads and cars cannot reach these destinations. Each village has porters to carry the luggage of tourists.
Talking about the growth of the initiative Pande says, “We had started this initiative commercially in 2006 but we were working on it from 2002. After the success in Binsar villages we have turned to five more nearby villages in Uttarakhand. We are working in partnership with a government organisation called Upasak which is involved in livelihood of communities. This is in Pindar Valley – there are five homes in villages and a campsite located near the big mountains of Nanda Devi.” After Uttarakhand, Villages Ways expanded to other places – a little guest house in Hacra village in Rajasthan’s Thar desert. Again owned by the community it is around two hours drive from Jodhpur. The next project was in south India not far from Hubli in Karnataka – the Hulgol Spice House at a place called Sirsi.
Every guest house funded by Village Ways is owned by the village. Forty per cent of the construction cost for the guest house is given as grant by Village Ways, and 60 per cent as interest free loan to the village. Each guest house is managed by the village committee, which has a president, a secretary, and other people. “We’ve negotiated the rates with them. For example in Binsar there is a bigger committee comprising all the five villages that has fixed the rates of what Village Ways will pay to the communities per guest for boarding as well as lodging. We have also trained many guides. In Binsar we have 12 guides, out of which two are lady guides who have been trained in flora, fauna, english language, first aid, etc,” informs Pande. Guests cannot give any direct tips or gifts to the villagers. Each village has a Village Development Fund where tourists can make the contribution so that it can benefit all. Each village takes the decision on how to use the fund.
The criteria of selecting a village include factors like if the community needs an alternate source of livelihood, besides the important fact if the destination has the potential to be marketed as a holiday product. UK has been the key market. “While on one hand a lot of community mobilisation effort is done, on the other hand the marketing team has to work on selling these projects. Whatever revenues Village Ways is making we reinvest in other projects,” says Manisha Pande, director, Village Ways. She points out that while the concept is what an NGO would do but there is also a marketing side to it to keep projects sustainable in the long term. “It is a social enterprise that takes the initiative to develop the project and also takes initiative to market it,” explains Manisha Pande.
There have been few other positive impacts too. For instance, in Binsar the relationship between Forest Department and villagers have improved with the opening of the guest houses. There is general patrolling of the forests, forest fires have reduced and importantly, wildlife has also increased.