At the start of the pandemic, there were a lot of knee jerk reactions as to what would save tourism in India. Many rightly said domestic tourism and in terms of many hotels this is correct, however this is not the case for many inbound DMC’s. Another reaction was that sustainable travel would save the day, rural travel, off beat destinations, whatever the preferred terminology.
I didn’t join many of the hundreds of webinars and discussions on all of the above, after all, it was all just a guessing game, no one knew how prolonged the pandemic would be, how long the recovery would take and how the industry would adapt. We still don’t. What I did gather was that the general consensus was that sustainable travel and rural travel would save the day. I was quietly pleased, if not that optimistic.
For 20 years I’ve been promoting travel beyond the bucket list and for 20 years, by and large, I’ve been banging my head against a brick wall. 85% of travel companies just promote the same old same old. If the pandemic could change that, all well and good, but realistically will this happen? After the initial knee jerk reactions, how many have truly had a really good look at the programs they’ve been offering for years and attempted to research, discover new horizons, make good on their promises and deliver a new, more sustainable India to the market? I have seen a handful and that in itself is heart-warming, but it’s a drop in the ocean. I’ve received far more emails from companies, promoting the same old packages for the Golden Triangle and banking on the inevitable price war to save the day.
The industry is not solely to blame, it is fuelled by clients with a bucket list mentality who want to simply visit the mainstream destinations and tick them off the list. Can anything be done about this? As a dear friend and colleague who has been in the Indian travel industry for 30 years told me just last week, ‘The industry hasn’t changed in 30 years Philippa, it won’t change in my lifetime.’ He has a point, I had to agree and I almost threw in my (organic cotton) towel and admit defeat. But then you see, the Yorkshire woman* in me just would’t quite quit and within 48 hours I was back to wondering what could be done.
Firstly Indian Experiences was set up exactly for this, to work with tour operators and dmc’s in order to provide them with the destination and product information that they require to give them USPs in a crowded market, helping them to promoting India away from the main stream. A by product of this is to promote localised and niche experience providers who all, by their very nature, are more sustainable in their approach and more authentic in the experiences that they offer. Our efforts to do this will continue and I know that there is a growing number of travellers and tour operators who share our philosophy, who don’t want to follow the herd, preferring to follow their passion and I thank them all, they keep me sane.
Secondly, there has to be more focus in travel media about more sustainable and regenerative travel destinations. This is definitely happening and it is starting to affect change and it is attracting a growing tribe. Particularly since this pandemic, the numbers of people who are now much more aware about this type of tourism and climate change have grown and statistics have show that, in principle at least, this will affect the decisions that they make.
However, the very nature of rural, regenerative and sustainable tourism means that numbers are finite, this type of travel is not a numbers game.
It’s taken quite some time but a lesson taught to me by Julian Matthews, the founder of ToFT more than ten years ago has finally sunk in. When he started ToFT, quite a few of the lodge owners who were already following sustainable practices were annoyed at the attention and rankings that the lodges who were far less eco minded were getting. Julian’s philosophy was that these were the lodges who needed his help the most, the ones who weren’t eco minded. There’s no point in preaching to the already converted, appreciate them, yes, thank them, yes but they were already on the right track. In order for true change to happen, it is the people who aren’t following sustainable practices that need to be encouraged to do so. Ping! A lightbulb moment happened, albeit a decade later.
If we can’t persuade the majority of tourists away from the Golden Triangle and mainstream circuits, how can we ensure that the travel that is done there, is at least carried out more sustainably?
What is ‘sustainable travel?’
To borrow from The Folk Tales one of the wonderful experiential travel companies we work with:
Sustainable travel is when:
- Your money goes directly to the local economy and the people.
- You leave a minimal carbon footprint on the environment.
- Your holiday is immersive and encourages ‘authentic’ interactions with the local communities.
So, lets look at the classic itineraries run by the majority of mass market tour operators where people are rushed around as follows:
Delhi: 1 night, main monuments and tourist shopping emporiums.
Agra: 1 night, main monuments and tourist shopping emporiums,
Jaipur: 2 nights, main monuments and tourist shopping emporiums,
Jodhpur: 1 night, main monuments and tourist shopping emporiums,
Udaipur: 1 night, main monuments and yes, you got it, a tourist shopping emporium.
There is zero time to discover the culture, visit the local markets, eateries, meet the people or have any type of engagement apart from with the guide (who’s sole focus is to get clients into a shop) or the hotel staff.
Yet, each of these destinations has far, far more to offer than the monuments that have made them famous.
Take Jaipur as a classic example. It used to be the centre of the world jewellery trade and has a rich tradition of traditional and modern jewellery design and making, it has a rich history of textiles, it has blue pottery considered to be Turko-Persian in origin, it has great adventure options from mountain biking to half day treks to horse riding and jeep safaris. It has wonderful dining experiences from street food to dining with royals. It is famous for its bazaars and it’s great for non-touristy shopping. It has wonderful monuments, step wells, a ghost town and a national park all within an hour’s drive. In short, it is a destination that it would be easy to spend 4 nights in.
Let’s have a look at Jodhpur. Beyond the fort it has wonderful jeep safaris (and I don’t mean the standard Bishnoi tour that is done to death) it has zip wiring, it has the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park, it has wonderful Marwari horse safaris and royal picnics, it is famous for its furniture production and dhurries, its tribes, photography opportunities and yes, a unique wildlife. I have never sold Jodhpur as less than a three-night destination, ever.
Udaipur: There are wonderful treks in the surrounding hills or bike rides into the local villages, visits to Eklingi and Nathdwara, Kothariya and Raj Samand Lake are possible, there’s the Koftgiri workers (gold inlay, the only people left doing this in the world), the only people who do painting on water. There are opportunities to learn how to cook your favourite Indian dish before you leave and also get to grips with the basic tenets of yoga. On the other hand, this is one destination where it is lovely to simply spend time sauntering around the old town and enjoying sundowners on the terrace of a restaurant or bar. I’ve often given Udaipur as a 3 or sometimes 4 night destination at the end of a trip.
Hell, I’ll even relent and give Agra a big up, are you ready?
- Did you know that there are actually three Taj Mahals?
- Did you know the first ever Mughal Garden was built in Agra and still remains today, in really good condition?
- Did you know that the North West Province was run from Agra from 1803 – 1858 and it has one of the best-preserved cantonment areas in the country?
- Did you know that despite all of the tanneries being closed down to preserve the Taj Mahal it is still the centre of leather and there is a great shoe market held most mornings?
- Did you know that there is a brilliant bird sanctuary there, and no, I am not talking about Bharatpur?
- Did you know that Wildlife SOS in addition to its bear rescue centre, now has an elephant rescue centre on the outskirts of the city?
- Did you know that there are great walking and cycle tours of the old city?
No, most of you won’t, because people only focus on the Taj Mahal.
My point is, that in all of these destinations, there are a whole host of activities that can be included in an itinerary. These destinations are fascinating beyond their main monuments.
Now here comes quite a controversial point, are you ready? At some point in an itinerary like this it is also important to take time to have time. Even if that is just a half day breather. Give a client the opportunity to relax, absorb all that has been seen, nip back to that market/temple/walk/stepwell, they didn’t have time to see on the main tour. India is overwhelming, a step back and a breather is appreciated. I met someone just yesterday who told me the holiday I arranged for him in 2003 was amazing but exhausting, he wished he’d had a night more in each destination. If I’d known then what I know now, he would have done.
As a tour operator or DMC, if you only follow one rule, which will help put you on the path to a more sustainable way of travel and lead to happier, and therefore repeat customers’ it is this:
Slow it down.
To do this effectively, you need to do three things:
- Get to know the client, their interests, hobbies, reasons for travel beyond the bucket list.
- Take time to truly get to know the destinations and their potential for other interests and experiences.
- To have the desire to operate more sustainably.
Once travel is slowed down the basic tenets of sustainable travel are automatically covered.
- There is the time to include more authentic experiences, from simply trying a chai at the local chai stall to visiting local NGO’s to shopping at places which give back to the local community rather than over-priced emporiums.
- By staying longer, your carbon footprint is reduced, from sheets and towels being washed in hotels to the fuel used to travel between destinations to name but two.
- The holiday is more immersive, there is time for more authentic interactions with local communities. Your clients will have a richer and more rewarding holiday and will be more inclined towards visiting India again.
Slow it down | Less is more | Be more sustainable.
*Yorkshire Woman: Straight talking, stubborn, always right.
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My book, Escape to India by Philippa J Kaye is available on Amazon. For every copy 100% of the profits are being donated to the NGO’s we support at Indian Experiences.