Escape to the country: India’s villagers open doors to city tourists

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The village of Dehene in the state of Maharashtra, where Grassroutes has introduced its community-based tourism model. Photograph: Anne Pinto-Rodrigues

A scheme training people to host outsiders is creating alternative livelihoods that will help build resilience against climate crisis and stem migration for Indian families

Datta Kondar leads a group of tourists through his village in Maharashtra to view the firefly spectacle for which it is so famous. With the arrival of the monsoons in June, thousands of fireflies emerge at twilight and perform an elaborate courtship ritual, signalling to prospective mates with their glowing bodies in a mesmerising show.

Being a tour guide is not what Kondar, 36, had planned. In 2003, he took the typical route of many rural Indians, travelling to the city in search of work. But he found himself unable to cope with the gritty realities of life in Mumbai and returned to his village, Purushwadi, within a year.

“I would rather earn 5,000 rupees [about £60] in my village than 15,000 rupees in the city,” he says.

Back home he was recruited by Grassroutes, a social enterprise conducting a pilot for community-based tourism. The idea of Mumbai entrepreneur Inir Pinheiro, Grassroutes aims to reduce migration from India’s villages by creating job opportunities. Nearly two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion population live in rural areas.

“Our primary focus is to empower rural communities. But we also want to celebrate the cultural diversity of India,” says Pinheiro. Currently, about 900 families across 16 villages in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat are part of the programme.

Nearly 95% of the tourists are Indian. “There is a huge urban-rural divide in the country and we want to bridge that gap. By having urban Indians live with rural families, we hope that these interactions will foster an understanding of life on the other side,” says Pinheiro.

Once the village panchayat (council) has approved the project, locals are trained in all aspects of tourism – hospitality, communication, cleanliness and hygiene, as well as safety procedures. They are taught to showcase their culture, lifestyle and the natural beauty of their village. Once the training is complete, Grassroutes promotes the village and handles bookings. But it is the villagers who own, manage and run all the activities.

Villagers are paid on a bi-weekly basis, ensuring people have a steady flow of cash to pay bills and avoid debt. As well as salaries, for every visiting tourist Grassroutes pays money into a village development fund, to be used for initiatives like building a communal hall for village functions or scholarships for students.

Tourists can come for a day or stay for longer in villagers’ homes. “We create 8,000 to 9,000 days of employment per village annually,” says Pinheiro.

Purushwadi, a hamlet in the west Indian state of Maharashtra, is home to 109 families. Nearly 70% of its households work part-time for Grassroutes, supplementing the villagers’ unpredictable incomes from farming.

According to Pinheiro, on average Purushwadi’s families make 20,000 rupees (£230) a year from farming. Money from tourism earns them an average 5,500 rupees on top.

“Unlike most rural tourism programmes which are restricted to one season, we make sure that there is footfall for a major part of the year. Alongside regular tourists, we host a range of themed workshops as well as corporate training programmes, to ensure that the villagers’ income is not affected by any drop in the number of tourists,” says Pinheiro.

Such was the success in attracting tourists to Purushwadi’s firefly festival in 2014 that villagers, including Kondar, trained a neighbouring village – Wanjulshet – to host visitors. In 2018, they coached nearby Gondoshi to help meet demand.

The Grassroutes programme has had influences besides the village’s economic wellbeing, and urban women who visit serve as role models to girls and young women there. Raksha Patekar, 20, a Grassroutes guide in Dehene village, about 120km from central Mumbai, says: “I hope to become the sarpanch [village head] some day.” This would have been an unthinkable ambition a few years ago.

Overall health has also improved since the start of the Grassroutes programme. Preparing meals for city visitors means learning more about nutritious food and having an improved awareness of cleanliness and hygiene.

Bringing in tourism though, has not been easy – or quick.

“Developing new markets takes time,” says Pinheiro. “Our pilot in Purushwadi lasted three long years, before we formally registered Grassroutes in 2009. Since then, for every village we add, we invest six months to a year in training the community. Patience is key for the success of this model.”

Grassroutes is accelerating its efforts. “We are already working with the state tourism board in Andhra Pradesh and are in discussions with a few other state tourism boards as well. We are also open to collaborating with, and training any rural community-based organisation interested in rolling-out this model,” says Pinheiro.

“As climate change impacts agricultural output and unseasonal rains damage stored harvests, alternative livelihoods become even more critical for communities dependent on farming. We aim to create 1m livelihood opportunities in rural India before 2030.”

 

Source: The Guardian

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