Is India’s Rural Tourism Industry Helping Or Hurting?

Is India’s Rural Tourism Industry Helping Or Hurting?
© 2011 EK13 Photography/

It was a crimson sunset that evening. The waves lashed at the shore in the distance and the birds took their final flight back home. The coconut trees swayed above me and the narrow, muddy path went far beyond what I could see. I smiled back at a few village folk who cycled past me with an equally warm smile. A few children chased tyres and their worried mothers yelled at them to come back in. As I neared the coast, I saw a fleet of boats arrive. The fishermen returned to their homes. In India’s villages, when the sun sets, the day is truly over.

During my first trip into the hinterland, I found it slightly difficult to adjust. There wasn’t a thing to do beyond 7 pm except wander around in the dark and perhaps look up at a starry sky. I walked back to my homestay and sat by the stream that ran behind it. Its owner, Medha, accompanied me. “Bored, are you” she said circling her fingers in the mud. I nodded without looking up. “Why did you choose to come stay in a village then?” she asked curiously. I didn’t know what to tell her. Had I just come here to escape the cacophony of the city like most tourists do, or had I come here to explore the lifestyle of the village and understand my roots? Why had I chosen to stay in a homestay rather than a 3 star hotel just on the outskirts? Was I just another city-dweller failing to understand rural life?

I was in a tiny village called Kotawade outside Ratnagiri, on a trip through the villages of the Konkan coast, I began trying to comprehend the situation of rural tourism in India. The village was dotted with homestays, a new museum on the Konkan culture had opened that employed the locals, and many villagers served delicious Malwani cuisine for a decent amount of money. Larger hotels existed only in the city. The village was serene, just like it had always had been. But the sea was crowded with tourists who would come to the Konkan coast just to try out water sports at dirt cheap prices. I was quite impressed to see a positive example of development through rural tourism, until I walked up to the sea to see a few urban dwellers carelessly frolicking on the beach, talking loudly and drinking. A broken beer bottle washed up on the coast. The end of serenity, it seemed, was near.

Kotwade Village, Ratnagiri.

The Questions

A unique village identity and generation of employment are just a few of the ways development in rural tourism is measured. But is this model sustainable? How long before the village became too popular and bigger players approached the areas to build large chains putting pressure on natural resources and commodifying the cultures that people came to experience in the first place. What was it that the travellers seeked and what shaped the tourist gaze? With all these questions circling in my head I set forth to quench my wanderlust and overcome my boredom, talking to villagers, hoteliers, travellers to arrive at only one plausible explanation. Eventually all good rural tourism led to bad. Through my travels in various states across India, I looked at certain places that were blazing a trail in rural tourism while most had given into the viciousness. The worst affected were the natural resources and the locals that bore the brunt of unchecked commercialisation.

The Tourism Industry in India

Tourism in India has grown phenomenally in the last few years. It supports around 39.5 million jobs and contributes to almost 7.7% of its total employment, ranking 38th in the world in terms of foreign tourist influx. Rural Tourism in India, however, is slowly evolving and developing to suit two purposes - giving tourists an offbeat, local and nostalgic experience and strengthening their own economy by generating employment and earning revenue through the tourism industry. Rural destinations in India are slowly opening up to offer experiences in terms of their culture, heritage, natural landscape and traditions, to satisfy the growing demand of offbeat, immersive and culturally rich travel experiences of tourist.

A project called The Endogenous Tourism Project- Rural Tourism Scheme (ETP-RTS), collaborative effort between the Ministry of Tourism and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was initiated in 2003 and being implemented currently at only 36 sites across the country. However it is a known fact that if rural tourism accelerates development, it may also lead to excessive commercialization. This has been the case in many villages, especially in Maharashtra, Goa and down south where commercial hotel chains have started lobbying.

How Rural Tourism Has Helped Certain Places

Once my wanderlust took me to the godforsaken but absolutely mesmerizing land of Spiti. Curious as to how life bloomed in such a remote area where daily operations come to a hault with the onset of winter, I spent 10 days in Spiti valley that took me across mountains to some of the highest points in the world and the most beautiful villages I had ever seen. Here I stayed in villages like Tabo, Dhankar, Demul etc. that have successfully developed an infrastructure for sustainable rural tourism. The villagers here have managed to earn a few extra bucks by opening up home stays, budget hotels and eateries that serve the weary traveller quite well. People have ventured into becoming local tour guides, drivers and have started selling their indigenous handicrafts. Full of tourists, but still clean, green and unexploited.

Under a UNDP project, the largest village in the Brahmaputra basin, Sualkuchi village known for its silk weaving focused on sustainable rural livelihoods,income generation, employment, gender equality, empowerment of women, youth and marginalized sections of
the rural society and their capacity building. A similar project was carried out in Sikkim and Village Hodka in Kutch where the craft of local artisans was promoted. According to statistics, these tourist sites were entirely managed by locals the total income generated was slightly over INR 48.7 million with 40% increase in income level of at least 80 families.

Local Handicrafts made by villagers in Demul, Spiti

How Rural Tourism Is Destroying Certain Places?

However Maharashtra and certain North Eastern states are facing the brunt of village tourism with its local communities manipulated to suit the needs of tourists. A fine exampe is the Kumbhargaon village of Maharashtra which is renowned for its bird sanctuary. The tourism industry is progressing there, but the place might soon fall prey to commercialization eventually destroying the rural spaces. Plastic waste and its treatment are one of the several issues crippling the place now.

The poverty in Kumbhargaon. Image Source: Sanket Jain

Another interesting example is of Tapola (near Mahabaleshwar) which is renowned for its beautiful lake. Commercial and uncontrolled boating has flourished in the region, but there is a downfall to it. The immense pressure put on the local resources might destroy the indigenous species there. The valley of flowers in Kaas is permitted to only receive a hundred tourists in a given time slot, however everyone who visits is let in. Village Bamnoli just in the vicinity too takes undue advantage of the locals in the area paying them meager wages for boating. Durgaram Shinde, a licensed boatman there who took us for a lovely boat ride in the Shiv Sagar Lake (Koyana Dam back-waters) has been cruising these waters since the last 20 years but is still on a monthly salary of mere 1500 rupees.

While the states in the north eastern India have managed to preserve the nature which is as breathtaking as it ever has been, rural tourism here as led to commdofication of cultures. There are special curated tours to go see the ‘tribes’ in their villages as if they are some sort of zoo animals.

There were certain situations where rural tourism could do really well, but neither the government nor the locals seemed concerned about the rich historical legacy of the place. One such place is Village Dholka in Gujarat where Malav Talav a royal structure built by Maharani Minaldevi in the 11th century is now a fully functioning dhobi ghat. The ladies there are oblivious of the fact that the place where they were washing clothes had historical significance.

Malav Talav, now a Dhobhi Ghat

Finding the Balance

While my experiences, unfortunately, have shown me a slightly uglier side of what tourism could do to a place, I have strongly come to believe that rural tourism as a concept is very lucrative and has immense potential to lead to socio-economic development in rural India, especially with such diversity in landscape and culture. Like most policies in the country, it just needs to be planned better, practiced with a lot more discipline and be continuously monitored. While the locals and the government have certain responsibility, we as tourists need to be extremely responsible and sensitive towards our environment and our own countrymen too.

The need of the hour is to mobilize and empower communities in a way that they control the local economy and they make their own rules. External players need to be completely eliminated or need to be brought in only to initiate the tourism process. The tourists obviously need to be sensitized and fined strictly for breaking rules. A tourist gaze that is more often than not developed by careless travel journalism needs to change for the better and the media needs to stop selling these places as just another ‘ideal countryside place’ but encourage sustainable tourism. Recent development can be observed through the works of NGO’s and social enterprises that train the locals to be able to partake in the tourism industry as well as work towards sustainable development and curate responsible travel tours. Grassroutes Journeys, Ecosphere, India Untravelled are just few of the many organisations that are working in harmony with the local community and the government becoming gatekeepers of responsible rural tourism.

Finding my answers

As the sun touched the horizon and the night sky slowly swallowed the twilight dusk, I walked back through the muddy road, past the hutments and the village folk. Medha, the lady whose house I was staying in asked what I wanted to do for the rest of the evening. “Let’s go make some pots with the ladies in the village,” I said gleefully. I had found my purpose for the trip, immerse in a culture that was mine, but was lost to me in the city. That led to another realisation. Travelling through rural India could be extremely rewarding. Not just to the local communities, but to us urban-dwellers as well, who seem to have forgotten the simpler pleasures of life.

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