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A new ‘normal’ for travel

India’s sustainable businesses show why community-first practices must be the future of all tourism

A workshop organized at the Mumbai Magic office.
A workshop organized at the Mumbai Magic office.

Deepa Krishnan and Fahim Vohra, founders of the travel companies Mumbai Magic and Be The Local, respectively, have deep ties in the communities in Mumbai they work with. Soon after the lockdown, they started coordinating the distribution of food and cash among residents and daily-wage workers in the Dharavi and Andheri slums with funds crowd-sourced from their networks. This at a time when they are also confronting difficult decisions about downsizing their own businesses.

Faced with a choice of reducing headcount or cutting overheads, Krishnan gave up “office space in Mumbai that had been lovingly built into an events venue with wood-panelled floors and works".

“I felt we should all take deep pay cuts but stay together as a team. Amazingly, a couple of people offered to give up their pay so others could have more. That made me realize that this company is worth saving and these relationships are pure gold," Krishnan says.

Despite the repercussions for their own businesses, India’s sustainable travel outfits are looking out for the communities they work with.

In Goa, where many families were left without supplies as grocery stores emptied, Sanjiv Khandelwal of Sensible Earth rallied businesses and individuals to set up a helpline. Vinod Sreedhar of Journeys with Meaning, Puja Mitra of Terra Conscious and Parag Rangnekar of Mrugaya Xpeditions were among those who came together to deliver essentials in urban and rural areas, to the elderly and pregnant women, and to migrant camps.

Neha Arora of Planet Abled, which organizes tours and personalized trips for differently abled travellers, has reached out to her pan-India network to offer support. “If anyone needs a caregiver to visit them daily or needs essentials delivered, this counts as an essential service and we can help get a pass issued," Arora says.

A poster designed by the Snow Leopard Conservancy
A poster designed by the Snow Leopard Conservancy

Similar efforts are being made around the country. In Ladakh, the Snow Leopard Conservancy has designed posters debunking myths such as “hot weather will kill coronavirus". On the Tamil Nadu coast, Jehan Driver is using the lifeguard network his outfit Quest Expeditions built to help the district administration spread awareness and enforce the lockdown. It has been especially useful in reaching out to fishing communities spread out along the coast. In Spiti, where even washing hands regularly is challenging in the cold weather, Ishita Khanna of Spiti Ecosphere galvanized volunteers to get sanitizers and masks to the region before the lockdown began. Others are helping farmers in the rural communities they work with find ways to get their fresh produce to the market.

Visitors to Himalayan Ark in Munsiari get to experience village life
Visitors to Himalayan Ark in Munsiari get to experience village life

It’s these same community ties that will help these businesses survive the crisis in the travel industry, believes Malika Virdi, director of Himalayan Ark, a community-led tourism initiative in Uttarakhand that supports home-stays owned and run by local women.

“Those of us who are community- based and are in the home-stay business will ride this year through with the least damage. We will lose some revenue but as subsistence farmers and weavers, with our forest commons and assured water supply and fuel wood, we will make it through," she says.

“The very practices that make these businesses sustainable will see them through this difficult time," says Shoba Mohan, founder partner of RARE, a firm that represents small concept hotels. “For instance, because they buy local, they do not have the overheads of maintaining a large stock," she explains.

With no income in the foreseeable future and continuing costs, businesses have gone into survival mode. Trimming extras like office spaces, putting essential staff on sustenance pay instead of firing people and using the time to develop new offerings to launch as soon as business resumes are some of the measures as they scale down.

Some businesses have written to clients, suggesting that instead of seeking refunds they leave their money with the company as a deposit for future travel. “The sort of travellers who seek out small local hotels are considerate and 60-70% have told us, ‘keep the money, we will come back,’" Mohan says.

Others are experimenting, offering value-for-money deals to previous clients with “pay now and enjoy benefits later" options to raise money for operating costs. Some are offering discounted pre-bookings for 2021, with no cancellation fees.

For many businesses, this is a time to focus on developing the destination and building partnerships to make their operations stronger for the future.

Global Himalayan Expedition is facilitating the setting up of water heaters in the Leh region. “Right now, to combat the virus, hygiene and washing of hands is essential and that can be hard in the cold weather. So we are setting up water heaters under a co-financing model, with some money coming from the home-stay owners and the rest from our CSR (corporate social responsibility) partners. This will also serve to improve the infrastructure for when tourists return," says founder Paras Loomba.

Quest Exhibitions is focusing on building content for its website, carrying out maintenance and upskilling staff. “We are organizing trainings digitally through video and e-books," Driver says.

And though the future of tourism may look grim, businesses are trying to gauge the contours of travel in the coming months and gear up for it.

“Indian businesses will look to rebuild the trust of domestic travellers first," says Soity Banerjee, adviser, Outlook Responsible Tourism Initiative, which promotes responsible travel through awards, content and outreach. “Once this is over, Indian travellers may want to get away from home after weeks of lockdown. Yes, they will be wary and hesitate to take flights or trains but families will go for more road trips or opt for private experiences curated just for them. They will opt for more wellness holidays and off-the-grid experiences in nature to recover from these stressful times," Banerjee says.

Sustainable businesses are well-equipped to meet this need, with their deep ties with communities, their emphasis on the outdoors, and on experiences. As the shape of travel changes in a post-coronavirus world to a more intimate, hyperlocal and safe version, we can hope that sustainable community-first tourism practices will become the new normal.

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