The beautiful valleys and forests of Uttarakhand have set a new benchmark in rural tourism. When the Binsar National Park was annexed by India’s Forestry Commission in 1990, it left five villages deprived of its source of livelihood – timber, and left the villagers with little choice but to migrate to the cities in search of work. However, a project called Village Ways has transformed these villages and reversed the migration trend by provoding employment opportunities to the villagers. The project has also received worldwide acclaim for being awarded The Best Place to Stay (worldwide) in 2008 by Green Spaces.
Steve Keenan tells us about the beginnings of this unique initiative in Times Online:
At Khali, the ‘big house’ on the estate lives Himanshu Pande, whose father, a gardener, inherited the estate from a colonial who died without an heir. A chance meeting was to change his life, and that of the villagers.
Keith Virgo has spent his entire life in rural development work. He is also a keen walker, and bumped into Himanshu while trekking in Binsar in 2002. They got talking about how to save the villages through tourism, more specifically, how to create a holiday walking between the villages and staying in the community.
And this is how it came about. Six years later, a second Village Way project has just opened in Saryu Valley near the Himalayas. The 5-year plan is to start 12 projects in India, including Goa and Kerala, and elsewhere.
So who are the visitors here?
Most visitors are professionals, aged 50-65, who spend a night at Khali then six nights in the villages, walking three or four hours a day.
In the village I met Penny and Kim Jewell, a couple who run a soap making business in Australia and who were visiting to pass on their skills to the villagers. “I have travelled everywhere but this is one of the most inspiring projects I have come across,” said Penny. “Here, everyone gets the advantage – if all tourism was like this around the world, no-one would have a beef with it.”
With vegetarian food, guesthouses with solar panels, employment opportunities for young and old, this rural tourism project is one-of-its-kind and is making waves in international cycles. And for good reason:
The guesthouses in each of the villages have been carefully designed – solar panels to heat water and power lighting, wood burning stoves and hot showers. There are hand embroidered bed covers and cotton sheets in each of the three, twin bedded rooms.
The villagers provide the food for guests, making their own chapatis and growing vegetables, with other food brought in from the local town. Winter wheat and millet for chapatis is grown locally, and grass for animal feed. I saw capsicums, cabbages, potatoes, lemons, peaches and apricots growing.
Bacci Singh, president of Kathdhara’s committee, explained that the village had organised four groups to run the house on a roster – including a cook and porters. Guests are encourged to visit the village primary school, the museum (of village tools and utensils set up last year by the committee), to help the harvesting or gathering grass for winter feed.
A lot of thought has gone into making this a successful venture for all stakeholders. In the words of one of the founders – Keith Virgo:
“It has become a business for everyone – the guides, Village Ways and the villages. It is not an NGO, it is a commercial thing that works – the whole thing is a family, it is extraordinary and so emotional. I’ve got tears in my eyes now.” And he has.
Read the complete article here.