Blending culture with tourism

Blending culture with tourism

Blending culture with tourism
The 18th of April every year is celebrated the world over as World Heritage Day or the International Day for Monuments and Sites. This year, the theme for the Day is Cultural Heritage & Sustainable Tourism. This theme was chosen to dovetail with the United Nations’ declaration of 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

Sustainable tourism goes beyond environmental concerns to encompass cultural, social and economic issues within its ambit. Cultural heritage and sustainable tourism seem then to be natural partners and indeed, they often are.

Five years ago, the world’s billionth tourist boarded a plane and travelled somewhere. Today, more than a billion tourists travel everywhere every year, Indians included. How has this tremendous increase in footfalls impacted sustainability and cultural heritage?

C B Ramkumar, country representative in the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, a body established by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, puts it bluntly when he says, “Mass market can murder cultural heritage. Unintelligent tourism can smother a destination.” Ramkumar quotes the Italian art historian and archaeologist, Salvatore Settis, who famously declared that if climate change and floods did not destroy Venice, tourists would.

Driver of positive change

And yet, done right, tourism can indeed be an enabler and a driver of positive change. A few places in Karnataka show how cultural heritage and sustainable tourism can be successfully married.
Ramkumar himself began his journey into sustainable tourism 11 years ago when he started Our Native Village, a resort on the outskirts of Bengaluru. The resort, he says, began as a demonstration of traditional concepts of sustainability that  had been forgotten.

One of the pillars of sustainable tourism — being environment-friendly — is evident everywhere in the resort. The resort was built using stabilised mud blocks that were made and dried on site. Instead of a chlorinated pool, guests swim in a natural pool that uses aquatic plants like lilies and reeds to purify water. Rainwater is harvested, of course, and grey water is reused on site. A few cows tethered in the back of the property provide milk and also biogas, which powers at least a portion of cooking. The rooftops are lined with solar panels which together with the windmill (currently under repair, unfortunately) generate about 70% of the resort’s electricity. A small organic garden in the resort provides some of the vegetables served to guests.

To promote local culture, another one of sustainable tourism’s pillars, the resort engages guests in some unusual ways. Out in the resort’s grounds is a collection of replicas of herostones arranged in a circle, a way of ‘reviving the record keeping’ of the days of yore, according to Ramkumar. Each room is decorated with a large wall mural in one of six different traditional art forms, including chittara. Guests at the resort have a choice of activities to choose from, including making jasmine garlands, playing gilli danda, learning the art of rangoli, bullock cart rides and even cycle tyre racing! Essentially, the idea is to showcase parts of the local culture, to make people take pride in traditions that are otherwise eroding. “The community must be the custodian of tourism products. After all, what is cultural tourism without local people?” says Ramkumar. 

A similar philosophy propels The Kishkinda Trust’s rural tourism initiative in Anegundi, a hamlet across River Tungabhadra from Hampi. The project began more than a decade ago with initial funding from the Ministry of Tourism. In the initial phase, the trust restored a few old houses in the village to be used to accommodate tourists. The houses were restored and redesigned wherever required keeping in mind the local ethos and style. Simultaneously, the trust also launched awareness campaigns on sanitation, tree-planting, cleanliness and composting.

A few years later, with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the trust began training local youths in tourism-related skills and knowledge, including about nature and history. Says Shama Pawar, founder of Kishkinda Trust, “We weren’t really thinking about tourists when we began the project. It was more like enhancing what we already have and sharing that with visitors. These were people who were living those lives — be it farming, boating, rangoli-making or bird-watching — who were sharing their experiences.”

Over the years, more house-owners have come forward to have their homes restored and used as accommodation for guests. Awareness on the importance of ecological sustainability has also grown. 

Local heritage is also what drives tourism in Banavasi, a town in the lush, green foothills of Malnad. It began with a UNDP-funded rural tourism project that was implemented with the help of Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation (BAIF). A charming guest house, aptly named Vanavasika, was built in Banavasi, which till then had no tourist facilities at all. Along with this, a Village Tourism Development Committee was set up. Unfortunately, the committee members’ inexperience led to both the committee and the project floundering. A few years ago, social entrepreneur B C Kiran offered to help get the project back on its feet. Today, the little guest house is managed by the temple trust of Madhukeshwara Temple while Kiran and his team market
Banavasi’s local attractions.

Simple pleasures

Underlying all the interventions made so far is the idea of taking pride in local culture and heritage. Rather than travel to other popular ‘attractions’, visitors are encouraged to explore the experiences Banavasi itself has to offer, from shopping at the local santhe and volunteering in a pineapple farm to exploring local crafts such as chittara, sculpture, clay art and the making of basingas.

Kiran’s team has also identified some families who are willing to open up their homes and hearths to visitors seeking local cuisine. “People wanted to make gobi manchurian or pani puri for tourists. We had to convince them to instead showcase the local food,” recalls Kiran. And such a blessing that is, for sitting on a red oxide floor in an old house and devouring fresh jolada rottis with piping hot yenegai, or learning the secret of gojju avalakki from the lady of the house after you’ve tasted the most lip-smacking version of it ever, is one of the many simple pleasures that Banavasi offers its visitors.

Perhaps the best example of the cascading effects that sensitively marketing local heritage can have are the entrepreneurs in Banavasi who now sell cotton bags, organic food and red rice: positive social, economic and ecological impacts, just what sustainable tourism is all about.