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S is for Stories: On The Quest for Responsible Tourism

Every place has a story to tell.

The Blue Yonder builds unique traveller experiences that allow you to engage with the community meaningfully and be a more responsible tourist

S is for Stories

                               How do you travel? In cars and aeroplanes with a camera in hand? On foot and the pedal with a list of questions? Do you stay in Five Star hotels or in small bed-and- breakfasts? Do you shop in duty free at the airport or in local souks? Do you look for the nearest McDonald or break bread with the locals? Do you need a guidebook or a map or just your instinct?

The truth is that there are so many ways to travel. When you go to a place it can become a part of your lifeline or a picture on your Facebook feed, or a hazy memory somewhere in between.

Gopinath Pariyil and his team recognize that all travellers are different. Their sustainable tourism company The Blue Yonder builds tours that allow travellers to engage with the communities and locations they travel to, but at the same time they don’t lose the “fun equation”. Every homestay and every day of your itinerary may have a story, but they only tell it to you if you want to listen.

Balancing sustainable tourism that helps build communities with interesting trips that anyone would want to take is what make TBY special. They’ve won numerous sustainable tourism rewards- most recently the 2014 Das Goldene Stadttor for a campaign-and been included in The 5 Great River Journeys in India by Outlook Traveller and 8 Great Trips by Conde Nast Traveller. We spoke to a very busy Gopi to find out more.

L is for Local

The Beginnings by the banks of the River Nila

I was doing a ritual for my late father in the river Nila and realised there wasn’t enough water even to wet my body. This was the tipping point of everything that we have been involved in the last ten years. Initially I set up a not for profit to find out more about what had happened to this river of my childhood. As we didn’t want to run after governments or seek funds from elsewhere,  we also started a travel company that tells the story of the river to new tourists. Over time the two entities merged, with the travel company helping to conserve the river the way the not for profit was supposed to.

After ten years of being in business we are now once again separating the two entities, where Nila Foundation with a separate team will work as ‘Community Connectors’ and The Blue Yonder serves it’s purpose of ‘Creating Better Places for People to Live and for People to Visit.’

 On the crucial Blue Yonder Difference

We have a two pronged approach

1. We design or select a project to manage that helps the local community in some way. It could range from giving a voice to lower caste musicians to launching a livelihood project around traditional crafts, a way to document forgotten folklore and legends, or setting up a travellers’  forest to heal the earth in a catchment area.

2. We then tweak it into a mind blowing travel experience. Whether a guest is interested in knowing more about the impact of the project is up to her. At the end of the day she will have a great time, and also engage with the community meaningfully.

 So far we have not gone into a ‘destination’ because it’s stunningly beautiful or there is “business potential” there. On the contrary, we have consciously chosen destinations where we thought we could make a difference. No one knew River Nila as a destination. As locals it was important for us to address issues surrounding the River Nila. Instead of taking a conventional activist / environmentalist route, we tread a different path, playing the role of a disruptive agent in a creative way. For example , instead of fighting a sand smuggler, we request him to ferry our guest for a half-day cruise. That gives them an idea for an alternative source of income.

Y Yummy

A recent project that The Blue Yonder is Very Excited About

Over the last two years we have been working on promoting Pokkali, a rare variety of rice that can tolerate salinity. We are now positioning it as a ‘Climate Change Resistant Food’, that has been featured at the World Food and Travel Summit, Sweden. In partnership with a local co-operative bank, we are giving a minimum guarantee of purchase to the Pokkali farmers for fifty tons this season.

From a traveller’s perspective it’s a great experience. You stay in a hotel in Fort Kochi, and are served this delicious red coloured rice with a story around it.  Imagine getting the opportunity to travel by car or boat to the farmlands and actually meeting the farmers who are cultivating this grain! Imagine walking or cycling through the paddy fields to understand more about the symbiotic farming practices where for several thousands of years these communities have carried out prawn culture along with rice farming.

The community gets its share of benefits, the Hotelier has a story to tell his guests and as a travel company we run the day trips and recoup all the money we spent for providing a minimum guarantee to the farmers. Everyone wins!

Gopi’s own fondest travel memories

In my earlier ‘avatar’, I would just get on my Royal Enfield and go somewhere, especially during my student days and in the earlier years with The Blue Yonder as part of  the ‘scouting’ process . From Wayanad to Spiti, From Kutch to  Kewzing, I have been on the road. As part of my business, conferences and lectures, I have been to several countries ranging from Malaysia, to Brazil to Mexico to Norway to South Africa. For the first 7 years of running this business, I didn’t take a single day off. Travel was always part of work and part of the story I wanted to tell.

The list of places I want to see is long. However for some reason, I am fascinated by the idea of living with Native American friends in their community reserves some day.

Funniest Travel Tale : Arriving at the Slovakian border without a visa, being sent back and wondering how I would reach Paris the next day with just 20 GBP in my pocket!

Fondest Travel Memory : A weekend stay with my partner in Umbria getting lost in its ancient alleys, and a crazy coast-to-coast trip from Calicut climbing the Western Ghats to Pondicherry in the East with my partner and kids.

A for authenticOn how travellers can integrate with the communities they travel to

Do some homework before the holiday. Either select a good ground handler who knows and can relate with the community, or  read, ask and find out more about the place, its culture and  social background before you travel. This doesn’t have to feel like homework!  Most of our travellers in fact say that ‘preparing for the holiday’ is sometimes an equally exhilarating part of the experience. Engage in responsible and ethical shopping. Spread out your spending judiciously across different locations in a place.

Common mistakes made by tourists

A lot of unpleasant experiences occur in the fight for  ‘Value for Money’ and can be avoided by reading up and asking a local expert about the place and its people. There is probably a good reason why a weaver is charging you a certain amount of money. Before bargaining, understand the background of the people you are shopping from. We take most of our travellers in Kerala or Rajasthan to meet the artisans at home and understand the dynamics involved in weaving – not just the art but also the supply chain challenges.

It’s easy to blame the travellers for their ‘mistakes’, but we believe that  ground handlers and tour operators can play a larger role in educating the traveller.

M For Meaningful

The definition of a responsible tourist

A meaningful traveller. Someone who travels to have a meaningful experiences and connection with a destination. Someone who cares for the place and its people. Someone who is aware of the fact that her leisure isn’t at the cost of someone else’s struggles. The time is ripe for ‘Conscious Travellers’.

Reaction to TBY’s tours

If someone is looking for a regular “room nights and discount” trip, we are the wrong people to approach. However if you’d like a meaningful trip,  we are THE people to talk to. We’ve noticed that most people who travel with us, or even enquire about a trip, build an amazing personal rapport with us. A lot of them enquire for a trip because they are already on a personal journey of some sort.

My favourite feedback so far was  “I found myself“. This was from a Scandinavian woman, a single traveller. We asked her if she would mind telling us more and she said, “In the two weeks I travelled with you guys, I saw several kind faces!”. And I think one of the reasons she gained so much from the trip was because she herself was so open to new experiences and adventures.

Key Challenges

We are yet to learn how to work with the government. We will get there some day without having to compromise on what we stand for as it’s important to take the government along. But so far it’s been a struggle.

Communicating “Responsible Tourism” isn’t easy either. However we have been addressing this through various campaigns like  our award winning www.atozofrt.com

Which of your tours would you recommend for:

a. Families with small children

  • Our trips involving network of traditional homestays and boutique properties in Kerala.
  • Our new trips covering Pondicherry and Auroville

b. Single travellers

  • Almost all our itineraries. Probably that’s why one of our 69 year old single woman traveller send us an SMS. “Thank you, I am treated like a princess” :)

c. People with an adventurous bent of mind

  • We position ourselves as a soft adventure company providing meaningful experiences. The definition of adventure doesn’t have to be confined to physically exerting holidays, but active holidays where one would try out staying in rural areas learning mat weaving or puppetry making. Most of our trips are custom made. So depending on what our adventurous traveller needs, we design it together.

My Big Red Bag brings original content inspired by life’s joys and passions. Check out other articles from our Environment Issue, and stay tuned to our latest content by following us on Twitter and FB. See you on the other side!

All images courtesy TBY’s beautiful campaign www.atozofrt.com

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