Friday, February 27, 2009

For lack of a better name: The Grand "GREEN" circuit

This has been some years in the making, most of the time in my head, but it looks that its time has finally come, and I have to put it down, and take it forward.

I had been toying with an idea to bring "responsible" tour operators in the sub-continent (India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, and even including Tibet) together to develop a "grand green" circuit (which I have not gone around to naming creatively enough). The idea is this

The trip passes through some of the "responsible products" on offer in the sub-continent, connecting all places through through "green(er)" transportation means, like ground transport, trains, ferry etc, trying to avoid flying basically, which is a big issue today. We thereby achieve three big things:-

1. Make available a wonderful product which also makes "conscious" clients aware of what all is happening in the realm of responsible tourism, and what is available out there, that they can choose from and experience.
2. Develop a trip that is "green(er)", thereby having a better pull in today's footprint concious markets.
3. Is a common platform where local operators can work together and support each others business, and also share experiences and learn from each other, which will result in better products and services for the clients again, plus harnessing the synergies of common learning.

So where are we with this:-

So far, and I will keep updating this post as it happens, so keep an eye on this:-

The players, GrassRoutes and The Blue Yonder are together in this, so also is Travel to Care and the intiative will be launched at ITB (, actively supported by experts in local travel like Your Safe Planet. Getting good moral support on the idea from Valere from TravelMole

Keep an eye here, the list will keep growing.

The product

To date, we have a trip that starts in either Kathmandu, Kolkata, Visakapatnam, Delhi or Cochin (the idea being that clients can land at an international airport of their choice and join the circuit, and pop out whereever it is convenient for them)

This will be a small group adventure and culture trip with the minimum size of 2 and maximum of 6 pax.

If you start at Delhi, one takes an overnight train to Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, which is about 2 hours drive from the border with Nepal. You enter at Sunauli, where the first leg of your journey commences in Nepal.

NEPAL - Tamang Heritage Trail by travels

Day 01. Pick up at Sunauli and drive to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. Rest at the hotel.
Day 02. Tour of the Lumbini gardens and visit to the monument at the birthplace of the Buddha. Visit to the Buddhist temples from various nationalities at the site. Back to Hotel for the night
Day 03. Travel to Kathmandu by land (Bus or car, depending on size of group). Taken to a welcome dinner to a theme nepali restaurant, and later back to hotel.
Day 04. Preparation day for the trek in Nepal. Detailed trip and safety briefings, and last minute purchases.
Day 05-11. Drive to Dhunche in the Langtang Region to start the Tamang Heritage Trail, a newly devleoped product in the Lantang Region, complete with homestays in Tamang houses. The Tamangs of Langtang were originally Tibetan and fled Tibet centuries ago and settled in Nepal. Since they were not recognised as Nepalese, they changed their surnames to Tamang, which is a Nepali surname. The 7 days trek meanders through Tamang villages, with overnights in homestays and immersion into the cultures of these wonderful people.

Read details of this trek here (The Tamang Heritage Trail)

Day 11. Back to Kathmandu and overnight in Kathmandu.

Day 12-14. Drive to Chitwan National Park for a Rhino safari. We will stay in small lodges here, support the work of the Nepal Green Society, visit an operation which is making paper out of elephant dung, besides going on elephant back safari, canoeing, visits to the elephant breeding center. More about the safari part here (Chitwan Jungle Safari)

Day 14. We will drive today to the Border of India at Raxaul, and get on an overnight train to Kolkata.

EASTERN INDIA - Orissa Odyssee by Grass Routes Journeys

Once in Kolkata, for another 15 days, your trip will be taken over by another Responsible Tourism partner, GrassRoutes, where they will take you on an expedition through Bengal and Orissa, before ending the journey at Visakapatnam. Read more about this journey here (The Orisssa Odyssee)

So on day 29, you will be at Vizag, boarding a train which will take you to Cochin, where the Blue Yonder will take you to the Nila River in Kerala and their product there.

SOUTHERN INDIA - The Malabar Holidays - from The Blue Yonder

Malabar was once a British Principality of India. After Independence, Malabar as a state was no longer recognized and the region was divided to form the northern part of what is today called Kerala. Though Malabar has no geographical boundaries, no presence on a map of India, it still exists as a state of mind: laid-back, slow, to live and let live.

This is the spirit we capture in this package that begins with Cochin and goes along backwaters, River Nila, Mountains of Wayanad , and ends at the virgin beaches of Kannur in Malabar region.. While most of Kerala is recognised as a traveller’s must–visit destination, Malabar is yet to be discovered. And hence to the uninitiated offers a plethora of delights ranging from a river cruise to legend trails to spice tours to tea estate visits to craft villages and heritage sites.

This is a Kerala where the everyday and exotic merge seamlessly. For a traveller who is weary of experiencing shrink wrapped plastic package tours, the Malabar leg comes minus hype and spin and instead is a way of life that asks little of the traveller except an open mind.

This 14 day package takes you through Cochin – Backwaters – River Nila – Nilambur – Wayanad – Kannur-Calicut Train Station.

This is where the circuit has reached at the moment

Comments are welcome.

btw, looking for people who can comment, join, expand the idea, make suggestions, just about anything... even criticize (hopefully of the constructive nature)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The issue of Local Food

This is a comment posted in response to the the article on TravelMole by Sarah Amandolare titled Eat Local – Another Piece in the Sustainable Travel Puzzle - read it here

The issue of local foods is a complicated one, and cannot be solved easily through a definition and a code of conduct. As with much about responsibility, it depends a lot on interpretation by the different stakeholders, and the practices that are developed and norms followed around these practices, mutually agreed upon by all parties concerned.

Let me explain a bit. There are multiple sides to it.

A. The local producer / suppliers
B. The local community - who also hopefully consumes the same foods
C. The establishment (for lack of a better word) who promotes / sells the local food to the clients
D. The local produce - quality, quantities, availability etc.
E. The local food itself - palatable? interesting? enough variety?
F. The clients themselves who will consume it.

As with all of marketing, lets start from the consumer (who supposedly is King!) So

F. The Clients

(A bit gender insensitive but I will use "he")... He has to be aware (opens up a whole new can of worms, about who will make him aware, where can we have the information, and how the information is presented so that he will understand it, and relate to it), be responsible enough to be motivated to practice, apart from liking it, suiting his taste buds, stomach, lifestyle etc. e.g from Nepal :- We eat lentils and rice in Nepal, three times a day, with different vegetables, sauces, and curries, which makes it tremendously palatable (so says a Nepali!)... and every person who comes to Nepal goes through this stuff, some time or the other... but can he take it every day of his stay (ultimate responsibility)? Difficult... very soon he will be craving for bread (minimum) to steak, pizza and hamburger (a bit too much)...

It is a practical problem.. and how does this relate to responsibility and local foods... So should we define local foods as in local ingredients, therefore local ingredients will be grown locally, the locals benefit, and it helps the economy and spread of the tourism dollar... sounds like a plausible solution... but then

E. The local food

Obviously, from the above example, Thailand will be a better place to source local foods than Nepal. There is more variety, it is more internationally known and accepted, and you might be able to go through seven days of only Thai food... (not for people with a weak stomach for spices though). But the point is there. So it depends on the this issue too. In Ghana, most of the dishes are pounded corn or pounded cassava and plantain, eaten with a groundnut, fish, or meat soup. How long can a traveller stick to this...

D. The local produce

This is an important one. The more the local foods become ingrained into the tourism industry and sells, the more the locals benefit and the economy gets a boost. Right... Not quite! Take an example of a trekking village in the remote areas of Nepal. If the local food is really sold to all trekkers, the local supplies will be depleted and the locals will have no more food. Then the local food will have to be imported into that village from other areas of Nepal, at higher rates. Is this a beneficial effect? There are many trekking villages in Nepal where the lodges supply trekkers with local food and they instead eat instant noodles! Is this where we want to go? So there are problems there too...

Not to mention the quality of the local produce (does it meet standards, can it meet standards, will it even meet standards), is it in the right quantities and can be supplied at the right time required for the tourism industry, who survives in bursts, and seasonal variations.

C. The establishment (restaurant, hotel, operator)

In my thinking, they are the most important people here, being the chief liaison between the consumers and the local community. How do they monitor all these issues, are they motivated enough, are they looking at triple bottom lines, instead of only thinking short term and about themselves. What capacities do they have to balance this delicate balance in promoting the right type of local food.

In Nepal, one of the chief reasons the local food is unappealing is because of the establishment. They have no knowledge of the market, hence cannot make the subtle modifications reqiured to promote local food, forget about triple bottom line systems. A nepali eats a mountain of rice with little vegetables and lentils. This is not palatable to a western palate. Change that to more vegetables and lesser rice, and it is suddenly very inviting.

B. The local community: who produces the local raw materials

There are several issues here too. Sometimes the arrival of a new hotel in the neighbourhood can mean disturbances in the balance of village society, because if it is not well thought out, tourism has a very bad way of working like a bush fire... quick to burn, very hot, but also dies up fast... this can destroy communities. Balance is crucial, and combined benefits are critical to keep up the balance.. not always followed of course.

A. Finally, the local producer

He works hard, but is working for an extremely volatile demand niche, and unless has some gaurantees and partnerships which take up the production, can burn very rapidly. Does he have the knowledge, skills to do the right production and maintain his markets?

These are very few issues raised here, just to prove a point that this puzzle in the responsible tourism framework has its own very complicated issues, which we tend to ignore when we look at the broader picture.

A good balanced, well thought out programme, where all stakeholders are aware of these issues, and work towards reducing the negative effects, can be finally labelled to be real "local responsible food"...

Then we can start tackling the issue of it being organic!!!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

To niche or not to niche

I am not sure if any of our long term tourism strategists have any idea (or have even begun to think about it) of the type of tourists that we would like to have in this country. Do we want backpackers (who spend very less, but most of it does go into the local economy and there is very little leakage) or do we want executives (salaried but can afford a good package, no time to develop trips of their own and will pay enough, but some of it is leaked) or do we want 5 star travellers (who pay through their noses, travel around in air conditioned cars, and leak a lot out of the country anyways)..

Sorry to get into very politically incorrect generalisations, but I am generally not very politically correct, and am in an industry where generalisations help us deal with varied people, so here goes...

Do we want Indians, who have the money, will pay a lot, but will squeeze every paise out of the service provider. Do we want Japanese, who spend money, and do all the nice trips, but who will only follow, and will not go into new routes. Do we want Europeans, who want to do everything green. Do we want Americans, who are willing to spend money but are loud. Do we want young Israelis, who tend to fleece everything along their way, or do we want older Brits, who pay a lot and stay in the highest costing locations, but who rarely really see the country, and a lot of their money is leaked out.

Enough. Point is that we need to identify who we are trying to target... not ethnically discriminate, but build a general profile of the person we want to bring into the country... I would think a well paying client, who demands excellent service, is adventourous, is green and sustainable, and can pull another person when he/she goes back... (or something like that)

I only get shocked when, like today, the chinese ambassador calls for improved facilities so more Chinese tourists can come... but what does he mean by this... more 5 star hotels, more A/C cars, what? ( The only Chinese tourists I have seen come to Nepal have either been at the 5 star hotels, or those to utilise the 20 km limit set by the Nepalese Government from the kodari border (so upto Barabishe) they come in cars to eat at resorts like Borderlands, the Last Resort etc... (basically eat Dal Bhat, play Mah Jong, and later go back)... Comparing between the two, I think the ones coming from Kodari are contributing more to the local economy than the 5 star types....

So shall we define who we want? Is anyone listening?


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