Thursday, January 15, 2015

Authentic Cultural Tourism at its Best

I've been travelling to India for the past 4 years and this year had an opportunity to explore the small villages of Odisha (Orissa) on a FAM tour. I created a partnership with Heritage Tours, a company that specializes in customized cultural tourism experiences in Odisha and other regions throughout India. The focus of this trip was to experience the indigenous culture in the tribal communities.

After a long journey from Canada, I arrived in Visakhapatnam, or Vizag for short, and started to travel directly to Desia in Koraput in order to make it to the tribal market on Thursday. Desia is a community based rural tourism initiative developed by Heritage Tours, the Bantalbiri Village, and a local NGO Barefoot. This initiative focuses on building the capacity and creating economic benefits for the local villages through grassroots tourism as well as empowering local communities to celebrate and preserve their cultural traditions. So many tourism companies claim that they are sustainable and offer authentic cultural experiences and as a tour operator we want to ensure that these claims are in fact true before we start sending clients their way. I was very intrigued with the Desia initiative and was so excited to witness it first hand.

I kept struggling to fight my jet lag while on the 5 hour drive to my destination and was wondering what I was getting myself into, since it was now dark and we were travelling on some pretty rough roads. At around 8pm in the evening, I arrived at Desia and received such a warm welcome from the staff. And I was amazed at the site - the rooms were absolutely beautiful and it had such a good tranquil feel to the place. I instantly felt like I was going to be in good hands.

Upon arrival, I was invited to visit a nearby tribal community to see a celebration for a young girl that has just reached her maturity. Despite my urge to want to go to bed after travelling for 2 days straight, I splashed some water on my face and powered through. It was non-stop singing and dancing and was really interesting to see how alive the tribal culture still is here. I also had my first taste of the local drink from the palm tree, which was nice and refreshing and I recommend trying.

The next day we hopped on a local bus to experience the famous Thursday tribal market. People from the surrounding indigenous villages travel long journeys to sell, trade, and buy local supplies and food, as well as to partake in the tradition of selling and drinking the local alcohol. Men, women, and even children were drinking and this tradition has been going on for years and years. It's nice to find a spot to sit down and to take it all in. To respect the local villagers you are not permitted to take photographs of the people. Photography is permitted in the small villages around Desia and in other local markets. Best thing to do is just to ask your local guide if it's possible to take photographs.

It was so amazing to see how rich the culture still is in the indigenous communities and the guides with Heritage Tours are so well connected and respected amongst the locals that you always feel safe and secure, and the knowledge of the guides is unmatched.

The place has such a great feel to it, and I started to connect with the Desia girls - the young ladies from surrounding villages that work there. I had an opportunity, to visit a few of the girls villages and met their families. That's one of the things I love the most about travelling off the beaten track, you get a chance to build relationships with the people you meet along the way. The genuine kindness of strangers always amazes me. Families that hardly have anything invite you into their homes and off you food and drinks. They even offer to feed you themselves! Even though many of the villagers can't speak English, you have the welcoming feeling that they are happy to have you in their home.

Desia is a place designed to build bridges between cultures and get a real feel for local community life. It's best to keep an open schedule and go with the flow since there are small local events and festivals that are always taking place. I loved just going for walks and visiting the surrounding local villages. We also had a picnic with the staff at a beautiful waterfall and it was a nice outing to just hang out with the staff and relax in a beautiful setting.

In all of my years working within the tourism industry as a consultant, a tour operator, and a traveller I've never come across such a great model that has actually been implemented and having amazing results with the community members. For those of you interested in learning more about this project and/or to plan a potential best practices tour to visit the site contact for more details.