The northeastern states of India are full of fascinating, unexplored, uncharted territory, and while tourism is still in its nascent stage, it is incumbent upon us travellers to ensure that it isn’t spoiled the same way as India’s scenic but garbage-filled hill stations. Consider Kipepeo, an organisation that partners with local homestays to offer trips (and custom tours) in the most natural way possible.
On my first trip with them, our group wandered off the usual Arunachal Pradesh map and landed up in a village of the Galo tribe to celebrate their indigenous Mopin festival. Amid Shamanic chanting, hypnotic local dances and being offered rats for dinner at a village gathering (gulp), I felt like I had skipped a few decades and gone back to the India of yore – a most intriguing world!
A new friend in a tribal village in Odisha’s Koraput region.
The fascinating tribal world of Odisha is threatened by many challenges: interference by local authorities, pressure on the youth to ‘modernise’, decreasing forest cover, and most of all, insensitive tourists wanting to photograph local tribes without learning a thing about their culture or way of life.
I was happy to resolve my internal conflict – between discovering a fascinating culture and irresponsible travel – when I stumbled upon Desia Ecotourism, a company founded by a local of eastern Odisha with a keen interest in the tribal culture of the southern Koraput region. Our modes of exploration included cycling through mango orchards to nearby tribal villages and riding pillion on motorbikes to further ones; our interactions with local tribes at their weekly haats (tribal markets) felt genuine and unobtrusive; and living at Desia Ecolodge, run largely by a mix of local tribes, made me feel at home in such a different part of the world.
As a New York Times story recently expounded, sustainable tourism in India and elsewhere is as much about environmental impact as it is about being inclusive and respectful of local communities.
Also read: Mangalajodi, Odisha: How an Entire Village Transformed from Poaching Birds to Protecting Them
Locations: Purushwadi, Dehna and Walvanda – Maharashtra
I remember wandering about the quiet streets of Purushwadi, a village in rural Maharashtra, on a dark moonless night, watching millions of fireflies communicate with potential partners through light beams, magically lighting up the earth in perfect symphony with thousands of stars in the skies above.
There was a time when locals, unaware of this beautiful phenomenon, didn’t hesitate to kill (or at best, ignore) fireflies that came to their village to mate every monsoon.
But using a unique business model where the local community is an equal partner in tourism, Grassroute Journeys has co-created the “Million Fireflies Festival” and other humbling travel experiences across rural Maharashtra. Besides playing an active role in protecting their luminescent visitors, the locals are now able to supplement their erratic agricultural incomes by hosting travellers in their homes (or in tents), and keep their traditional way of farming and life alive.
And travellers like you and me, wandering in search of unique customs, exotic natural phenomena, joyful countryside living and sustainable tourism in India, can rejoice in both, finding such experiences not far from chaotic Mumbai and supporting rural village communities in the process.
Also read: Offbeat Getaway from Mumbai That’ll Inspire You to Rethink Life
Locations: Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh
The awe-inspiring cold mountain desert of Spiti.
Volunteer-travelling for a month with Spiti Ecosphere in the high altitude Spiti Valley, back in 2011, was my earliest introduction to responsible travel. It was the first time I learnt about community-run homestays and how tourism can supplement meagre farming incomes, how the money we spend on travel could be used to light up someone’s home with solar energy, and how different our travel experiences can be when we stay with locals and interact closely with their culture, food and way of life.
Spiti Ecosphere believes in an equal emphasis on the planet, people and profits – and after all these years, I’ve realised that this is the only way for sustainable tourism in India to really move forward.
As for my experience – volunteering with them, exploring those stark barren mountains, lying under millions of stars at night, spending time with monks and nuns, it changed everything I thought I wanted from my own life. It made me quit my job at the Singapore Tourism Board, and gradually paved the way to this blog where I try to write about the joy of travelling meaningfully.
Also read: I Love Spiti: How Travellers Must Help Save India’s Surreal Himalayan Desert
The Blue Yonder
Locations: Kerala, Pondicherry
A solo Nangiar Koothu performance in central Kerala.
I thought I had already explored pretty ‘offbeat’ parts of Kerala independently – until I went on a journey with The Blue Yonder, a social enterprise started by a Kerala local, to learn about how the River Nila has inspired life along its shores. We met local musicians and artisans – some of who are the last in a lost generation of artists keeping a dying tradition or craft alive; we ended up watching a soul-stirring, solo Nangiar Koothu performance alongside village locals; and even felt entranced by an Oracle, supposedly possessed by the local deity.
During my travels with The Blue Yonder, I began to perceive our impact on local communities differently. Many organisations only compensate the locals we meet along the way for the services they offer – mainly homestays and guides. But TBY professes a different philosophy – valuing (and hence compensating) the time that local artisans spend interacting with us as travellers, answering our many questions and being photographed by us. And if we really think about it, that is exactly how us urban creative people (aka freelancers) want to be treated too.
Also read: Offbeat Kerala: 11 Travel Experiences to Inspire the Artist in You
India Untravelled (aggregating sustainable tourism in India offerings)
Locations: Across India
“High tea” in the lower Himalayas of Uttarakhand.
I co-founded India Untravelled back in 2012, hoping to bridge the digital marketing gap between small-scale sustainable homestays and discerning travellers looking for authentic experiences within India. The two-year long journey taught me a lot about running a business (we sold in 2014), but also helped me appreciate a different way of exploring India – one that I have never stopped swearing by.
The current owners of India Untravelled have strived to keep our original dream alive – and now offer curated homestay experiences across India, including Uttarakhand, Ladakh, Kerala and other states.
Also read: Simple Ways to Travel More Responsibly in Ladakh
Other organisations that promise sustainable tourism in India (I’m yet to travel with them):
Roots Ladakh (Kargil): In the valleys and mountains around Kargil, where tourism infrastructure is still pretty underdeveloped, Roots Ladakh – set up by locals – promises respectful interaction and understanding of local communities.
Health Nut (across India): As the vegan movement catches on in India, Health Nut, run by a health coach from my hometown Dehradun, offers eco-conscious retreats that focus on health, nutrition, reversing diseases and reconnecting with the great outdoors.
Native Folks (Goa): We’re all familiar with the tourist-infested beaches of Goa, but Native Folks promises a different experience, living with locals on the laidback Divar Island.
Rural Pleasure (Gujarat): While exploring Gujarat, I fell short of days to join Rural Pleasure to learn about the way of life of the fascinating Dang tribe.
Kabani (Kerala): Amid the scenic rice paddies and backwaters of southern Kerala, Kabani – run by Kerala locals – works with local communities to offer homestays, travel programs run entirely by women for women and a chance to delve deeper into the offbeat side of this popular state.
Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company (Ladakh): In the Indian Himalayas, where its still taboo for local women to train as mountain guides, the Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company – started and run entirely by local Ladakhi women – is challenging cultural stereotypes. I’ve heard great things about their trips in this spectacular region, which is being ruined by irresponsible tour operators.
Life in the Garhwal Himalayas.