(Extracted from a case study for Vikalp Sangam by the author)
Village or rural tourism that showcases rural culture and brings economic benefits to the communities received a major thrust under India’s 10th Five Year Plan and was accorded priority. One of the initiatives to support this was the Endogenous Tourism Project (ETP), a joint venture between the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India (MoT, GoI) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This four-year project (2003-2007) involved the selection of 36 rural sites as pilot projects for rural destination development in the context of tourism.
The underlying principle of the initiative was, “creating income generation strategies that leverage pre-existing local skills, is therefore ‘endogenous’ in nature. Thus, both rural communities and tourists would stand to benefit from the initiative”. Endogenous or ‘transformative’ tourism aimed to broaden the traveler’s horizon by transforming perspectives and promoting a mutual environment of appreciation and learning between the local community and visitors.
One of the projects was established in the Banni area of Kachchh in Gujarat, a unique grassland habitat in the desert. The primary residents of this area are the Maldharis (cattle breeders) or Baniyaras who all practice Islam. Banni has 34 villages inhabited by approximately 5,500 families. Some of Gujarat’s finest embroidery and leather-work comes from the Banni area. In contrast to the stark landscape or perhaps to compensate for it, the embroidery is in bright vibrant colors and extremely intricate in nature. Hodka, in the Banni was established about 300 years ago by what is called the ‘Halepotra’ clan.
In 2004, Hodka was shortlisted by the then District Collector, to be considered under the UNDP’s ETP. Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) was considered as the nodal agency for the same/project, with support from Sahjeevan, an NGO that had been working in this region since 1991. A site, an old dried-up pond that belonged to the Jhuth Gram Panchayat (representing all the 13 villages of the area) was selected for this initiative.
It was suggested that initially tented accommodation on a very small scale should be tried. Hodka had received several tents after the earthquake of 2001, many of them lying unused. The resort was named Shaam-e-Sarhad or quite literally, ‘Evening at the Border. The responsibility of the overall construction was given to Hunnarshala, a collaborative working with traditional architecture. The initial concept, in the testing phase was to establish a place for people to stay, and serve them the local cuisine to recreate an authentic experience of an evening in a local village.While tents were agreed upon, there was the issue of how they should be furnished from the inside. The concept of using earth and mud was discussed and translated into practice by even making the beds in mud. Next were toilets that were designed and constructed in mud and were almost as luxurious as in any high-end resort.
However, as Shaam-e-Sarhad opened for tourists and became more popular, the general feedback was to make available more permanent structures for accommodation. Thus emerged the idea of permanent construction in mud rather than in concrete. This was considered appropriate, as the region is known for its unique dwellings called bungas. Bungas, because of their construction, were some of the few structures that had withstood the 2001 earthquake. There was sense of pride within the community for having this traditional knowledge and using it to combat natural disasters. Bungas were also ideal structures to combat the extreme temperatures in the desert without the use of air-conditioning.
Shaam-e-Sarhad has been successfully running now for nine years and since 2012, it is owned and managed entirely by the community. It stands out as one of the most successful initiatives amongst the 36 projects that were supported through the UNDP/MoT. The gradual success of the project has reiterated in people the pride in their local culture and traditions.
The dominant model of tourism in the country is one where outsiders (be it small entrepreneurs or large hotel chains) build, own and manage enterprises. Local communities are rarely made part of these initiatives nor do they benefit from them. The Shaam-e-Sarhad model is unique in many ways, primarily because it is both community-owned and managed. It is this ownership that has enabled the community to plan for a wider context and be able to direct funds from tourism in the supporting the unique grasslands that are home to them.
It must however be emphasized that Shaam-e-Sarhad is a small enterprise, promoting niche tourism as opposed to mass tourism that focuses on the heritage of the Banni area. It will appeal to the tourist who wants to have a first-hand experience of rural life. Its success can be partially attributed to the fact that it is small in scale and operation and can thus operate at the level of each individual tourist. If this is scaled up to cater to mass tourism, there is the risk that it will lose its exclusivity and unique selling point.
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