Tourism can drive positive change – to bring deeper understanding between different cultures, provide economic benefits to local and disadvantaged communities. Deepa Krishnan, Founder of Magic Tours, relates how her business has brought about this new momentum in North India.
Bringing change to local disadvantaged communities doesn’t happen by magic. To bring this change, businesses like us must actively work towards it. The effects of tourism especially can be negative; particularly in countries that have a lot of poverty.
And tour operators like Magic Tours also have to be willing to stick it out in the long term. Short term projects lead to start-and-stop results, which actually make things worse for local communities. So we must ensure our projects are permanent and sustainable. So our policy is simple and practical: If our tours are responsibly and profitably designed, and our business remains viable in the long run, the benefits we want to deliver to the community will prosper and multiply.
To this end, our tourism policy endeavours to create a win-win situation for tourists and local communities by designing innovative high quality experiential tours, which have strong appeal to clients, and at the same time bring benefits to locals. This is not rocket-science; but it needs creativity, and a willingness to experiment.
Our tours are designed to allow the tourist to imbibe local culture, by walking through specific culture-rich areas such as marketplaces and heritage districts. The idea behind the tours is for the traveller to experience the city the way locals do. We advise tourists on culturally/geographically appropriate attire so that they can fit better with the environment.
Our intention is to discourage gawking, voyeurism or any disrespectful behaviour; instead to actively create an immersive, holistic understanding of the culture and society. In the end, we want that a sense of pride in our culture should be experienced by our staff and our guests, while at the same time understanding the issues and challenges that face India today.
We also make sure our tours are fun. You don’t have to book them because you feel sorry for someone. We don’t want any “pity tourism”. We want to offer tours that are actually worth every penny you pay for them. This is very important if we want tourists and locals to have a dialog on equal footing.
We also ensure that Magic Tours brings positive outcomes for locals. We employ local people, especially those who come from lower income groups and marginalised segments of society. We incorporate components that bring our guests into direct contact with local culture, local development projects, craft and textile workshops, and so on.
We focus on the employment of women, and college-going youth from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. We do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, religion, nationality, age, or gender and we make an effort to cater for people with disabilities.
In addition, we have several flagship programmes where we partner with local non-profit organisations in Mumbai and Delhi to recruit students as tour guides and office staff.
So far we have instigated three projects, two for the design of cotton “jhola” bags. The first project included a contribution to Sneha, where bags were stitched at the Sneha livelihood centre. The second project was done with a low income family from Dharavi where 10 percent of the proceeds went to Dharavi Art Room, an organization that conducts art and photography workshops for children and women from the Dharavi slum.
We are also beginning to offer crafts workshops in Ahmedabad in collaboration with VSSM, and our tours incorporate local transport when possible - local trains and buses which greatly reduce the carbon footprint of the traveller. And our Food Tours are conducted in the homes of locals, who buy the food in local markets, and the food is typically cooked by the lady of the family.
The third project allows students to work with a non profit organisation to help explain to tourists about water harvesting in an arid area. In this project, tourists visit the location where traditional local knowledge has been used to convert a desert into a green and productive area through the use of small but highly effective water harvesting methods.
The tourists get the chance to see how the people manage extremely effective trapping and channelling systems that tap into the local geography of the area, help them face the challenges of turning the desert into productive land, and also expand the ability of more local people to feed themselves. Our guides take the visitors to all the sites, explain what the people are doing and the methods they use. And in the process they help expose the challenges and broaden the knowledge of the tourist audience.
The aim of all these programmes is to provide the students with a source of income that helps them graduate while working. This prevents them from having to drop out of education in order to work and supplement the family’s economic situation, especially if they are from disadvantaged backgrounds.
This means they work as guides on part-time basis with us. We encourage them to complete their graduation and get a college degree as well, but as they are able to earn income from the tours, the pressure to quit education and start working immediately is lessened.
The students also develop a sense of pride in their city, culture and history and as they come into contact with tourists, they develop confidence and communication skills, and become capable of communicating in English with a variety of people and groups.
Inspiring Stories from Destinations 2014 was jointly organised by WildAsia and Gaia Discovery. Three winners were chosen and announced at ITB Asia Responsible Tourism event in Singapore. Gaia Discovery at ITB Asia shared how these winning entries tell a good story, and how storytelling is important to draw travellers to a destination.
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @malgaia.