|Picture perfect: (Top) Anegundi in Karnataka and Mukutmanipur in West Bengal are among the new rural hotspots
Barely two years ago, Anegundi was a place that could well have been Timbuktu. A tiny hamlet nestled amid lush banana plantations and gigantic boulders, it stood within spitting distance of Hampi, one of Karnatakas chief tourist attractions. Despite the proximity, however, few tourists visiting Hampi ever cared to hop across to this village and give in to its rustic charms. Anegundi, it seemed then, would remain in the shadows of its more celebrated sister village.
Walk into Anegundi today, however, and its hard to tell if this wasnt always the thriving, happening melting pot of global travellers that it now appears to be. Cosy guesthouses tucked into its alleyways offer the best of local hospitality. Its main lanes are lined with tea shops and eateries teeming with backpackers, and craft outlets selling top quality handiwork as souvenirs. Local guides escort groups of adventurers into its magical wilds for a session of rock climbing or river rafting.
Anegundi, of course, isnt the only village to be basking in this sort of success. All across India, from Lachen in hilly Sikkim to Hodka in the barren Kutch desert to laid-back Aranmula in Keralas backwaters, several hamlets are reaping the benefits of a pioneering development project that is set to enter its next phase, having completed two eventful years.
Christened Explore Rural India, and incepted by the ministry of tourism, the project is perhaps the first step ever taken to chalk out an alternative tourist industry in Indias backyards, by tapping into local cultural and human resources. It showcases a new face of India, and generates resources for villagers.
Given the success of the first phase that focused on 36 villages, we have now identified 103 more villages across India where we intend to replicate the development model, says Dhiraj Bhalla, assistant director general, tourism ministry, whos in charge of the project.
Needless to say, the government is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that word about the scheme goes around the world. A coffee table book —called Explore Rural India and brought out by Roli Books — has just hit the bookshelves, while the government has handpicked 15 of the best sites to serve as showcase destinations, with special emphasis on promoting them to foreign travellers.
But how, exactly, did it all begin? Amitabh Kant, former tourism secretary and more recently author of Branding India, a book which explored the nuances of new-age Indian tourism, has the answer. The primary objective of the project was to spin a story around it, which in this case happened to be the rural charms that each site had to offer, says the bureaucrat who started the initiative. Once a story was in place, we had to back it up with infrastructure and trained manpower, and then go heavy on the promotion.
Intended to divert a part of the profits made from mainstream Indian tourism — roughly more than $5 billion today — to the countrys rural sector, the project initially relied on technical expertise, along with a part of the financial assistance, provided by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The ministry put in Rs 50 lakh per site, primarily towards infrastructure development, while the UNDP was to invest Rs 20 lakh to sensitise villagers and train them to work as guesthouse managers, cooks or guides, says Bhalla. At the grassroots level, local non governmental organisations (NGOs) were partnered with for the execution of the project.
There was a lot to do, since most villages chosen for the project had never seen anything beyond basic PWD work. On the soft side, emphasis was laid on parameters such as a sites connectivity with the existing circuit, the art and craft skills of villagers, the natural, cultural and oral heritage, and aspects such as environmental care, says Sudhir Sahi, UNDP national consultant for the project. The hardware scheme, on the other hand, included waste management, landscaping, roads, illumination, recreational equipment, signage and refurbishment of monuments, all of which had to be taken care of during the preparatory stages.
Overall, care was taken to spread the sites across all Indian states. Besides, each had its own identity to attract visitors. So if Naggar was a quaint getaway high up in the ranges of Himachal Pradesh, Pipli in Orissa was the place to go shopping for crafts. Samode near Jaipur boasted of Rajasthani regalia, while Mukutmanipur in West Bengal had its rivers, hills, tribal culture and the famed Bankura handicrafts nearby.
Most sites were ready for launch last autumn. Some, such as Hodka and Anegundi, opened their doors with the beginning of the tourist season. The response was surprisingly positive. Through the three winter months, we had a footfall of about 1000-odd visitors in Anegundi, which is very positive considering the little promotion that had preceded the launch, says Shama Pawar, coordinator of The Kishkinda Trust, the NGO that manages operations in the Karnataka village. And while our capacity is still growing, its clear that our popularity is on the rise.
In an attempt to maximise publicity, people like Pawar have already started hatching their own marketing strategies over and above the respective state governments. We are planning to hand out special packages to schools, colleges and NGOs, while organising local festivals and art residencies with an eye on global travellers, says Pawar. Now that the ball has been set rolling, its simply a matter of tapping into the right market.
Yet despite all the optimism, some experts are wary about the downsides of the project. This time around the government is going it alone, with UNDP having pulled out after the initial two-year intervention. It may have been wiser for the government to wait a little longer before sanctioning the second phase, says a tourism expert who requested anonymity. After all, the first 36 are yet to be properly absorbed in the tourist circuit, and theres suddenly 100 more vying for attention. How does one know if the sudden crowding wont prove counterproductive in the long run?
Others are worried about lapses in maintenance and asset management, issues that have not yet come up within the existing framework. Quality should ideally have been given priority over quantity, says Kant. We are talking about lakhs of rupees worth of government assets here, apart from the maturity of a rural population to handle such sudden change. Theres a lot of hand-holding needed before a site can be expected to function on its own, so trying to add to the number of sites in such a short time can tell on the quality, he muses.
In any case, exploring rural India is now an experience thats certainly not to be missed. Perhaps thats some food for thought for the upcoming holiday season. Some things, after all, are best savoured brand new.