Responsible Tourism Initiatives of Madhya Pradesh
Sitting on a rustic charpai in a remote village called Ladpura Khas and surrounded by a bevy of women clad in shades of baby pink sarees, we were swept away by the bonhomie and the warm, genial hospitality. It was a riot of colours as the entire village was out here to greet us. A group of women regaled us with local Bundelkhand folk songs, playing the tabla in full gusto as I lost myself in the garrulous conversations interspersed with loud laughter. Sisters-in-law, Rekha and Kamla had recently opened their doors to tourists in a verdant idyllic setting and their homestay, named after them had already charmed us. Ladpura Khas may not be your typical tourist destination but the nondescript hamlet is now emerging as the poster child of rural tourism in Madhya Pradesh having been nominated by UNWTO as Best Tourism Village. And our quest was to discover more such Ladpuras, hidden gems, tucked away in remote and rural Madhya Pradesh, which narrated a story of communities coming together, with support from the tourism board, to own and promote responsible tourism in Madhya Pradesh.
On a hot blazing afternoon, we journeyed with an eclectic group of travellers from all over the world on a trail-blazing trip in the heart of India in Madhya Pradesh. It was about ten days on the road as we travelled from Gwalior to Chambal, Orchha to Khajuraho, and Panna and Madla to Bhopal, to understand at the grassroots level the rural and responsible tourism initiatives of Madhya Pradesh Tourism. The trip was further enriched by the presence of Dr. Harold Goodwin and his team who were part of the international delegate from ICRT ( International Centre for Responsible Tourism ). “Tourism is like a fire, you can use it to cook your food or if you are not careful, it can burn your house down.”This quote was the refrain of almost all the inspiring presentations made by Dr. Harold Goodwin, Founder and Director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism during my trip to Madhya Pradesh early this month. As a traveller I had been to many destinations, exploring sights and sounds but this was one of the most fascinating and eye-opening journeys that made me veer away from travel towards tourism – sustainable and responsible, real and rustic.
Community at the core of Responsible Tourism
Ladpura Khas, located barely 7 kms from Orchha was just the first among many such villages that gave me a different perspective on rural tourism. And in this rustic landscape, we learnt more about responsible tourism in Madhya Pradesh under the guidance of the ICRT team led by Dr Harold Goodwin. The focus was on the communities living in the villages and to goad them to own the projects and initiatives, be it running homestays or developing skills. thereby creating more livelihoods as well. While women’s empowerment was at the core of all projects, creating safe destinations for women, was also at the forefront. Young girls were trained in martial arts while younger women like Maya and her sister, Seema donned the roles of security guards.
Women Empowerment Initiatives
I have always said people make places for me and it was absolutely heartening to see so many women empowerment projects implemented at the grassroots level as part of responsible tourism in Madhya Pradesh. Women in the villages were trained to drive erickshaws, create local and responsible souvenirs, set up and run their own homestays and arrange even picnics. They transformed into artisans and guides as their latent skills and hidden talents were discovered and trained by social enterprises, supported by the tourism board, creating alternate sources of revenue. Responsible souvenirs were created by training local communities at centres where you can also interact and buy from them.
There were projects focussed on inclusivity and solid waste management. This is where the government organisations joined forces with social entrepreneurs and NGOs to train communities living in villages and it was so heartening to see that the common goals, dreams, and aspirations were shared by all the stakeholders. The communities were the nuclei of all the projects and all the endeavors were community-driven and community-led. Little wonder that Madhya Pradesh won five awards at the ICRT awards in Bhopal and Kerala Tourism bagged another four of them for their Responsible Tourism Initiatives.
At Ladpura Khas, it was like a little carnival. Sipping chhach with the villagers and listening to their stories gave me a high. Resilient, optimistic, cheerful, and warm, they had already put the woes of the pandemic behind them and were looking forward to their new ventures. More women wanted to buy e rickshaws and learn to drive them. I met Rekhaji who had earlier ferried me from my hotel in Orchha to Jahangir Mahal and she told me that she was looking for more tourists to hire her services as she could be a bit of a local guide too, sharing local stories of the destination. Sangeetha added that her extra income would help to give her child, Pari a better education too, as her husband was not too well. The sisters in law, Rekha and Kamala who were our hostesses were swinging away on a rustic swing, laughing and adding that tourists have already started flowing in and the local cuisine here is one of the specialties. Everyone had a story to share and every story left an indelible mark on me.
Homestays and rural tourism
Homestays had been at the very core of the rural tourism initiatives of Madhya Pradesh tourism. A hundred villages across six cultural zones – Chambal, Bundelkhand, Malwar, Nimha, Mahakosal, and Baghelkhand were chosen to promote responsible tourism. Eleven villages have already been identified and the projects were being implemented. In Ladpura Khas, six homestays were already ready for tourists and we visited about three of them – Mahua Hill View and Sheetla Greens and Preeti Greens Home Stay. Every homestay was given full support from design to promotion. This is where tradition meets contemporary as every homestay had a unique cultural touch, local cuisine, rustic landscape, and modern amenities.
Besides developing and promoting homestays, responsible tourism in Madhya Pradesh also included cultural immersions, local traditions, and sports, developing arts and crafts, creating local souvenirs, nature and adventure, wellness, and even camping. Every experience was unique. We watched a kabaddi match between two villages, took part in a local cultural festival, relished local cuisines, and watched in awe as young children mastered the art of acrobatics at the traditional Mallakhamb.
Besides women empowerment, the focus was also to put people first and prioritize local communities, preserve local arts and crafts and respect cultural diversity. Environment conservation, safety, public health and hygiene, accessibility, and inclusivity were some of the components. Rural tourism initiatives also included promoting agricultural tourism and even astronomy tourism. I for one was just starry-eyed here. For me personally, it was just the moments spent in the rustic hinterlands and seeing the broad smiles spread over their faces as they laughed and cried and felt so proud of their heritage and culture that made me feel very humbled and overwhelmed.