A slice of Village life
In Lamhi village, on the outskirts of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, planning is afoot to start welcoming international tourists again post the COVID-19 pandemic. Popular among domestic tourists as the birthplace of legendary Hindi author Munshi Premchand, Lamhi is a quintessential Indian village, surrounded by farmland, and its serene landscape dotted with grazing cattle and thatched houses. Its slow and basic lifestyle, a stark contrast to the hectic pace of cities, offers visitors a chance to enjoy the idyllic charms of Indian village life, making Lamhi a part of the rural tourism circuit being promoted in Uttar Pradesh. What makes this small village even more attractive as a tourist destination is its proximity to well-known destinations like Varanasi and the Buddhist pilgrimage centre of Sarnath. “Tourists would be given the option of arriving at these rural destinations along the banks of River Ganga by boats,” regional tourism officer, Uttar Pradesh, Keertiman Srivastava said, addressing the media to explain how the state’s Tourism Department is working on a mega-plan to develop rural tourism in and around Varanasi in the post-pandemic times. As a part of the initiative, tourists would be given a tour of the idyllic surroundings, will be taken to see the village life in Kaithi, or be driven to Ramna and Kakarahia, or to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s adopted village Jayapur.
While over the past few years the tourism industry globally has been focussing on the importance of enjoying unique and leisurely experiences rather than ticking off sites from mass bucket-lists, the necessity to explore the unexplored and stay away from the crowd and as close to nature as possible, has been driven home during the pandemic. In India too, the treasures of the country’s agrarian life are being revealed to travellers more proactively, with state tourism departments working towards it. Their efforts are complemented by the theme of this year’s World Tourism Day (September 27) – Tourism and Rural Development. The theme set by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation has a vision for utilising the tourism sector’s ability to support economic development of rural areas. In Rajasthan, the state government is working towards creating innovative tourism programmes to attract travellers with unique experiences and to generate new opportunities in the rural areas. Alok Gupta, Principal Secretary (Tourism), Rajasthan, had said in a recent interview that while promoting rural tourism, the state’s focus would be on lesser-known tourist destinations and experiences. In Bihar and Kerala too, rural tourism circuits are being developed and the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, has sanctioned two projects in these two states with a total budget INR 125 crore as a part of its endeavour to take tourism to the villages of the country. The projects will focus on the development of Bhitiharwa, Chandrahia and Turkaulia village circuit in Bihar (INR 44.65 crore) and in Kerala, the development of Malanad Malabar cruise (INR 80.37 crore).
Tourism and employment
Rural tourism, or encouraging tourists to visit villages, not only enriches a traveller’s experience but also boosts the local economy. When tourists arrive in a village, they spend on fooding, lodging and on buying indigenous handicrafts and memorabilia. Local artisans and craftspeople not only get new and direct buyers for their products, but also receive on-spot feedback from their customers. In certain cases, when international tourists arrive in villages, local craftspeople are exposed to design demands from across the world that they may have been receiving through middlemen, aiding them to evolve their work. The biggest impact, however, can be seen in the rise of hotels and homestays. With the rise in rural tourism, household owners in even remote villages of the country have been encouraged to run homestays, offering tourists an opportunity to indulge in local traditions, culture and cuisine, thereby boosting the host’s income. In several villages, tourists, especially from abroad, often participate in voluntary work for community growth, for example teaching in schools. Tourism helps build a symbiotic relationship between urban and rural pockets via knowledge transfer. Travellers from urban areas can visit rural clusters and impart their knowledge, technology and resources to local communities in exchange for experiencing their culture and heritage.
India’s rural communities are rich in cultural diversity and heritage. The villagers in these communities rely mostly on agriculture for their source of livelihood and are unable to capitalise their cultural heritage, resulting in the extinction of various age-old practices, arts and crafts. In today’s world, the relevance of rural tourism lies in the fact that there are many urban travellers who want to learn about these hidden cultural assets but are unable to, due to a lack of awareness about them. With the advent of tourists, these assets can become financially self sufficient and self-sustainable. Rural tourism, thus, will not only act as a second source of livelihood but also as a means to protect the rich cultural heritage being slowly forgotten. Away from bustling cities and popular tourist spots, villages can become sanctuaries of peace and wellness for travellers. Especially in the aftermath of COVID-19, when being close to nature, staying fit and boosting immunity in natural and traditional ways have become the new norms, a vacation in the village is an ideal solution. In India, with plenty of avenues for sustainable and rural tourism coming together with the collaboration of local people, responsible village travel is surely going to be what we call the new normal.