Sustaining village life

Village Ways, right from its start in the foothills of the Himalayas, determined that sustainability is key to the survival of rural villages, that economic opportunity is best achieved by encouraging and building on the villagers’ own strengths, skills and knowledge to develop enterprise. Working in partnership with the villagers, they encourage low-key tourism that runs alongside, but does not displace, traditional livelihoods.

Village Ways works in partnership with each village to establish, develop and manage a unique kind of ethical, responsible tourism. A local tourism enterprise is created with the help of funding through Village Ways, ownership of which is in the hands of villagers. Typically a village-owned guest house is at the centre of the enterprise – if you like – a form of ‘home-stay’ offered by the whole village. The village communities have embraced new roles as hosts, guides, cooks with huge heart. They are happy to undertake regular training to improve steadily their new skills, providing you, their guests, with the warmest of welcomes in a delightfully natural way.

As a daughter of an Indian Army man, from childhood onward Ms. Manisha, had the opportunity to move place to place within India and that was an important learning experience for a typical Indian Village girl to adapt to different environments. During her college days, she opted to study English Literature to pursue her inclination towards arts and creativity and later completed a course in textile and garment designing to be able to pursue a career as a designer.  

After her marriage, she moved to her native village with her husband, who is  running a hotel in the Binsar wildlife Sanctuary in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.  Manisha recalls “While we spent a considerable amount of our time in the area, my husband was very concerned to see villages within the Sanctuary under serious threat of outmigration. He wanted to do something for these villages, so that the communities could have a sustainable future. It was a fortunate chance that some of our friends from India and UK who had varied backgrounds of working in Tourism, handicraft and Rural development sectors, were also very supportive and keen to be involved.  We all focused our thoughts on developing tourism as a possible option for these villages.

Until then, these villages were largely bypassed by any benefits from tourism, though it is a major source of livelihood within the state as a whole. With efforts from the team, the idea started taking shape and Village Ways emerged as a social enterprise helping rural communities to run their own enterprises to sustain their villages and work with pride and dignity. 

My initial involvement in Village Ways started mainly to support my husband and our other team members, who had many years of working experience, and I was completely new to this field and lacked any real knowledge. I was also looking after my personal commitments towards my family and particularly as a mother, and so there was much in hand.

During this early period, however, I was very closely interacting with the local communities, getting to know the challenges they faced, meeting young people who were working in towns and cities to support their families, and meeting women who worked so hard, waking up before sunrise and managing to go to bed only by late night.  These interactions transformed my perspective on life and the motivation of being able to change lives of people in a positive manner through this special kind of tourism, paved the way for my close involvement in rural tourism through Village Ways. 

After initial years of hard work and learning, I was chosen by my team to take on the overall management of the company and this was something I did not expect, as I was not sure if I will be able to balance my various responsibilities of life.  However I was very proud that my team had bestowed their trust on my capabilities and I did work very hard and kept my mind open to learning from others and to manage situations patiently.  I would have faced many challenges in this role, had it not been the support and encouragement from our team, the village communities we work with and also from my family.

I am still learning and there is much more to learn!

• What are the challenges that you faced when you entered in this sector?

The main challenges for us at the starting phase, were to mobilize the communities to get involved in a collective approach of Tourism where we aimed to benefit the community as a whole. It was also a task for us to motivate them to take initiatives and regain the faith on their abilities and skills.

We had no support from any funding agency and it was not possible to start without any capital available to spend on the project. Human resource was also a difficulty considering our limited resources.

However we overcame these challenges because of our hard work as a team and we did not leave any stone unturned to keep things moving and the project took off successfully in 5 villages of Binsar, with our first guest arriving in 2006.

• What are the progress and development that you initiated in the current arena?

The outcome of our initiative is the creation of 23 village-owned and run guest-houses across India and Nepal, including three tented camps and one houseboat, and the employment of people from 261 families in those villages. Impacts include a reduction in out-migration, with young people choosing to stay in their home villages and work as guides, and an increase in transferrable skills through the training provided.  Our village communities are now also training other community members from different states.

Since we started, our stress was on involving women in all sides of the business. I am very proud of our all women sales team, our many women guides who guide our guests, our many housekeepers who participate in running of their village guest – houses, our lady porters who walk up the hill carrying luggage and return back with the grass for their livestock. They are balancing their household responsibilities with a professional life to bring in the much -needed income to run their families and to build the confidence in their skills.

• More women entrepreneurs are now enter into the Social arena of Travel & hospitality sector today. What is the advice you give to such young women?

Each one of us can make a positive difference by getting involved. The results may not be immediate, but if good time is spent in researching about different aspects, before making an entry, that will be very helpful in the longer run.  I would also say that we must use our creativity and have faith in our ideas and beliefs, as that helps us to create something positive for the community and overcome any challenges.

• Compared to men, how women can enhance this industry from a woman-point of view?

Women have a natural talent and attitude for hospitality and administration. And I think these are the key factors in Tourism, as everything begins with natural hospitality and good administration. Therefore I feel that women can enhance the different experiences of Tourism by using their creativity and their caring and alert attitude.

 What is the future of Responsible & Rural Tourism sector in India? Do you have any suggestion to authorities and tourism industry stake holders to take this into next level? India has a very good potential to develop Rural Tourism and there are many parts of our country, which can offer some of the most unique experiences and opportunities for travellers to understand local life and to immerse in our rich traditional and cultural heritage. However, the way to make this work, is only possible when efforts from Public and private sectors are collaborated to create something for the betterment of the local communities. If each effort works independently without any consultations from each other, there is no collective responsibility created in Tourism. ‘’Responsible Tourism is only possible when each stakeholder takes the responsibility of its impacts’’.

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