“Went there. Lived there. What did we leave there?”
We love to lay back and get lost in the places we visit during our vacations. Clicking and posting pictures with #Wanderlust #Travel #Backpacking on Instagram and Facebook is an implicit ritual. And the throwback sure is bitter-sweet for us and our friends.
Tourism has been a significant driver of growth around the world. More than 8.2 crore Indians are employed in the tourism sector thus making India the largest employer in the world in the tourism sector (Info Source).
However, unmindful actions of stakeholders and unsustainable development of vacation hotspots have led to the significant deterioration of the environment. From the serene shorelines to the majestic mountains, the impacts of human invasion manifested in stripping off the natural resources, construction, pollution, plastic litter and overcrowding are starkly visible in popular tourist destinations like Mumbai and Shimla.
A less talked about aspect that has been severely impacted is the culture of the rustic Indian villages. This vibrant and priceless heritage comprises languages, folklores, healing practices, handicrafts, etc. It has been shaped over centuries, with diverse communities having unique traditions and practices. However, due to the skewed model of development, these villagers have been left behind by the growth express. A sense of dejection and inferiority envelopes these simple villagers, when they compare their lives with city dwellers. There does not seem to be any utility of practising the way of life of their ancestors. Thus, due to the lack of choices, most youth and men migrate to bigger cities in search of livelihood. It bears a terrible loss to the habits, festivals, handicrafts, cuisine and language of the across the landscape of India.
With the changing times and growing awareness of sustainability, more people are looking for better choices and raw experiences in the midst of nature. Thus, ecotourism or geo-tourism is being preferred by travellers. Being a sustainable, wholesome, informative and a-lifetime-experience, ecotourism has become a crowd favourite among the destination-savvy travellers. Passionate entrepreneurs are enabling such experiences, creating a plethora of positive impacts along the way.
NotOnMap is a social-driven initiative based in Chamba, Himachal Pradesh that is working towards conserving the culture of the countryside while realising sustainable travel and rural development in a holistic manner. It is creating an inclusive system for the native host community and the visitors that ensures the preservation of formers’ culture and heritage.
Work from home
Conceptualised in 2012 and started in 2016 by Anubhav, Sandeep and Manuj, NotOnMap bridges the gap between travellers and local communities to enable a deep cultural exchange. It creates a unique travel experience by enabling travellers to be change-makers. The team comprises of passionate travellers who were moved by the rapid loss of culture and potential of rural youth. They wanted to create a holistic and sustainable ecosystem to empower the native communities while instilling a behavioural change in the consumerism oriented travel industry. They focus on building model community villages by skilling and capacity building of the natives. This creates job opportunities for the locals while simultaneously promoting their culture.
There was a man from a village in Chamba region of Himachal Pradesh who had his traditional house in the serene mountains, but stable work was not available there. Thus, he had to work in a hotel in a faraway town to earn money for his family. That’s where NotOnMap came in and made him realise the asset he possessed at his village. Now, he is happily a part of their community and contributes to sustainable tourism by making his house a homestay. He promotes the cultural heritage of Chamba while earning a livelihood.
The NotOnMap team has reached out to numerous such communities and families across 16 states. They are benefiting the villagers from Nagaland, Sikkim, Rajasthan and Karnataka among other states. NotOnMap also plans for at least one community-oriented setup in every Indian village. The organization considers community members an intrinsic part of the team. Thus their efforts empower them by decreasing the out-migration of the unskilled villagers and providing them livelihood opportunities in their native places.
Experience it as locals
Every place has a story to tell, and as a visitor, that’s the most precious souvenir we can take with us. The culture of land resides in its vibrant traditions, folklores, people, myths, food and clothes than in museums and hotels. To explore the real heritage of a destination, one has to experience the life of the land. The heart of a place lies in the daily chores, rustic dialects and humble food and NotOnMap wears its heart on its sleeves.
Apart from providing a unique travel experience, it also generates alternate livelihood options in the remote areas, thus decreasing the high dependency on agriculture and out-migration by youth. So the traveller without even realising empowers the community and creates a huge impact. The venture claims to provide 80% of overall revenues to the local people with some of it going for the development of the villages. It even provides educational help to the local children, thereby uplifting the communities. The visitors conduct education, health, sanitation, etc. workshops for the villagers depending on their expertise. Thus, NotOnMap is providing a deeply connecting engagement between the local communities and visitors.
It has been the result of such transformative efforts that their work was recognised in 2019 by Booking.com, one of the largest travel e-commerce platforms in the world. NotOnMap was awarded the highest grant for their proposed plans among 10 sustainable tourism startups from around the world.
NotOnMap has revived a place in Bhaloli, Himachal Pradesh with 14 households, and named it as Mystic Village. It has resurrected the olden, traditional houses that were on the verge of disintegration and preserved their cultural heritage. Amidst the aestheticism of hills, the sunrise you see from there is a breath-taking beauty!
Culture: Food to Folklore
The stories, myths, handicrafts and healing practices have evolved over generations and are unique to different communities. Many such handicrafts and traditional medicines have lost their market, thus the villagers are abandoning these arts.
Anubhav shared one such instance with team ulaunch. In some places of Himachal, women used to make beautiful mats out of corn husk to sit on stones. But it was sold in the market for Rs. 50 which is very less compared to the hard work these women used to put in. So they decided to stop making them. NotOnMap members analysed the problems and created an ecosystem with forwarding linkages for the villagers to appropriate markets and customers thus providing better money for their work. The team took the risk to provide a long term and sustainable solution. They have also set up an online shop on its website for such products. Thus, they empower these communities while preserving their culture by utilizing the enabling potential of digital technology.
Their new initiative called ‘Grandma Tales’ brings forward the folklore and myths of local communities. The team forms a holistic synergy of the raw and hidden cultural aspects of villages with the outreach of mobile phones and social media. It enables documentation of myths, stories, healing practices, recipes, games, music and local innovations pan India. Such intangible heritage is otherwise becoming a lost cause with a lopsided trajectory of development that comes with a fast-paced life.
Opting for something different is generally doubted by the people. For NotOnMap, building trust and faith amongst the natives was of critical importance. Manuj being a social activist in the Sal Valley of Chamba played a significant role in connecting and trust-building with residents. However, working with diverse communities still poses challenges while standardising operations at times.
Another task for the team is to find passionate and sensitive travellers who align with the cause of reviving the countryside and the natives who reside there. The travellers need to be mindful of the intangible and intimate aspects of their daily lives that the communities welcome them to.
The travellers are habituated to the commodity-driven travel industry. At times they don’t understand the needs of the communities and don’t appreciate the raw and pristine experience that is otherwise preserved for the natives. They shouldn’t compare it with commodified industry benchmarks. The natives take a lot of pain to provide the basic food and other services to the visitors that they themselves don’t consume. Thus, the materialistic and consumption-driven mindset of the travellers and industry stakeholders needs to change. This will be immensely beneficial for these rural communities and will help to make the travel industry more sustainable in the long term.
The Coronavirus lockdown has led to severe disruptions as travel plans have been cancelled across the globe. The operations of the NotOnMap team have come to a grinding halt. The team is working relentlessly to support the communities in these dire times by engaging with various stakeholders. It looks forward to resuming their impactful work with renewed vigour with the easing up of lockdown and travel restrictions.
Leaving goodness behind
When we visit a place, we come back changed, with new stories and revelations. But what we leave for the destinations has not been so beautiful! Beaches and treks with litter is a common sight these days. The scale of damage to the rich cultural and heritage aspects has been the same, if not more.
Travelling can be a life-changing experience and NotOnMap realises its potential. It’s thus creating a holistic ecosystem where destinations, visitors & natives grow and flourish together. Its model of sustainable ecotourism that imbibes collective growth will help to empower the native communities in the truest sense.
Article by Prachi Chauhan with inputs by Subhav Duggal, Team ulaunch.