Gaurav Bhatnagar, Director, The Folk Tales
Gaurav Bhatnagar worked in the corporate sector for a decade after completing his studies in enginnering. His travels in Rural India led him to launch The Folk Tales, a responsible rural travel company that offers curated tours to different parts of rural India and is focused on immersing the traveller in the local community and showcasing the region’s arts, crafts, culture, music, architecture, wildlife and natural beauty. Edited excerpts from an interview with Gaurav on The Folk Tales and rural tourism:
Q: Why did you decide to start The Folk Tales? What led you to Responsible Tourism?
Gaurav: I travelled to Rajasthan and Sikkim in 2011 and decided to stay in a village with a family. This experience opened up a whole new perspective for me. I had never been to an Indian village before, and this was just a leisure trip. However, a new idea started brewing in my mind to provide village experiences to travellers. Back in 2012 village travel experiences and homestays were comparatively less known in tourism industry.
We started The Folk Tales in late 2013 as a homestay booking platform. However, we soon realised that we can provide more value by creating and providing experiences along with homestays. These experiences are now aligned towards providing hands on experience to a traveller about local food, crafts, dresses, languages, architecture, wildlife through storytelling. Hence the name - The Folk Tales. We now also do short city tours which are combined with village experiences.
Transition to responsible tourism was a gradual process. As we got involved more into the tourism industry we aligned our tours with guidelines of Cape Town Agreement 2002 followed by affiliation to WTM Responsible Tourism. Recently, we also aligned our future goals with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). We currently work in 11 states of India, and provide direct income to local community by involving them in various stages of managing a tour. Not only income, we also do short training whenever there is a need. Getting the Indian Responsible Tourism Gold award for Best Cultural Immersion operator was certainly an indication that we are going in the right direction.
Q. How is a trip with The Folk Tales different from that organised by other tour operators?
Gaurav: We currently do private tours where a traveller can expect friendly and personal assistance from our team. Rather than trying to sell a tour, we want to help the traveller get what they want by solving their problem. Travellers can also expect their special requests taken care of on the tour as part of the customisation we do. Our tours are flexible. Once the tour starts, the traveller can expect friendly drivers, guides and hosts who are willing to treat you like their personal guest. This is not just because of the payment, but because of the values we promote and inculcate in every member of our team. Our drivers are safe, and so are our guides. Each one of our guides have good knowledge of their subject (heritage, textiles, art and crafts, wildlife, music and dances etc.), which helps them do the storytelling and answer your questions. The accommodations we provide are clean with comfortable beds, home cooked hygienic food, clean drinking water and western washrooms. Travellers can also expect to see clearly how their tour is creating a positive impact economically, environmentally and socially towards the local community. Combination of all these factors have helped us get consistent 5* ratings for our tours and many repeat guests.
Q. What challenges have you had to overcome?
Gaurav: The first challenge we faced was finding the right buyers for these tours. Village tourism and responsible tourism was an unknown concept in those days. However, that is not the case now given that travellers are increasingly becoming conscious and aware of the impact they make while travelling.
Second challenge we faced was standardisation of homestays. Most of the people who work in homestays are not trained or from tourism industry. Therefore, they learn by making mistakes. These mistakes sometimes don't go down well with clients. Therefore, rigorous training in person or on phone calls was required in the initial days.
Third challenge that we faced after few years of being in this work is that some projects which started as eco-friendly or responsible accommodations spiral out into big unsustainable businesses. Some homestays which were initially run by families were handed over to staff to manage, which was not aligned to our goals. We have had few instances where we had to disassociate ourselves after seeing that the homestay was now being run as a hotel.
Fourth challenge we face is the misuse of terms like homestays, responsible travel, green travel, eco-friendly travel by some people who don't do it on the ground. This leads to green washing and making false promises to the client. This practice tends to impact the reputation of others who are doing good work.
Lastly, village tours are not cheap. Sometimes they are a tad bit more expensive than other run of the mill tours in the market. We had difficulty in explaining this to clients in the beginning that it's not an easy task to run a homestay. However, such things have gradually died down as travellers now focus on getting a good experience.
Q. What experiences stand out for you?
Gaurav: One of the unexpected experiences was meeting the king of Turtuk village in Ladakh with our guests. He wasn't meant to do this work or act like our guide, but he did invaluable storytelling for us sharing about the turbulent past, his family and local life in general. Another time we were invited into a village home in Meghalaya where the home owners made all the ladies in our group try local clothes from their wardrobe. None of us spoke a common language though. In another instance, one of our client was apprehensive of taking a dip in cold waterfall in Rajasthan. She was feeling under the weather and wanted to be on medicines. But we encouraged her to take a dip as the water had healing properties. It actually cured her headache and fever when she came out of the water.
Q. What is the impact of your organisation?
Gaurav: In the last two years we have eliminated all single use plastic bottles from our tours by replacing them with multiple use filter bottles. It has helped us reduce almost 2,500 single use plastic bottles in last few months. We also indirectly employ 74 people currently in our tours by providing them work in village tourism sector. We also use women guides to run some of our tours. Currently, we have trained 3 women to be tour guides with our foreign clients.
Q. Please share your proven best practices that other RT practitioners could implement.
Gaurav: 1. Always vet the accommodations personally, especially when they are homestays. This is because there is no formal training available to homestay owners and they may need to be trained. Homestays also depend a lot upon the personal hospitality of hosts, which needs to be assessed.
2. For a small extra cost, try replacing single use plastic bottles with reusable filter water bottles.
3. Always keep a simple excel sheet to calculate the metrics. Regularly update factors such as how much income you are generating for guides, drivers and homestay owners, how much you are contributing towards environment protection, how much carbon footprint your experiences are leaving behind. This helps you talk in numbers.
4. We have encouraged few of our homestays to use solar power, rain water harvesting, grey and black water recycling. You can do the same.