Gaurav Bhatnagar: Sharing Tales of Rural India
Gaurav Bhatnagar worked in the corporate sector for a decade after completing his studies in engineering. His travels in rural India led him to launch The Folk Tales. This responsible rural travel company 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.
Why did you decide to start The Folk Tales? What led you to Responsible Tourism?
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. In 2012, village travel experiences and homestays were comparatively less known in the tourism industry.
We started The Folk Tales in late 2013 as a homestay booking platform. However, we soon realised we could provide more value by creating and delivering experiences along with homestays. These experiences are now aligned towards delivering hands-on experience to a traveller about local food, crafts, dresses, languages, architecture, and wildlife through storytelling. Hence the name—The Folk Tales. We now also do short city tours combined with village experiences.
The transition to responsible tourism was a gradual process. As we got involved more in the tourism industry, we aligned our tours with the guidelines of Cape Town Agreement 2002, followed by affiliation to WTM Responsible Tourism. We recently aligned our future goals with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). We currently work in 11 states across India and provide direct income to the local community by involving them in various tour management stages. Not only income, we also do short training whenever needed. Getting the Indian Responsible Tourism Gold award for Best Cultural Immersion operator indicated that we are going in the right direction.
How is a trip with The Folk Tales different from that organised by other tour operators?
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 problems. Travellers can also expect their special requests taken care of on the trip as part of our customisation. Our tours are flexible. Once the journey starts, the traveller can expect friendly drivers, guides and hosts willing to treat them like their guests. This is not just because of the payment but the values we promote and inculcate in every team member. Our drivers are safe, and so are our guides.
Each of our guides has good knowledge of their subject (heritage, textiles, arts and crafts, wildlife, music and dances, etc.), which helps them do the storytelling and answer your questions. Our accommodations are clean, with comfortable beds, home-cooked hygienic food, clean drinking water and western washrooms. Travellers can also expect to see how their tour is creating a positive economic, environmental and social impact on the local community. Combining all these factors has helped us get consistent 5-star ratings for our tours and many repeat guests.
What challenges have you had to overcome?
The first challenge we faced was finding the right buyers for our 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.
The second challenge we faced was the standardisation of homestays. Most people who work in homestays are not trained or from the tourism industry. Therefore, they learn by making mistakes. These mistakes sometimes don't go down well with clients. Consequently, rigorous training was required in the initial days.
The third challenge we faced after a few years of being in this work is that some projects that started as eco-friendly or responsible accommodations spiral out into big, unsustainable businesses. Some homestays that families initially ran were handed over to staff to manage, which was not aligned with our goals. We have had a few instances where we had to disassociate ourselves after seeing that the homestay was now being run as a hotel.
The fourth challenge we face is the misuse of terms like homestays, responsible travel, green travel, and eco-friendly travel by some people who don't do it on the ground. This leads to greenwashing 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 costly. Sometimes they are more expensive than other run-of-the-mill tours in the market. We had difficulty explaining this to clients initially because it's a challenging task to run a homestay. However, such things have gradually died down as travellers now focus on getting a good experience.
What experiences stand out for you?
One of the unexpected experiences was meeting the king of Turtuk village in Ladakh with our guests. He wasn't meant to act like our guide, but he told us some invaluable stories, 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 homeowners made all the ladies in our group try local clothes from their wardrobes. None of us spoke a common language, though.
In another instance, one of our clients was apprehensive about taking a dip in a cold waterfall in Rajasthan. She was feeling under the weather and wanted to be on medicines. But we encouraged her as the water had healing properties. It actually cured her headache and fever when she came out of the water.
What is the impact of your organisation?
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 the last few months. We also indirectly employ people currently in our tours by providing them with work in the village tourism sector. We also use women guides to run some of our tours and guide our foreign clients.
Please share your proven practices that other RT practitioners could implement.
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 generate for guides, drivers and homestay owners, how much you contribute towards environment protection, and how much carbon footprint your experiences are leaving behind. This helps you talk in numbers.
4. We encouraged our homestays to use solar power, implement rainwater harvesting, and grey and black water recycling. You can do the same.
For more information, visit thefolktales.com