Jaisal Singh opened his first wilderness camp SUJAN Sher Bagh, on the outskirts of Ranthambhore National Park when he was just 21—his commitment to operating differently set Sher Bagh apart. Over the years, he added SUJAN The Serai, a property in the desert in Jaisalmer and SUJAN Jawai in Pali District in Rajasthan. With a commitment to sustainability, the properties are benchmarks in the tourism industry.
During a recent interview with OT, Singh discussed the foundational principles of hospitality at his camps, emphasising conservation and sustainability. He also shared his perspective on photography and touched on other topics. Excerpts from the interview here.
The Sujan properties in both Ranthambore and Jawai were at the forefront of bringing the luxury nature experience to the areas. How did you ensure this happened sustainably?
Our purpose governs every decision we make and this has been in place since the beginning. When I founded the original SUJÁN camp, SUJÁN Sher Bagh, Ranthambhore, over 23 years ago, it was inspired by three generations of my family being committed to conservation. I set out to create a responsible tourism model that would give back and raise awareness for the wilderness my family called home whilst operating responsibly and sustainably. This was the first and most crucial step; the design and hospitality would follow.
The majority of the hotel industry hopped on the “sustainable bandwagon” only a few years ago; for me, it was second nature to begin something that would help preserve, protect and restore the wilderness I called home.
From the very first day, aged just 21, I had designed rainwater harvesting initiatives, re-wilded degraded areas of land, planted organic gardens to grow all my own produce; and I also involved the local communities by employing people from the villages and training them in hospitality. The camp was virtually run off the grid, lit by oil lanterns, warmed by fires, and cooking outdoors around the campfire.
How are you restoring and preserving the landscapes around your properties?
Our safari and hospitality experiences allow us to develop and support projects that protect wildlife habitat and existing wildlife populations, along with supporting our local communities. These commitments have been at the forefront of our operations since inception and will always remain our key focus. Our Re-wilding Programme has helped to protect and restore over 100 sq. km. of wildlife habitat.
What projects are you involved in at the community level?
We have a considerable investment in our local communities, not just financially. Our conservation initiatives run across several districts of Rajasthan with a focus on—but not limited to the following tenets: conservation of biodiversity, holistic community development, and the preservation of our culture and heritage. Each one of these involves working in partnership with our local communities for their benefit. We have adopted 13 schools across Rajasthan; offer free primary health service that covers over 25,000 people; employ more than 80 per cent of our team from the region; provide sanitation services to villages in our vicinity; clean drinking water; and scholarships for vocational training.
How are you helping preserve the Rajasthani culture?
The preservation of our rich cultural heritage is incredibly important to us as a family, and this was something instilled into my wife Anjali and me through my mother, who spent decades working to preserve the traditional crafts of India. Through our support towards local arts, music, textiles, crafts and traditional customs, we promote and sustain the culture of Rajasthan.
At SUJÁN The Serai, Jaisalmer, for example, we promote, protect and have revived the folk music of the Manganiar tribe of musicians of the Thar Desert. We work very closely with skilled artisans from our local communities and connect our guests with their culture and traditions through craft workshops such as pottery, spinning, wood carving and weaving. As Creative Director of SUJÁN, Anjali celebrates local craftsmanship and the vibrant culture of each region we operate in by promoting these to our guests. We work closely with local artisans to create and source fabrics and decorative pieces that are unique and reflective of the wildernesses where we are located.
What are the unique initiatives that guests can get involved with?
Guests at SUJÁN automatically get involved when they choose to book a stay with us. We have a mandatory Conservation Contribution, a small charge of Rs 2,500 (approx. $25) per night per person. All funds from this are directly donated to our Foundation and our conservation and community projects on the ground. While staying with us at camp, guests can partake in sessions with our field team and conservation director and visit our community projects to see what we do first-hand.
Conservation is the key to maintaining a balance. What challenges have you faced?
On a global stage, we all need our individual governments to make the protection of our wild habitats a national priority and mission. Our human population and wildlife are wholly interdependent, and it is time we realise it. From India’s water security to the air we breathe—responsible development is the key to our survival, and more conservation tourism is required.
Much of our industry has catching up to do, and some of the challenges often arise from unregulated, irresponsible tourism operators working in fragile wilderness areas. Like the phrase ecotourism, sustainable tourism has become virtually meaningless as it is often tied to cursory efforts, which are very limited, rather than proven, genuine commitments, strategies, and actions that have a measurable positive impact. Governments, tourist boards, travel agents, hoteliers and the travellers themselves need to be more aware of and held accountable for their actual impact.
How can one get the best wildlife experience?
A quick mantra to live by when you go on safari: Give back more than you take out of the wild. I urge travellers planning safaris to do their homework before they choose a camp. Do some online research and ask questions. Look for sustainability reports and reviews from trusted sources. Don’t take sustainability claims at face value.
As an avid photographer, are there any tips you can share?
When on safari, being with an experienced guide who is driving and positioning you as a photographer, not as a tourist, is key. It’s something our teams are trained for. The two things are very different—if guests aren’t keen photographers, a driver may position a jeep for a nice eyeshot but won’t perhaps be thinking about the frame and setting up a shot. This often involves positioning ahead of the animal so the animal will walk straight to the camera, etc. Being able to stop and move quickly, depending on the animal’s movement, is also key.
That’s why the SUJÁN experience is totally unique for photographers. Using one of our special photographic jeeps with swivel seats and space to lie down will allow you multiple different levels and angles for photography. Patience and positioning are key—don’t push your guide to chase around madly to get a shot; instead, park the jeep at the correct spot and let things unfold.
We also recommend a photo tutorial with our field team for our guests. You can always go on a specific photo drive with one of our guides, who will give a private lesson and share photography tips. Once back at camp, you can pull up your images in our field rooms and go through the pictures together.