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Green India: The Blue Yonder Bangalore


A river sustains a civilization

Gopinath Parayil  Jun 04, 2008

The Blue Yonder was set up as a travel company based out of Bangalore (Karnataka), four years back (end of 2003) to bring in attention of the world to the status of sadly depleted and neglected Bharatapuzha River (River Nila) in the North of Kerala in India and to help raise funds for Nila Foundation that works to revive and regenerate the dying river. “A river is often the thread that weaves lives and traditions in an ageless manner. A river sustains a civilisation.”

What was once the life line of Northern Kerala, is today a decaying, dying river. It is out of concern for the River Nila (Bharatapuzha), - the erosion of the river banks, the dilution of its
culture, neglect and depletion of its resources - that some of us got together to set up Nila Foundation.

The river had inspired many major poets and writers. For the commoners it was the sacred Dakshina Ganga. Vallathol established the illustrious Kerala Kala Mandalam on its banks in the village of Cheruthuruthy. A whole lot of writers, singers and Kathakali artistes grew up in the villages close to the river from Kalpathy to Ponani. So the river was often described as the cultural stream of Malabar.

We used Responsible Tourism as a tool to spread awareness of many folk art forms, culture and lifestyle that are going into the oblivion. Interaction with travelling community and the knowledge that they are visiting our villages for the richness in the culture brings in a sense of pride amongst the villagers. Since these bring in alternative and supplementary sources of income to all our stake holders, it makes economic sense to our people as well.

By creating a meaningful connection between visitors and the river through interpretations, local people feel more connected with the river as they are the ones giving the interpretation.
Retelling stories, legends and songs about the area and by explaining their significance, local people are themselves made aware of their culture and the need to conserve it. The promoters of The Blue Yonder are from this region.

Cultural and heritage tours we organise along River Nila is now directly benefiting 61 individuals ranging from folk musicians, ritualistic healers, classic percussionists, artisans, ex-sand smugglers to interpreters. The indirect benefits of our holidays are reaching 63 individuals ranging from toddy tappers, oarsmen, drivers and vendors. Out of the 61 direct beneficiaries, 18 of them are women.

Since it’s difficult to sustain a travel industry business based out of three districts in Kerala, we decided to offer holidays to other destinations in India which is available from this season onwards. The destinations include Sikkim, Spiti Valley, Karnataka, Sunderbans and Rajasthan. Based on the experiences from Kerala and especially River Nila about product research, implementation and destination management we have been researching and identifying destinations listed above so that our holidays benefits local people socially and economically, and creates less impacts environmentally.

We have taken extra care, time and patience to identify our activity partners in each destination. The focus was always about finding partners who were doing social business and those who were already involved in working with local people and who had the pulse of local issues. So rather than reinventing the wheel of entire destination research we developed a network of NGOs , small tour operators and knowledgeable /passionate individuals.

So while we organise the holidays ourselves in Kerala and Karnataka, we tied up NGOs in Sikkim and Spiti Valley who believes in our Responsible Tourism policies. In Sunderbans we work with Responsible partners who assures similar quality of work with conviction. We are currently consulting with activity partners in Rajasthan.

The above mentioned working model assures us maximum out reach in short time, and the benefits of our holidays to local individuals move from 180 in Kerala to more than 500 individuals in six destinations!

The Blue Yonder has received two highly honourable mentions at the 2007 Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Awards and 2006 Responsible Tourism Awards at the World Travel Market in London as a tour operator for using tourism as a tool for poverty reduction and preserving and conserving local culture and tradition.

Aims, objectives and goals of the project:

• To let the world know about a dying river through travelling community by focusing on its rich cultural richness.

• Document the cultural heritage and richness of the river. Create ownership and pride amongst the local people about the river and its traditions.

• To involve travelers and host in the process documentation of culture and heritage of the river civilization.

• Provide alternative & supplementary sources of income for those people that will help them sustain the rich river valley civilization. This include those people who have limited financial resources and whose knowledge about their traditional way of living (Art forms, rituals, etc) can’t provide any more stable income.

• Use the theme of Responsible tourism to create wealth in those areas we operate and make the travel industry take ownership and responsibility in those areas where they can.

Some sample holiday experiences:

Musical Trails:

This is a program to showcase the percussion culture of the river valley civilization. The program is organised in the house of lower caste musicians including girls and they play more than 15 instruments. This involves a lecture demonstration of various styles of music and how certain school of music evolved on the banks of the river Nila. Due to many social restrictions, they have no access to perform in temples and courtyards which are otherwise restricted only to musicians of upper caste Hindus. These members from the poor families make a living out of traditional launderettes and daily-wage jobs which are very seasonal. Now our program has shown them an alternative source of income and more than everything, they gain a social recognition.

Direct beneficiaries: Total 12, Men 10, Women 2
Indirect Beneficiaries: Total 9, Men 8 Woman 1

Folk Expressions:

Once a popular art form and ritual practiced in several places in Kerala and especially on the banks of River Nila, this art form is no longer financially viable for people who practice it as there are less and less people who are showing interest in these rituals ( change in life style and attitude). This has affected the way of life of these ritualistic performers and have been looking for other jobs based on daily wages. Our intervention has helped some of the community members to continue their lifestyle and earn from what they know for many generations; instead of having to look for a lifestyle they aren’t comfortable with.

Direct beneficiaries: Total 24, Men 16, Women 8
Indirect Beneficiaries: Total 6, Men 6 Woman 0

Kalaripayattu (martial arts):

Tenth generation school that still maintains the genuine old school style of martial arts is run by a non profit organisation, and is now partially supported by The Blue Yonder through our guests visits. In areas that are known for tourist circuits have mushrooming schools that have compromised a lot on the core values of this traditional martial art form. Our support ensures that the school can run its basic chores without compromising on its original values that have been set by their great forefathers Direct and tangible economic & social benefits to local people

Direct beneficiaries: Total 12, Men 8, Women 4
Indirect Beneficiaries: Total 6, Men 5 Woman 1

River Rafting :

Passing through three districts of Kerala, viz, Palakkad, Thrissur and Mallappuram, Tootha is a swift river that makes it a great experience for rafting. Amidst a backdrop of one of the most beautiful landscapes, let your adrenalin soar. This whole stretch of the river is sparsely populated, compared to other regions of Kerala. Also a lesser known fact is that the banks of Tootha River is a treasure trove of butterflies and birds.

The guests are provided with professional equipment tried and tested in other river rafting areas in India and abroad. These include life jackets, helmets, paddles and first aid kit.

The raft itself is a marvel of recyclable and eco-friendly material. Fashioned out of wild bamboos, and fastened with coir ropes, these basic rafts are supported by large truck tyre tubes. The cushioning effects of the tyre tubes make it just comfortable to sit on while rowing without taking away anything from the experience

Direct beneficiaries: Total 3, Men 3, Women 0
Indirect Beneficiaries: Total 6, Men 5 Woman 1

Thoni (country boat) Cruise:

These boats were previously used traditionally for transporting fine sand and coconut husks to different locations. (In River Nila, most of the boats are used for illegal sand mining). The owners and rowers were smuggling sand earlier and now these trips are giving them alternative source of income, an income with dignity without indulging in illegal activities.

Direct beneficiaries: Total 3, Men 3, Women 0
Indirect Beneficiaries: Total 13, Men 12 Woman 1

Economic Impacts:

Sand miners and sand smugglers are encouraged to be part of the team as our guides, assistants, boat owners and oarsmen. With this we have set about trying to convince them that engaging in tourist assistance could be an alternative source of income as compared to the risky and destructive job of sand-mining. In fact, sand-mining is one reason why the river is dying at a rapid pace. Being part of TBY would ensure that they have a steady livelihood which helps preserve their dignity. As of now we don’t have the volume of guests to make this a viable or sustainable source of income for them to stay away from smuggling on a long term. But we believe that this is a right step in the right direction.
Naturalist, guides and interpreters are drawn from the local community in the areas we operate in. And majority of the programs are being run by them. (Except for occasional assistance from naturalists and trainers where such skills are not locally available.) These include: river rafting, trekking, camping, wildlife safari etc. None of these programs make them totally dependent on tourism, but are projected as alternative or supplementary employment opportunities.

Supplementary income for folk artists by the River Nila. Several art forms like ‘Kalam varayal’ Kuda Chozhi, Dharika Vadham, had gone into oblivion mainly because of its inability to generate any more income for the community members. We proposed to include this as a regular feature in our tour programs and this has certainly made an impact on these minority community members.

Culinary arrangements or facilities organised in the kitchens of local community. Almost all our outdoor activities are supported and managed by community members. This ensures supplementary source of income for many families who live in the fringe areas of forests and rivers.

Social impacts:

Investing as a Social Entrepreneur: While discussing the benefits of tourism to potential entrepreneurs in the initial stages (in an area where tourism activities are far less compared to rest of Kerala), the promoters encountered hesitation and disbelief. This was taken care of by becoming a stake holder and by partly investing in country boats and out-doors activity equipments.
Promoting a river as a tourist destination to bring attention to the local community as well as getting international attention towards the plight of the river. This initiative has led many of our guests to make available their services as volunteers to work for the foundation.

Supports Near the River – a series focusing on the River Valley Civilisation.

Identifying folk-art forms that are neglected or passing to oblivion. For almost all the trips we organise to the river, we make sure that we incorporate this as a program. As an indirect influence, the older members of the families have started teaching their children the art forms which ensures a longer lease of life for the art form.

Promoting musician’s families that belong to lower strata of the society. Supporting traditional martial arts school in the areas we operate.
Financially supporting nila foundation to work on projects like ‘Status of rivers in Kerala’ (Puzha Malayalam to be launched by end of October 2006 is delayed but to be released by end 2007), Video documentary on ‘Chalakudy river’ (completed), A book on birds in Purathur (along river Nila) (on going) and ‘Participatory research on environmental status of Kerala’ (on going)

Environmental impacts:

The way tourism is organised along River Nila, we have taken all actions to ensure that our holidays doesn’t create any negative impacts.

Except for one boat ride where we use a motor boat for long duration trips, and the fuel used for transporation of guests from point to point, there is hardly any damage that we create to the environment.

Since we are operating along the depleting river and sensitive eco system, our guests and activity partners are very well briefed about what we do and why should do it carefully.

As part of the training that continues, the local boys and girls who are our interpreters, take extra care to ensure that the guests don’t bring in a plastic wafers or mineral water bottle that they leave behind.

In many areas where we operate, there are no established solid waste management system. So we make sure that guests are properly briefed on this and try to reduce the impact of waste including plastics.

Recyclable bamboo rafts. The bamboo we use for rafting can be grown back within a time span of three months. We also make sure that every time we have a guest coming to any of the properties we promote, they plant a sapling or two as a support to our conservation effort.

The research work of Nila Foundation on the “status of rivers in Kerala” is solely supported by financially by The Blue Yonder, who are the promoters of this project.

Capacity building of local people and stakeholders:

For the project to successful and sustainable, it has to be managed by the stakeholders who are our local community members. We ensure that regular training and education is provided (within our financial constraints) so that they can become partners in project’s success and even to develop their own financial resources by becoming entrepreneurs.

Focus on the process of cultural history documentation ensures that the guests spend a lot of time with the villagers and activity partners. This has led to improving the social skills and English communication skills of the activity partners to some extend.

All the activities we are organizing along the River Nila including Heritage and Legend Trails, Thoni Cruise (country boat cruise), Kalaripayattu (Traditional martial arts from Malabar region of Kerala), Music Trails ( showcasing the percussion culture of River Nila), Folk Expressions (show casing the folk culture, singing, and art making sessions) are owned operated and managed by the local people. The idea of such a revenue model is to show alternative livelihood and create entrepreneurs within the community. Most of our activity partners earn their daily wage from plumbing, electrical work and even illegal sand mining. In association with Vayali Folk Group (www.vayali.org website is financially supported by The Blue Yonder as well), such people have been trained over the last three years in documenting art forms, folk songs and recently even a bamboo orchestra.

The Lecture demonstration conceptualised and designed by The Blue Yonder to show case the percussion culture is now one of the major attractions of our holidays. A one room school (Madhava Vidhyalam) based out of a lower caste family is now training 30 students for free and the same LEC-DEM model is now going to be show cased at various schools in the state of Kerala. While being an activity partner, they are not restricted to work only with us; instead they are encouraged to be their own entrepreneurs.

The promoters, The Blue Yonder organised one workshop in July 2007 for local guides, interpreters and small size hoteliers in association with Ms Sandra M Herman of Supreme Consultancy (www.supremeconsultancy.biz) from Munich, who worked with them to improve their hospitality skills. This will be part of series of workshops we will be doing with Sandra M Herman regularly.

TBY has recently signed a contract with People and Places, a voluntourism agency based in the UK to send skilled volunteers to help our stake holders improve their social skills, documentary making, and computer skills. This project is also connected to building connections with the river projects that Nila Foundation is involved in.

Being a flag bearer of Responsible Tourism in India, The Blue Yonder has taken initiative to set up an associate program to bring in Responsible Tourism Accommodation providers to come together. www.theblueyonderassociates.com Right now there are 23 properties who have written down their Responsible Tourism policies and practices. For the first time, The Blue Yonder Associates came together at the World Travel Market, London 2007.

The Blue Yonder also took the initiative to set up the International Centre for Responsible Tourism in India (www.icrtindia.org) in December 2006 to promote Responsible Tourism in India. So far ICRT India in association has organised a National Symposium in Bangalore and one state level workshop in Kerala. ICRT India is also organising the second Internationalconference on Responsible Tourism in Kerala as a follow up to Cape Town declaration of 2002.
Uniqueness of this project:

Community ownership: All the activities we organise as part of the holiday experiences have been developed after consultation with our community members. We have also ensured that the ownership, management and operations remain with the community and not with the Travel Company. The consultation exercise ensures an integrated development towards the well being of the community

Sensitised travelers: Thorough briefing is given to all guests before they book the holiday, this exercise continues immediately prior to the tour as well, so that the guests understand the reasons for organizing these holidays. In many holidays, we notice that the local communities end up adapting to the needs of the traveller which is alright to some extent. But we ensure that the community by no means makes a compromise because of tourism that affects their authenticity in anyway.

Proud stake holders: To respect and be sensitive to the needs of the community by not treating them as outsiders but as people who feel proud to represent the culture and environment they live in.

Tourism as a tool for poverty reduction: By becoming our activity partners, local community members are shown alternative and supplementary sources of incomes which in turn helps them preserve their art forms, rituals, heritage and culture.

Preserving rich cultural heritage : By encouraging traditional musicians to pursue many of the dying art forms to sustain itself by providing an audience [through special interest travellers] and thereby preserving them

Discouraging migration to cities and towns as our project ensures a security to some extent and has potential to be sustainable. Kerala has seen a large exodus to middle east, and we have some examples of boys who decided to stay back in village just for the reason that they were shown decent living back home while being connected to their roots and tradition through the activities we provide through holidays.

Taking responsibility: From the promoters to the present stake holders of the River Nila projects, we were all responding to our surroundings / environment, to be responsible and accountable for the damage that human intervention has caused to the river.

Sense of pride: By creating a meaningful connection between visitors and the river through interpretations, local people feel more connected with the river as they are the ones giving the interpretation. Retelling stories, legends and songs about the area and explaining their significance, local people are themselves made aware of their culture and the need to conserve it.

Focus on the process than the product: -TBY gives Importance to the process not the product to enhance the value of the specific activity. Rather than showing the guests a performance, we ensure that the guests understand the stakes in the performance by seeing the back ground work that leads to the performance.

Giving back to destinations: The initial briefing and constant interaction with the local people ensures that the guests understand the dynamics of the communities and culture they interact with. This creates interest amongst the travelers who can contribute back to the destination through volunteerism and various other personal contribution.

Some Guest Feedback:

Although we were in Kerala for only a few short days, we felt that even in that short time we were able to connect with people and develop a better understanding of their land and resources. Our sunset boat trip on the River Nila helped us develop a deeper appreciation of the river as a life-source to the region and an understanding of the urgency of protecting its diminishing waters. Our afternoon spent with local musicians was unlike any musical performance we had ever experienced. We developed a deeper appreciation of the way that music, family, religion, and the environment are so intertwined. Our trip would not have been complete without our final afternoon of ayruvedic massages. It was the way that each of our experiences in Kerala was different yet interconnected that made this holiday so memorable.

Without a doubt, the Blue Yonder is committed to fostering tourism that is environmentally and socially responsible. Although their tour operation clearly benefits the local people with a focus on preserving the environment, the most powerful impact of our experience at the Blue Yonder was how it shaped our own understanding of responsible tourism.

As frequent travelers, the Blue Yonder helped us to understand how tourism (when responsibly managed) can be a powerful agent for environmental protection and local economic growth. We value all the work that the Blue Yonder is doing within the communities along the River Nila, but we also believe their impact is more than on the local level. Now that we have seen how powerful an experience traveling can be when it is organized in a way that benefits the environment and the local people, we will search out more experiences like this in our future trips abroad! Allison and family USA

The whole holiday was a fantastic experience and far surpassed my (already high) expectations. It was our first experience of a holiday officially recognized as “responsible tourism”, although the holidays we usually organize for ourselves would probably fit most of the criteria. There were so many incredible experiences in just 3 weeks – and we felt really privileged to have been able to have them, so thank you for making it all possible. The programme you devised for us, just could not have been better, fitting what I had told you about us so perfectly.

Our time in Nila was a fantastic experience as I’ve already said. We felt just so privileged to be able to experience the different aspects of your culture and heritage, on such an intimate level. It was again good to think that our visit was in a small way helping you to sustain local customs. Julia and Nigel UK

"When an experience connects you with people and places such that you can remember the touch, sound, sight in a hundred individual moments, you want to share that with others. I was fully engaged by the culture, terrain, flora and fauna, and the thoughtfulness to how we interacted. This emerged through the simple luxury provided by the care of those involved with The Blue Yonder. To have walked so thoughtfully through the lands of those who live and love near the Nila River was a gift. The Blue Yonder's expertise and commitment to the environment and culture in giving that opportunity to travellers should be applauded.

What is as noteworthy is that The Blue Yonder has incorporated volunteerism, along with the personal and professional development of their colleagues and those who can bring further solutions to challenges of Kerala's many treasures. Saving a river is no small life goal!"

Alice P USA

The long drawn journey to rive nila finally did pay off :o). We enjoyed the excellent company of Arun and were extremely delighted when he took us to "ayurveda mana". Besides the wonderful massage, we also had the rare opportunity to watch "kalaripayattu" in real. The institution, its philosophy and its management is truly inspiring. If this were not enough, Arun also narrated us the whole story of River Nila and the thought behind the inception of the blue yonder group. Beyond doubt, your purpose is noble and earns a lot of respect in our hearts. The thoni cruise was a true delight as well. This was a great learning experience for us. clearly, there are a lot of fond memories that will drive us back to the wilderness & monsoons of kerala next year. " Malvikaa & Sid, Bangalore India

I was so impressed to see what one can do in one week on the banks of River Nila. Really impressive. The way holiday was arranged ,it was easy for us to interact with the local people, which is really missing in any typical tourists programs in Kerala. On one hand we got to see the beauty of the river banks and on the other we got an exposure to the cultural richness of the river in a unique way.'' Ivan Moura, Switzerland

''Your programs have people at its core. The seven day spent with your team on the banks of river Nila was a seven star experience, especially the cultural interaction and festival trails. Looking forward to visiting you all again. I am not sure if I would have seen Kerala this way if I had travelled with some one else.'' Jean Francois UCPA, Marseilles, France

''When I started hearing about this river, it was obviously your river. Now I am going back to my country with a difference that the Nila has become my river. Thanks so much for the wonderful experience.'' Christian Roques, Paris

Other information:

www.theblueyonder.com/rivernila.htm
http://nilafoundation.org/neartheriver.htm
www.theblueyonder.com/awards.htm
www.theblueyonder.com/media.htm

Telephone: +91.80.41152218 Mobile +91.9886753286
Email address: gopi@theblueyonder.com

A river sustains a civilization



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