Indian travel firms keen on encouraging vacation volunteering

What do you plan to do with the one month you get off from your high-stress job? Go bungee jumping in Bhutan, ride with the rhinos in Kaziranga, camp in Kullu-Manali or go hippy in Hampi? Wherever it is you’re going this summer, spare a thought for a social cause. And pick the right travel company to plan your trip around it.

Vacation like a volunteer
While volunteer vacationing has been a growing trend among foreign tourists over the past decade or so, travel companies in the country are now wooing Indians to follow suit.

Travel company Black Swan enables travellers to volunteer as English teachers for Tibetan immigrants in Dharamsala. Pic courtesy/ Black Swan

Yexplore, a Gurgoan-based travel company launched late last year, is keen on spreading awareness about ‘voluntourism’. Founder Sachin Bansal, who set up the initiative Delhi Walks three years ago to organise walking tours around the capital, assists travellers with a social bent of mind through Yexplore.

“The idea is to encourage holidaymakers to give back to society each time they travel,”
explains Bansal.

Instead of creating pre-set itineraries, Yexplore plans to personalise each holiday according to the travellers’ ideas. The company is still in the nascent stage, but Bansal hopes to tie up with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the near future.

Trekkers clean up the Tada Waterfalls near Chennai

When a traveller shows interest in a particular cause — be it education, environment, child abuse, or empowerment of the girl child — Bansal will connect him/ her to the relevant organisation and plan a holiday around it. “But before we take things forward, we will ask the traveller to respond to a set questionnaire. This is to determine their competency as it is essential that they understand the nature of the problem and that they have the skills required to help,” believes Bansal, who is currently looking to tie-up with projects in Bihar and the Northeast. “But the location of any project that I tie up with will have to work as a travel destination too,” insists Bansal.

Know the community
Shishir Nikam, who founded Pune-based travel company Black Swan in 2010, believes that living with the locals helps to provide a perspective into their lives and their world. This exposure to their culture and their needs provides the necessary inspiration to help communities in the right way, he finds.

During the group’s most recent trip to Himachal Pradesh, several of the travellers spent two or three hours teaching English to Tibetan immigrants.

“There’s an organisation in Dharamsala, known as Learning and Ideas for Tibet, which encourages volunteers to take on teaching assignments. They were extremely grateful, even though the travellers couldn’t spare more than a few hours,” says Nikam.

The Chennai Trekking Club enables trekkers to volunteer for various causes

Nikam and his team at Black Swan, who have organised trips to Anegundi near Hampi and Dewas in Madhya Pradesh, are always keen to expand their set of holidays. Next on his mind is the village of Cheriyal in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh. “We recently came across the Nakashi Patam or Cheriyal paintings, which are native to a village close to Hyderabad. A father-son duo are the only ones who know the art and are now desperately looking to spread the word about it. I would love to plan trips to the Cheriyal village in Warangal district for enthusiasts. The experience would undoubtedly prompt travellers to talk about the 500-year-old art form and garner interest among their friends and family when they return to the city,” says Nikam. For starters, though, Black Swan is hosting a painting workshop with the duo in Hyderabad from May 20 to 26.

Nikam already has a like-minded patron in 31-year-old Pune-resident Kshitij Amodekar, who wants Black Swan to create a route across villages to enable him to help local craftsmen market their products in cities. “It is important that these art forms are conserved before they die out,” says Amodekar, an architect, who heads an environment consultancy focussed on sustainable building.

Inspiring change
Amodekar, who has been for several trips with Black Swan in the past, was most inspired by their trip to Dr Ram Kataria’s farm in Kadus gaon, Taluka Rajgurunagar, about 50 kms from Pune. The pre-set trip was the first of a series, titled the Changemaker series, launched by Nikam and his team in October last year. The series allows keen travellers to not only offer their voluntary services, but also introduces them to inspiring changemakers. On the first trip, the group toured Dr Kataria’s farm. About 12 years ago, disturbed by environmental degradation, Dr Kataria began transforming a barren patch of land using innovative techniques. Today, his farm is an oasis with over one lakh trees and plants. Several of the travellers, including Amodekar, returned full of inspiration and are working with Dr Kataria to replicate his work in other areas.

As part of the Changemaker series, travel company Black Swan took a group to meet and volunteer with the inspirational Dr Ram Kataria (foreground), who has transformed a large tract of barren land near Pune into a flourishing forest. pic courtesy/black swan 

But sometimes, explains Nikam, travellers are inspired to help merely after they meet the locals. “Last October, we planned a trip for an architect couple. They spent four nights in a local’s house in Anegundi, across the river Tungabhadra from Hampi,” narrates Nikam, “They thoroughly enjoyed the trip and the experience encouraged them to give something back to the family. Using their skills as architects, they volunteered to redesign a portion of their house and restore the sections that needed attention. The family was thrilled, as the new design would provide them with greater privacy and they would not have been able to afford to build such a house on their own.”

Peter Van Geit, founder, Chennai Trekking Club was similarly inspired to save the environment when he began organising treks around Chennai in 2008.

“After a year of organising treks, I realised that it was essential that we became responsible travellers,” says Geit. In 2009, the non-profit organisation, organised a clean-up drive to save Tada Waterfalls near Chennai. What’s most interesting is that the club encourages its members to suggest social causes that need attention. “The club has evolved vastly over the years. The group, which receives overwhelming response from its 6,000 plus members, has organised several tree plantation campaigns and beach clean-up drives since,” reveals Geit.

Where’s the fun?
However, according to Harsh Sonawala, partner, India Someday, this is merely a scratch on the surface. The Indian mindset about travel, he believes, does not feature voluntary work. “Most Indians will reject the idea of a working vacation. They would much rather laze around and enjoy their time off,” he states.

Through India Someday, Sonawala and his partner Abbas Slatewala have organised numerous trips for foreign travellers. “Several have asked us to include voluntary work with particular organisations in their itineraries and we are happy to do that. But I don’t see a lot of Indian travellers opting for that kind of holiday,” says Sonawala.

Yexplore’s Bansal, on the other hand, is adamant on changing the mindset of the Indian traveller. “Targeting the upper class segment of holidaymakers, I plan to introduce volunteer work to spa vacations in the Northeast. The idea has received tremendous response,” he concludes.

So while a volunteer vacation may not be top priority for Indian travellers or most mainstream travel companies, there’s no denying that the trend of responsible tourism is catching on. 

Want help with a volunteer vacation?
* Yexplore allows you to pick a cause — education, environment, child abuse, or empowerment of the girl child — and connects you with a relevant organisation. They ensure that your time off is spent volunteering as well as holidaying.
Log on:

* Black Swan has a host of interesting itineraries where you can volunteer, including Anegundi in Karnataka, Dewas in Madhya Pradesh, and Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh.

* India Someday plans trips across the country and caters largely to foreign tourists. The company, which offers to connect you with an Udaipur-based NGO that deals with underprivileged children and Jaipur’s Elefantastic (where you can bathe the elephants), is keen on getting Indian travellers on board.

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