Once known for immersive experiences that involved participation of local communities, travel startups are forced to rethink on-ground strategy in a time when everyone is wary of the outsider
Mohammed Sadique during a tour inside Dharavi before the pandemic. He says 95 per cent of his clientele are foreigners
No Footprints, a city-based travel company, won the Best Tour Operator award at the Outlook Responsible Tourism Awards in January 2020. The brand was hailed for its immersive approach, enabling visitors to experience communities, culture and hear their stories first hand. Founders Eesha Singh and Harshavardhan Tanwar say the idea had been to curate unique experiences. "Before the pandemic, we had launched the Queer tour, a sort of deep dive into queer communities of the city, the legacy of the culture, politics, conflicts and pleasure." The pair says that the new tour helped create employment for people from the community as walk leaders. But their commitment to sustainable and responsible tourism has been severely tested under the "new normal".
The Coronavirus outbreak pulled the plug on guided tours, and the firm. Like most others, they too have had to move their activities online. "Our strength lies in offering intimate experiences that are out of the box and defy convention. But post-pandemic, the community members are wary of allowing in visitors. Tourists, on their part, are concerned about the safety of the location and social distancing." Whether it is taking a walk through the 200-year-old East Indian gaothan of Matharpacady in the bylanes of Mazagaon or exploring the fishing village in Worli Koliwada, the permission and participation of the residents not only gave the tours legitimacy, it also helped ensure the protection and promotion of their traditions, explains Singh, who heads strategy and consumer planning.
No Footprints' flagship tour, Mumbai by Dawn, includes a visit to the Dadar Flower Market. Given the crowds in the area, the organisers aren't sure if it will restart anytime soon or will find any takers
Her team has now begun scouting for alternate locations that aren't as densely populated. But in Mumbai, that's a challenge.
"It's now going to be a window-shopping kind of an experience, which makes it challenging for players like us, because the beauty [of our tours] was in making you experience life like a local. We don't think that the original idea holds much appeal at the moment."
Eesha Singh says they have been planning a physical tour of Worli village, but are struggling to find a time when it's least crowded
The tourism ministry has cited the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) estimates to suggest that the loss of revenue for tourism is likely to range between Rs 72,000 crore and Rs 1.58 lakh crore in 2020-21.
Like Singh, Bengaluru-based Vinay Parameswarappa, founder of Gully Tours, is figuring ways to reinvent his brand. The former techie, launched the travel firm in 2009, to hold extensive city walks, cycle tours, food tours in Kochi, Bengaluru, Coorg and Mysuru. "Our tours, before the pandemic, also involved cooking with the locals. We collaborated with homemakers in Mysuru, who opened their homes and kitchens to travellers to teach them local recipes. We would take guests to the market to help them recognise ingredients, select and buy before they headed to one of the homes to rustle up the meal," says the Oxford University graduate.
Travellers during a cycle tour organised by Gully Tours to Fort Kochi
After conducting a host of digital experiments during the lockdown, including a virtual tour of the Mysuru palace and exploring the Jewish communities of Kochi, Parameswarappa gradually returned to hosting physical tours in September. "From conducting 10 tours a day, we are down to one a week. Our recent cycling tour, however, received a good response because people are tired of being indoors." To ensure safety, the number of participants is restricted to single digits.
Next up, he plans to conduct a bean-to-cup coffee experience at Harley estate, Sakleshpur, Karnataka, that dates back to the early 1860s. Given that Arabica is harvested during December-January and Robusta from December to March, right now is the ideal time for coffee tourism. "We'll be taking very small groups to the plantation. Because Indians can't travel out of the country at the moment, we are looking at doing a two nights and three days immersive experience. The tour is seeing inquiries from Mumbai too."
Harshvardhan Tanwar and Vinay Parameswarappa
Before the pandemic, just 30 per cent of his clientele was from within the country. But in the last two months, queries from domestic tourists has grown.
Like Parameswarappa, Mohammad Sadique, founder, Inside Mumbai Tours, hopes the wheel will turn for him too. He conducted his last Dharavi tour on March 15, and has been home since. "I tried looking for an alternate job, but I have been unsuccessful," he rues, sharing that he has had to dip into his savings and borrow from friends. He is unsure when business will take off again since 95 per cent of his clients were international tourists. "Because I am a Dharavi resident, I know I will be able to convince a few families to open their doors to tourists. But that can happen only when the international borders open." Finding domestic tourists to sign up for a Dharavi tour was never easy, he adds. "Indians and Mumbaikars prefer exploring the place on their own, or are often talked out of it by their friends and family."
Singh says they are left with little choice given the situation. "The domestic sector is still warming up to the idea of paying for tours, and players are engaged in a price war, with some experiences going for as little as Rs 150. Our concern is whether people will be willing to shell out higher sums for bespoke experiences offered by small, bootstrapped startups."
Although apprehensive, Singh says the pandemic has compelled them to explore the city in an-all new light. "The charm of Mumbai lies in its people. I'm hopeful that we'll find a way to work around the crisis."
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