For Shyam Kumar, a software engineer from Domlur, taking a tour of the Hoysala terrain, was the ideal way to spend the weekend. While most people would associate Belur and Halebeedu (near Hassan) with the Hoysala kingdom, Kumar also got to explore the ancient town of Dwarasamudra spread around Halebeedu, ancient tanks and the lesser explored Hoysala temple at Belavadi.
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The deviation from the usual Hoysala tourist circuit was courtesy Travelwise, a concept travel firm run by media professional and travel enthusiasts Lakshmi Sharath and Arun Bhat, a former IT professional and avid photographer.
The duo started Travelwise with the belief that many people are looking for experiences which go beyond the standard touristy fare. An increasing breed in Bangalore, a complete travel experience for such people means going beyond standard sightseeing and keepsake photography and indulging in an experience that brings them up close with the region and its history.
Like Travelwise, the the idea of concept tours is catching up, though very slowly. JP Nagar based wildlife photographer Jayanth Sharma conducts photo tours across India for amateur and semi-professional shutterbugs and has several Bangaloreans signing up. "Very rarely do you find concept based tourism in India," says Sharma, who got the idea of conducting photo tours after he spent a few years travelling around the country and realised not many were doing wildlife related tours around India.
"I implemented my expertise in photography with my interest in travel," he says. Though Sharma mainly conducts photo tours to wildlife destinations like Bandhavgarh and Kanha in Central India and as far as Kenya, he has also conducted non wildlife photo tours to places like Ladakh.
Knowing your destination
"I mostly get a group of amateur photographers and also some non-photographers if any of them are coming with family. There are amateur photographers with expensive equipment but no idea how to use it and people who are interested in wildlife photography but don’t know how to get the requisite permission," says Sharma. Lakshmi says they have a mix of people in their tours, from young and upwardly mobile couples to elderly people, single travellers and family groups. What is common is that everybody wants "more than just sightseeing," she adds.
While there are several people happy to tick off the requisite number of places from their Must See list, the number of travellers who want a deeper experience is gradually increasing. "Several people who have been with us look for something deeper that enriches their travel. It could be a story, a myth, a lost piece of history or even a nature trail telling them about the birds and the bees in that habitat," says Lakshmi, adding that their focus is on niche experiential tours which are well researched.
A travel writer herself, she and Bhat lay emphasis on the local culture during all their tours. An upcoming tour on November 21 called Vignettes of Coorg is planned around getting to know the Kodava culture and heritage and staying with a Kodava family. "As travellers and travel writers, we add to the story behind all the destinations we travel to," explains Lakshmi, who has conducted three Hoysala trails by now and will chart a new destination with Coorg.
Kumar, who went for the Hoysala Trail without his family, says he likes theme related travel over the weekends. It gives him a chance to unwind and also turns out to be a learning experience.
Sharma’s photo tours need more time though. "Good quality pictures take more than a weekend," says Sharma, who usually takes groups of 8 to 10 people on a one week tour.
And everyone in the group need not be a photographer. "I team up people accordingly and though I do not restrict my photography itinerary, people not interested in photography are free to do what they want in their spare time," he adds. If a lens eye view is on your agenda, this is the perfect opportunity as Sharma gives you the space and time needed to compose your frame. Sharma doesn’t teach photography in this tour. It is meant to be a facilitation for making good pictures but as he mentions, people often have equipment worth lakhs that they require guidance for.
"So it often ends up being a personalised tour with a lot of learning involved," Sharma explains, adding, "I don’t encourage one or two day trips for this reason. The idea is for the travellers to explore the place over the weeks, photographing, discussing, talking, viewing slide shows, etc."
Realtor Lokapriya BL, a natue lover but non-photographer, says tours like Sharma’s work for the personal attention given to them. He went to Ladakh with Sharma and says there is a difference between concept tours like these and travel operator packages.
"Jayanth really knew the place and also gave us sufficient space and time to explore everything. With tours like these you get a chance to really ‘live’ the place, meet the people and go into lesser known areas," says Lokapriya who also got the time and space to do a lot of meditation in Ladakh. Lokapriya also thinks that being a photographer, Sharma has the ability to spot animals and birds anywhere. "That was a great thing," he says.
An Unusual Experience
What really adds to the difference is that most people who organise concept tours are avid travellers and explorers themselves and seem to understand that people need a sufficient amount of time to experience a place properly. "I talk a lot about photography during the tour but my philosophy is that a person should not be so focused on photography that they forget to enjoy and experience the place. So I include a lot of anecdotes, storytelling and try to give them an overall experience," Sharma recounts.
Lakshmi and Arun’s tours are thoroughly researched by them by visiting the sites, speaking to locals, getting to know the lores, visiting archives to read up related material and even talking to historians and professors.
Seeking more than an unusual experience? How about something that encourages the concept of social entrepreneurship? Ruralzing, an initiative by Infosys Young Indians, has started the concept of rural tourism. The aim is to give people a taste of rural life and create an alternative source of income for villages, says Pritam Kumar Sinha, who’s heading the group.
Still at a nascent stage, Ruralzing, like Travelwise, is spreading the idea mainly through word of mouth and takes people for corporate team building exercises as well as groups or families known to them through reference. "These are day trips to the village of Halenijagallu on Tumkur Road," says Sinha.
The experience involves riding in a real tractor, traditional breakfast and lunch, interaction with the villagers, visiting a village school and playing long forgotten traditional games like gilli danda, walking through paddy fields, etc. People can also opt to trek to a 600 year old temple on a hilltop. Sinha says he has seen people relive their childhood through the simple games. They also organize a brainstorming session where people come up with their ideas for development options in the village.
Ruralzing has been able to organise solar lighting and computers for the village so far out of their initiative. While most of the village residents have been encouraging, the response from people so far has been inquisitive and positive, says Sinha. In other word, a rural tour like this is a weekend experience not only with a difference but also one that in a small way makes a difference. ⊕