Since its inception, India has been adhering to the concept of universal brotherhood i.e. ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’ as her core principal of living in harmony with all beings created by the almighty. Atithi Devo Bhava is just an extension of that philosophy where every Indian treats guests as their God. The thought of extending hospitality with warmth is deep rooted in the villages of India where even the poorest of the poor will offer half of his bread and a glass of water with a generous smile if you visit his house. In Indian mythology, there is also a deliberate mention of treating guest as God along with wishing welfare of the world when despite in her state of penury, Draupadi offered a grain of cooked rice to Lord Krishna and requested him to satiate his hunger as well as the rest of the world.
Being a follower of agrarian culture for several thousand years, India must now look towards a holistic approach to involve its rural population to exploit its vast potential of tourism through their simplicity, affability and diligence. The synthetic and cosmetic life of the cities with its concrete jungles and pop culture is brewing restlessness and chaos in the urban society. Despite having enough of disposal income they are suffering from lifestyle ailments and stress. To take a break from their stressful life, the city folks want to connect with their village counterparts, but through the urban tour operator who as a middle man often misguides their client by projecting villagers as gullible and uncultured.
Empowering villagers to take the rein of the sustainable model of tourism is the only solution left with the policy-makers and other stakeholders if there is a serious intent to protect our heritage, strengthen village economy and increase footfall to various unexplored destinations of Incredible India. Villagers are the original custodian of our diverse culture and traditions. A vast resource of folklores, traditions, details of the offbeat destinations and sites of historical importance needed to be researched, documented and marketed with the help of villagers. Through PPP model, there should be an initiative for skill development and education of the villagers on economic viability of promoting tourism and hospitality of their region so that we can have a vast pool of entrepreneurs and service providers to consolidate the industry.
A successful PPP experiment has taken place in Odisha in the recent times which can be referred as a case-study. The Government of Odisha has partnered with Gurgaon-based Toshali Resorts International to create awareness among villagers about the conservation of archaeological heritage of Buddhist era and training them how to extend hospitality to tourists coming to visit 2,000 years old Buddhist monuments in the villages of Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri and Udayagiri.
Till today, there has been a great deal of effort by the villagers who have extended their cooperation to the Archeological Survey of India and Odisha government during the excavation of the age old Buddhist heritage sites of global importance. They have indeed provided their warm hospitality and support to visiting surveyors, archaeologists and government officials during the formative years of the excavation of heritage sites at Ratnagiri, Udayagiri, Lalitgiri and Langudi, because of which Odisha Tourism is planning in a big way to reach out to international community to showcase the state’s Buddhist treasures. Scholars and archaeologists have taken lot of pain to unravel these hidden treasures despite lack of infrastructure in the past. The arrival of Toshali Resorts in Buddhist heritage sites of Odisha as a sole provider of hospitality and destination management services through PPP model is an extension of its corporate philosophy of promoting local culture and empowering villages. Since its inception in 1985, Toshali has consolidated its presence in the rural hinterlands across India where corporate entities have reached out to the local villagers, making them a partner in the sustainable growth of the community.
Bringing in world-class hotel infrastructure in this unexplored destination of global significance is just a one step ahead in fulfilling the responsibility. The purpose of the entire exercise will get defeated if villagers who have been supportive all these years as a custodian of country’s rich heritage do not reap the economic benefits of tourism to the Buddhist sites. A 360 degree holistic approach is needed to create awareness about the destination among the world community along with training the nearby villagers and providing economic avenues so that the local folks get directly involved in conserving the heritage sites, provide tourist services and hospitality.
Buddhist Tourism in India is a major contributor to boost the rural economy as most of the sites of veneration are in the rural areas which need excavation, protection, conservation for which contribution of villagers is necessary. The potential of India’s Buddhist Tourism is yet to be explored to its optimum level. Apart from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, there are several newer destinations of importance where Buddhist Tourism can flourish but only with participation from rural community.
Tourism need not be looked as a money spinning industry only, the way it is being perceived nowadays across the world. In the Indian context, if extending hospitality is connected with a religious and cultural obligation of ‘Indianness’, then tourism will be perceived as a major solution for relieving the society from unrest and callousness, thereby promoting harmony and peaceful co-existence in this world. Tourism can also be treated as a tool to bring closer the various warring sects of the community, promote better understanding of culture and beliefs, hence strengthening age-old concept of universal brotherhood. The civic society across the world is on a verge of collapse because lack of understanding is paving way for clashes between civilisation and war of hegemony. If the reins of tourism remain in the hands of rural and agrarian community, who are the real custodian of cultural values and traditions instead of their hedonistic and greedy urban counterpart, then major modern age problems across the world can be allayed.
(The author is the Director of M/s Calingae Global LLP which is dedicated to heritage conservation and tourism promotion of India.)