Eco retreat Desia empowers Odisha tribes

Yugabrata Kar, Desia
Yugabrata Kar, Desia

Yugabrata Kar’s Desia ecotourism initiative in Odisha’s Koraput valley is providing livelihood to local tribes, while attracting tourists from around the world, discovers Premjit Mohapatra.

A quiet transformation is underway in Odisha’s Koraput valley, courtesy Yugabrata Kar and his Desia ecotourism initiative. He is bringing the benefits of tourism to families living in the area, by sourcing products and services locally. “The rich environs of Koraput with its exhilarating landscapes, rich bounties of nature and culturally vibrant tribes ensured that I didn’t have to look far from my native state,” remarks Kar, who hails from the holy town of Puri, which witnesses multitudes thronging round the year.

RESPONSIBLE RURAL TOURISM

Desia-Odisha8An avid traveller, Kar drew upon his background and training in rural tourism and experience as a tour operator when he decided to build an ecotourism facility at Lamtaput. He financed the project with his accumulated savings, supplemented with a loan from Bank of Baroda. “My previous job as a sales engineer took me to remote destinations and sleepy hamlets to sell agricultural pumps. There, I saw firsthand how the inexorable march of technology and modernity has had its impact on tribal society, its culture as well as on the economy. Tribal economy is subsistence oriented and the traditional means of livelihood have ceased to be financially viable. It holds no appeal and youth are no longer keen to pursue their traditional professions. Lack of alternative modes of livelihood has led to large-scale flight of youth to other states as labourers in brick kilns working in the most pitiable conditions,” says Kar.

The idea that struck him was “responsible tourism” or ecotourism as we know it. Responsible tourism entails conservation of natural resources, wildlife and environment alike and preservation of local cultures and traditions, while being sustainable and providing economic benefits to locals; values that are impressed upon tourists and locals at Desia. The seeds of ecotourism were planted in him during his travels across 26 countries and later to Thailand, where he learned the finer aspects of ecotourism.

THE DESIA CAMP, FOR AND BY THE LOCALS

Desia-Odisha10Spread over four acres of the Koraput valley, the Desia ecotourism venture has two camps flush with modern amenities and spacious rooms. The camp at the foothills of the valley sports an ethnic look, reflecting all the local motifs in a beautiful kaleidoscope. Local artists, with help and guidance from artists from Shantiniketan, have designed the entire set-up.

Desia-Odisha13Tourists from EU and USA who want to go off the beaten track are a regular here. Unspoiled nature, the quaint camp property at the foothills of surrounding mountains and the opportunity to live amid tribes promises a holistic experience. Tourists also have a chance to absorb the local culture, enjoying tribal delicacies on leaves, taking part in festivals, exploring tribal arts and crafts, besides trekking, hiking or cycling with locals as guides, and listening to tribal music. Tourists can source ingredients from local markets and learn to cook tribal cuisines over a heady exchange of stories. They can try their hand at farming with the Mali tribes, famous for their farming skills. Craft workshops, food festivals, sports events, yoga sessions, excursions to nearby tourist spots and assorted events are planned and held round the year to keep guests engaged. Desia also welcomes volunteers to assist in capacity building and skill development.

“The objective is to revitalise the livelihood traditions of tribal families, without compromising on their economic well-being. Creating livelihood opportunities in the non-farm sector is something that could be harnessed for poverty alleviation. And a weeklong extended camp ensures that not a jaunt that’s over in a couple of days,” adds Kar.

WINNING THE TRUST OF LOCALS

Desia-Odisha5Recollecting the early days which were beset with challenges before the venture went operational in November 2014, Kar remarks, “The remote location and connectivity issues aside, the biggest challenge was building human resources and winning the locals’ trust. So we conducted camps and engaged extensively with them. The involvement of local communities was crucial if our venture was to sustain momentum and become successful. The emphasis was placed on a participatory approach in order to win their hearts and minds and make local communities share our vision.”

Ten local Paraja tribe youth were trained in hospitality and tourism nuances to run daily operations. Preschools were established to give children a strong foundation and get more families involved. Specialists were roped in to train the local women in handicrafts and traditional jewellery, which could be sold to tourists. “Beginning from construction to daily operations, the venture is managed by locals and a substantial percentage of profits is shared with them, including sponsoring of skill development and scholarships to meet educational requirements of talented youth. We have the full cooperation and trust of the local communities,” asserts Kar.

THE IDEAL HOLIDAY RETREAT

Desia-Odisha11Desia has also caught the imagination of the native population of Odisha, besides gaining widespread acceptance and popularity among foreign tourists. Deepak, a resident of Bhubaneswar says, “Desia is a must visit place for eco adventurers if holidaying with nature is your idea of a getaway. Pristine forests, along with thriving culture, tradition and heritage of tribal communities provide an authentic rural experience, accompanied by their warm hospitality.”

Kar welcomes the Odisha government’s plans to develop 40 new eco-tourism spots and says, “More ecotourism spots mean increased footfall and more economic benefits for locals, provided the principles of responsible tourism are adhered to in letter and spirit.” His future plans include starting a travel lounge at Desia eco-tourism camp, a primary school and an organic farm for which he is exploring avenues for raising funds.

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