August 28, 2014

JLR Kabini River Lodge - An Institution in the Making OR A guide to what makes JLR tick

What defines an institution? What separates a normal organisation from the rest, fast forwarding it to a venerable status, admired and respected? Is it the change that is brought in the lives of the people who work here, is it the positive interactions that visitors experience, is it something extra that has helped construct the very industry we work in, a pioneer of sorts? JLR has held its ground providing it with the unique flavor that it deserves. Its existence is a testament to the fact that a government owned and government run organisation can achieve levels of high quality hospitality in remote locations inspite of the many limitations that come with running such an operation. JLR has gone off the beaten path several times over the past three decades.

It has played a leadership role in the weekend getaway section. Driving customer behavior from once-a-year family visitations to frequent two day trips was never going to be easy. However, the strategic manner in which JLR set up its resorts within a few hours of driving from Bangalore and offered activity oriented holidays and not simple leisure is the credo of the institution. There was an inherent demand for short holidays amongst the middle class and JLR filled this gap. Over the years, the weekend getaway segment has developed considerably with holiday options available to the customer at various prices.

JLR has succeeded in the concept selling of off-beat locations with respect to the weekend getaway. Previously, it would have been virtually impossible for an average family to imagine camping out in the night, without electricity or common luxuries provided at a standard hotel. However, it took some deft planning and intensive interactions with guests to bring these ideas into play. Now, most tents across most JLR camps are booked continuously and the demand keeps on increasing.

JLR as an institution has primarily been a leader in building destinations for the state of Karnataka. Most tourism ventures exceed their carrying capacity as the emphasis remains on promoting a single destination, inspite of increase in the number of visitations. With a chain of sixteen lodges and counting, JLR has helped reduce adverse impacts on the fragile environment while at the same time, promote an altogether new destination. With 10-15 rooms, the organisation reaches out to a hitherto unknown site in terms of its tourism potential. Within the first year, an average of 2000-2500 guests make a visit, based on the brand recall that JLR enjoys. A new destination is created and sufficient jobs are made available to the local populace, besides auxiliary benefits to the community in and around the venture.

JLR has played a leadership role in combining leisure with activities. The thought leadership has assisted in destination formation hosting specific activities with one supplementing the other. The more unique the destination, even more interesting would be an activity associated with that particular destination.

JLR has templatized schedules. A safari early in the morning, breakfast at a certain time, lunch at the pre-designated hour, trek at the sharp dot of the clock and guests arriving on a schedule have aided in developing a system that works without too many glitches at most times. However, the template is flexible. If a guest does not want to go for a safari, he may be taken for a bird watching tour in the nearby coffee plantation or he may be taken to a nearby dam for a quiet evening. The template revolves around the guest and not the camp schedules. This process automatisation is also useful as the organisation can scale up using local people who are trained intensively to do their duty well, besides being ready for a call to attend to any other service required of them at a particular moment. The men and women become extremely efficient doers as against planners as they know their job thoroughly. With a certain number of professionally trained supervisors, who are adept at managing their respective departments, the intensity at the Jungle Lodges and Resorts campsites never reduces.

In future, the role of JLR as an institution will be put under tremendous challenges. New players, innovative in their ideas and chastened by experiences will arrive and thrive. Competition will increase and work will be more challenging, however JLR will always remain as the change leader that showcased the commercial viability of an ecotourism venture and helped create a sea of change in the tourism sector of Karnataka and indeed, the entire nation.

Today, JLR unlike a purely business venture is innovating still. It is perhaps one of the very few commercial ventures that actively participates in sharing its experiences with others and does so with no compunction. Worldwide, this fact is being acknowledged and within India, several states have worked with us in enriching their knowledge base. Working in cooperation with the Orissa, Jammu and Kashmir, Maharasthra, Andaman and Nicobar, Punjab and other state governments, JLR has suggested ideas on setting up similar institutions in these states. It takes more to share knowledge, but that is what JLR is keen to showcase to those interested in its story.

August 27, 2014

A Short history of Kabini - Early on

JLR would not have taken the shape it has now, if not for an invitation for Mr. Gundu Rao, the then Tourism Minister of Karnataka to visit Nepal for the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Conference in the year 1978. His accommodation was arranged at the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodges, a world - renowned wildlife resort in Chitawan National Park. The Minister was impressed by tourist operations in that country and the seed for a matchless idea was laid. It was apparent that the forests of Nagarhole were as wildlife rich, if not as diverse as the forests of Chitwan. Karnataka as a state had some of the most pristine forests and a high concentration of large mammals in India. If Nepal for its small size and limited forests could manage tourism professionally, it should be quite feasible for Karnataka to begin an initiative along similar lines. This set off a series of questions in his mind and he decided that Karnataka should host the best wildlife lodges in the world.

Genesis of JLR

The minister came back and initiated a process that was to be the single most influential tourism initiative in India during those days. He wrote to Tiger Tops, inviting them to start a similar venture in Nagarahole, Karnataka. A year later, a joint venture was agreed upon between the Government of Karnataka and Tiger Tops, and so was born ‘Jungle Lodges and Resorts’ in the year 1980. Tiger Tops delegated three people, Jim Edwards, Captain Gurung and Colonel Wakefield to go to Karnataka and set up the new initiative. Tiger Tops being a leading expert in the field of tourism contributed to the technical aspects of the project while all local support was provided by the Karnataka State Government. Finance came from the Karnataka Financial Corporation and Government of Karnataka as a loan. The shares were jointly held by Tiger Tops and Government of Karnataka.

Initially, Mastigudi, located inside the park, was selected as the site for operations, but later on, due to a number of reasons, it was shifted to its present location at Kharapura in the year 1982. The initial impression amongst the planners was that the site is beyond repair. But some strong resolve ensured that reconstruction started on a war footing and the buildings were soon restored to their original facade. John Sandy, a renowned engineer was the Chief Architect. Two new buildings were constructed with a capacity for 14 rooms. In 1984, Kabini River Lodge was put on the map and a new chapter on tourism had just begun.

Innumerable deadlines had to be met during the first few months. The challenge was met head on and soon progress was seen. Safari roads had to be planned, the wild grass was to be pruned, staff hired, tents had to pitched in, guests to be attracted and all this, while being kilometers away from the nearest town. Provisions had to be hauled in by public transport as invariably, there was a continuous shortage of fluid money.

The team faced untold hardships. Colonel Wakefield, for example had to stay in a tent for almost two years, as construction was still going on. It was never easy. There was local discontent to cope with as there was distrust about outsiders setting up camp in their area. However, during those days, as Colonel Wakefield recalled, JLR won a major battle with a unanimous resolution that excluding few necessary roles, the staff would be from within the local villages. Interview dates were announced and this set in motion a ripple effect, developing into an increased trust perception for JLR. From being seen as adversaries, they were accepted into the community, a trait that continues to this date.

Several people were roped in to train the staff. One was conducting English language classes, someone working on etiquettes and another discussing the wildlife of Nagarhole. Christina Martin from the USA trained the staff on housekeeping and cooking skill, John Sandy the architect ensured that the ethos of the old world remained. Guest Relation Officers made certain that the simple village staff matched up with the best when it came to hospitality.

Kabini was ready to welcome guests and bookings started trickling in. Tiger Tops took up the responsibility of marketing and Kabini with its abundant wildlife soon became known the world over. Guests began pouring in and there was a sudden increase in overseas bookings too. Kabini gained acceptance in the international fora of tourism. Dedicated foreign groups stayed for weeks at a time, providing much required income during those difficult days.

Jungle Lodges and Resorts - The Place I work in

Jungle Lodges and Resorts or JLR as it is popularly known, is one of the most respected nature based tourism organization in the country. JLR works hard to ensure that travel remains an exercise of giving back to the very environment and people who ensure that his tourism experience is pleasurable. Today with sixteen properties and more coming up, JLR is the leading chain of resorts offering an unique and natural experience of wildlife, eco and adventure tourism in India to visitors.

At JLR, guests are part of the family and they return often, as their experiences are richly vivid, something they want to relive again and again. Thus, JLR guests form a unique brand who promotes ecotourism as much as we do. The scores of naturalists who have visited JLR have helped in spreading the message of conservation for Indian forests and continue to do so each passing day.

Working with People

Tourism can aid in supporting livelihood generation for the local community and Jungle Lodges and Resorts, over the past thirty years, has strived to achieve this social goal. Perhaps the single biggest distinction is the employment of local villagers as custodians of day to day operations at the resorts. More than 95 percent of all employees employed at Kabini are villagers. Following the same trend are the Cauvery Fishing Camps with more than 75 percent of the staff being employed from the adjoining villages of Shimsa, Bluff, Dallankante and Muttathi. The other camps too follow a similar trend as the benefits from tourism operations are designed to make them partners in progress from day one.

Social Change through JLR

JLR resorts have been set up in regions that are traditionally backward on social development indices. Each location of JLR has spawned multifaceted benefits and helped that particular region develop socially and economically. Most residents were engaged in collection of forest produce or rain fed farming which made them highly vulnerable to debts and susceptible to poverty. JLR has helped villagers to find employment at their doorsteps given the limited choice, and has been a major provider of social and economic benefits to the local community.

The auxiliary benefits have trickled down not just for employees but also for locals, in the form of the business offered. The diversification and availability of alternate economic options locally has helped shield farmers, who were hitherto prone to the vagaries of nature and provided families with an alternative source of income.

The younger generation has progressed taking advantage of the available economic opportunities, while several have joined organizations in posts, by virtue of their knowledge, skill and education and skill enhancement. Bringing about this minuscule yet significant change in the lives of the people has been an excercise in learning for Jungle Lodges and Resorts.

August 26, 2014

An Idiot's guide to Ecotourism

The Growth of Ecotourism

Ecotourism as we know it now grew mostly out of a desire to travel without causing harm to the environment. The decades after the Second World War witnessed an explosive growth of travel options for the common man. With ease of travel and means of access available to make this travel possible, we started seeing the world in fresh light. It was the third great era of discovery and virtually the entire planet became one huge tourism destination. The Americas, Europe and Oceania emerged as popular destinations for globetrotting and people took travelling seriously. However, over exposure of these places meant that new places had to be discovered and the process of unearthing sites continued. This mass exposure meant that no place could remain out of bounds.

Eco Consciousness

While this travel brought large scale benefits to the people, with tourism being the source of one of the largest ever transfer of wealth from rich to the poorer countries, it brought about issues of over exposure and the associated ill effects of mass tourism. A large number of people wanted to break free from this clutch of mass tourism where the packages offered would be one size fit all and you may end up seeing your neighbor sitting next to you, wherever you went, be it the neighbourhood grocery shop at Bristol or the Natural History Museum at Beijing.

Man has become more conscious of his environment than what he was a few decades ago. He saw images of degradation around him and began questioning the validity of large dams, deforestation and a multitude of artificial alterations being made to the landscape. The view that the present form of tourism alienates the local by making him merely a service provider rather than a partner in tourism, also took roots. Perhaps, a plethora of these reasons were instrumental in bringing about a gradual but definite change in the minds of the people and travel became more ecologically conscious. From the depths of this emerging consciousness grew a multitude of ways of travel.

What is now ecotourism is a result of this change in the conscious visitor. Tourism and ecotourism is now the culmination of the unifying agenda of conservation, community development and benefit sharing.

Hector Ceballos Lascurian coined the term ecotourism in early 1980’s. He defined it as “environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature that promotes conservation, low visitor negative impact and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations”. Being environmentally responsible is essential as it stresses on ecological protection, while the emphasis on promotion of local livelihoods is a key factor for a successful ecological tourism initiative.

Setting Standards

The growth of ecotourism has not been smooth. The word ecotourism itself has been the focus of diverse interpretations and definitions. Ecotourism being a growing industry, new benchmarks have to be set and growing challenges to be met each passing day.

The word ‘eco’ has encountered many problems in the past and continues to do so today as well. Critics have pointed out that in being eco, we tend to damage the very place that we seek to visit and bring about negative influences to the people who live in these areas. Contrasting ideas keep brewing up, thus making the coming few decades even more exciting for ecotourism to begin fulfilling all the promises made and do so in a conscious manner.

The dilemma for us is to reconcile the principles of ecotourism while being flexible enough to appreciate the fact that standards on ecotourism continues to develop. Mere adherence to established norms discourages many to take the step from being a tourist to an ecotourist or being a conventional set up to an eco-oriented one. The challenge is to be more innovative in approach.

Whatever the pros and cons of the ecotourism movement, the ideologies prevailing in the past three decades have helped bring in an era of environment friendly tourism. Even large scale mass tourism sites are more conscious now than in the past. Examples such as the Nilgiris being declared as a plastic free district and Goa emerging as a favored destination for the environmentally conscious and not just the utopia of the budget happy are such changes that have crept into the mass tourism movement.

In future, mainstream tourism and ecotourism should aim to protect the quality of the environment, enhance the cultural ethos of the region, ensure better livelihoods for the community and promote harmony while being ecologically sustainable. Acceptance of tourism as a social contributor and an agent of conservation is a vital step to design future tourism policy. The coming decades will be a test to develop tourism on these principles while ensuring that the ethos set are not diluted.

Why We Travel

We all travel. We travel as it is one of the most satisfying experiences in our otherwise regular life. Travelling from the din of our daily lives, for leisure or combined with work, is an activity that is perhaps as necessary as work itself.

We travel and learn new things about new places and then relive the experience coming back. A tourist or a traveler experiences the world in a new light and often rediscovers himself. Taking a break from the unnaturally fast paced life of today, one recalls that time passed slower not long back. Though many argue, travelling makes the person, a little bit wiser.

We are all tourists, for the joy of seeing new places, people and learning is immeasurable. The tourist travels in search of pleasure and leisure in wildlife parks, beaches, towns and villages. He strives to achieve a sense of the wonder of those ancient artists honing their skills to perfection in Khajurao or Konark, he reaches out to be one with wild nature in Bhadra or Bandipur and he treks miles to explore ancient practices of the Baigas and Bhotiyas.

Travelling opens our eyes to the wonders of our world and new vistas of knowledge while providing thrill and wisdom simultaneously. It is about breathing in the fresh whiff of sea swept air and walking through soft sand that melts at one’s feet. It is about roaming places without worry - carefree and childlike. Travel means all this and more.

However travel and tourism has more to it than just the gratification of the self. Travel conveys the responsibility to conserve places that we visit. It is an educational activity as well, for it provides a whole new insight into the natural history, culture and traditions of diverse communities. It is a stepping stone to cross-cultural friendships. Travel and tourism in its pure form is an invigorating mélange of sights, smells, tastes and sounds of the extraordinary world that we live in and continue to learn from.

Completing a tour is not just an end to itself but a window to myriad colours of life. It is an opportunity not only to discover joy in the exquisiteness of the destination but also to ensure that the splendour remains undisturbed and cherished by future generations. Above all, Tourism is about creating lasting imprints not on places we stopped by, but on ourselves - Enlightened and Enthused by every single place we visit, meals we partake, sights we behold, cultures we salute and extra lives that we live…

August 1, 2014

Aparojito "The Unvanquishable"

Finally, I saw Aparojito. Subtle but strong. That is what I personally felt after watching this movie. The mother son relation that we often hear about was realistically potrayed. Guess, this is why Roy is so widely acclaimed. He hits below the belt without letting the protagonist even feel it.

The starting scene itself is so spiritual that it connected me to my cosmic otherself. Almost felt like going out and taking a bath down those 64 steps. Benares even Hardwar is the best to be in in early mornings and after sunsets. What also struck me was the emphasis on the minutest details, something present day filmmakers can surely learn from.

The mother potrayed was just as my mother and as most mothers are. It was an illuminating detail of a typical poor at caste but rich at heart family. everything was from our lives. Children from that era are the same as children from this era. as again the children of the very rich are same as are children of the very poor. The potrayal of Apu's mother without doubt a magnificient justification of Ray and the actress. Her entire being was so powerful that I got the feeling that barring herself, she could withstand anything. Finally, it was she who caused her own death.

From the beginning as a bickering ma to a shy tenant to a strong support for her ill husband to the caring of her love - the actress potrayed what a mother should be.

Satyajit Ray - I have heard about since I was born. Today, I felt I saw what he saw when he made his movies. He saw ligth inspite of darkness, hope inspite of drudgery. He gave the simplest of twists, so subtle that they are hardly noticed. His technical finesse is there. Inspite of an obsolete technology, his own charisma made the movie flawless. All the smallest details were highlighted. The monkeys in the temple were shown the way they actually live without any add-on. Even the humour was light.

And Apu the child was potrayed without any misapprenhesion. Clearly, the movie deserves a lot of gratitude just for being made, 60 years on...

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