Monday 25 November 2013

Welcome to Pondicherry

Pondicherry is old. Pondicherry is new. Pondicherry still stands still in time. From the wide but empty roads of the French quarter, to the architectural maze of Tamil and Muslim quarters, Pondicherry is the most underestimated destinations in India. For eons, Pondicherry was known for it’s spirituality. From ancient sage Agastiar to modern day spiritual leaders in the form of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother attracted travelers of a different kind. The thought process surrounding ‘Integral Yoga’ attracted thousands to Pondicherry resulting in the formation of Sri Aurobindo Ashram and later the growth of a unique experimental international township called Auroville.

Our travel itinerary in Pondicherry and it’s surrounding is something that helps you go deeper and not use Pondicherry as a stop gap travel destination en-route other heritage sites. These are very interactive, meaningful journey to meet the locals while getting deeper insight into the culture, heritage and social fabric of what makes Pondicherry a special place.

Customised depending on the guest profile and time available, some of the activities and experiences are listed below.

Integral Yoga: Spend time with our team mates and thought leaders to understand more about the yoga propagated by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother. Meet up with people and initiatives that makes a difference in Pondicherry while helping individuals their path to self-realisation. Mornings and evenings we are happy to invite you to practice yoga with us. Previous experiences not needed.

Conscious Farms:Our partners have created a network of farmers in and around Pondicherry who apply the virtue of consciousness in the way they produce organic food in a sustainable way. Some farms are larger, some are small, some are old, some are new, some are struggling to find a balance between passion and market. Meet, interact and work with these farmers in their field, stay with them and eat the food that’s produced locally.

Volunteering: This isn’t the typical voluntourism trip. We work closely with select not for profit initiatives to promote community based health care as well as run a beautiful school for gifted children. The sensitisation team goes around rural and urban Pondicherry using theatre as  tool for social change. Travel with them,get to see a Pondicherry that you wouldn’t be seeing as a regular tourist. Be the traveler in the truest sense

Legend Trails: Pondicherry is all about stories. Legends, saints, folklore ride a thin red line between stories and history of this ancient port city. Walk with our story tellers, listen to hillarious and intriguing stories. Few hours a day, or full days, the trail is the most exciting experience one could think of.

Tree Walks: Walk with local students and volunteers who are coming together to build a environmentally conscious community in Pondicherry. Would you like to know the name, relevance and importance of the trees in Pondicherry? Whether it’s urban biodiverstiy or rural bio-diversity, these tree walks give you insight into people and places in a unique way.

South Indian Martial Arts: It was one of the Pallava Prince from nearby Kachivaram, Bodhidharma who was instrumental in taking South Indian martial arts of Kalaripayattu to China resulting in the practice of martial arts and Zen Buddhism at the famous Shaolin Temple. Meet the masters and students who continues the practice in Pondicherry and see some breathtaking performances.

Musical & Folk Trails: We work closely with ‘Payanam’, an initiative to promote responsible travel in to Pondicherry and this network has been connecting to several musical and folk artists as part of their attempt to preserve local culture and provide livelihood options to the struggling artists. Meet them in their villages, houses, and join their performances.

Slow Food restaurants: What’s a trip to Pondicherry without experiencing local food? Traditional recipes, local ingredients, healthy diet. Try out mouth water recipes at some of the new initiatives set up by our own partners. These restaurants are linked to the conscious farms.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

A-Z of Responsible Tourism

A-Z of Responsible Tourism was designed TBYA for The Blue Yonder as part of it's initiative to demystify the concept of Responsible Travel. Conceptualised by Zainab Kakal and Gopinath Parayil(Gopi), the initial sketches for the exhibition space of The Blue Yonder at India's first Biennale - The Kochi Muziris Biennale 2012 was done by two design students Akshan Ish and Sudeepti Tucker from National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India. Second phase of the backdrop for an interactive installation at ITB Berlin 2013 was completed by Ameya Kulkarni. These were later converted into separate post cards by Binit Basa of Triature with text from Zainab and Jeremy Smith who is in charge of strategic communication at TBYA. 

These cards were used at ITB Berlin to interpret the backdrop on the theme os Responsible Tourism to trade visitors and consumers by Mariska van Gaalen.

Monday 11 March 2013

TODO 2012 Awards for Socially Responsible Tourism

TBY founder Gopinath Parayil at the acknowledgement speech 
On March 6th, 2013, at ITB Berlin, the Institute for Tourism and Devel- opment presents the winners of TO DO!2012- International contest for socially responsible tourism. The winners of the 18th contest round come from India and Uganda.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts! This applies especially for the two TO DO! award winners this year: the travel company THE BLUE YONDER from India and the Community Based Tourism project PEARLS OF UGANDA. As well as in the Southern Indian Kerala as in the East African Uganda, many local initiatives are bundled under one umbrella organisation in order to multiply positive economic and social effects in the region. Only the pooling under one umbrella brand attributes invaluable advantages in terms of competitiveness and marketing for the many local groups. Both award winners are – as their predecessors – good examples for the sustain- able success of socially responsible concepts, especially regarding the in- tensive participation of the local population in tourism planning and development. The visitors get an enriched experience through the innovative and at the same time tradition-based tourism products and finally get the chance for meeting local people at “eye-level”.

Vinod C.P, our colleague collecting the award from the State Secretary
of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation & Development, Germany
The State Secretary of the Federal Ministery for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Hans-Jürgen Beerfeltz, declared in his appraisal: "I am pleased to hold the laudatory speech for a contest that has the same objec- tives as our ministry: The BMZ, too, promotes sustainable tourism which is socially, ecologically and culturally compatible – yet successful in economic terms. For many of our partner countries, tourism is a key to more economic development – it must not overrun the people, but must take them along, otherwise it will benefit only the tourists and a few tour operators. This is the spirit of sustainability in all respects which the projects of this year's two win- ners are committed to. My hearty congratulations to them!“

Hansjörg Ruf, president of the board of the Swiss Foundation for Solidarity in Tourism emphasized: "The two TO DO! winners 2012 show in exceptional ways the possible success and sustainability of tourism development when supported by the joint efforts of the population to initiate and implement something themselves. The people are able to not only improve their lives in this way, but can at the same time contribute to a kind of tourism that allows travellers special, authentic insights into the lives and culture of the people. We would like to support these efforts with our prize money and wish the two projects all the best for their further positive development".

Thursday 28 February 2013

ITB Berlin News - Preview Edition 2013

ITB Berlin News - Preview Edition 2013: Check the link for detailed article and interview about Responsible Tourism initiatives at ITB Berlin.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Land regeneration : A new initiative from us

210 acres of rainforest was cleared for Co-Operative farming in the 50s' by the then Government in Kerala. Heavy use of pesticide and unsustainable farming practices made the land barren. Later concerned about the damage it created, some souls (as you always find them around the world) decided to transform at least 10 acres of that into a sustainable farming space, which showed mixed result. 

Now we are partnering with them to see how we can develop this into a demonstration project to understand the damages caused, the results of positive intervention and how we could together make a larger difference. Looking at sustainable farming, increasing livelihood opportunities , food processing, nature interpretation for children ( adults welcome though most of us are pretty spoilt ;))...

This project site is just about 90 minutes from Fort Kochi, 30 minutes from the airport and easily accessible by road. Ideal for day trips.

Monday 25 February 2013

The Blue Yonder at ITB Berlin 2013

Rice provides more than 20 per cent of the calories consumed by the human race. Almost everyone will have eaten it within the last week. And hardly any of us give it a moment's thought.

The oldest records of rice cultivation trace it to South India, where it has been grown for over 8000 years. Now we are offering visitors a unique day trip into not only this wonder crop's past, but to discover a possible sustainable, future.

Our new Pokkali culinary heritage tour takes a few select guests into the patchwork of paddy fields that surround Fort Cochin – the most beautiful and popular city in Kerala. Here, farmers have been growing a unique variety of rice for as long as people remember.

Pokkali rice is red, providing a vibrantly coloured ingredient to any meal. It is also always grown organically. But most significantly, it is the only variety in the world known to be capable of resisting salt water – which in this time of rising sea levels due to climate change, could just make it a lifesaver. And the farmers that grow it across just 3,000 hectres of Kerala paddies are protecting and cultivating the last known wild examples of it on earth.

A true symbol of sustainability, the farming methods have also been developed into a perfect symbiotic relationship. From June to October each year, the farmers grow the rice in the low lying paddies. Once it is cultivated, the remains of the rice plant along with all the wastes from its cultivation, become used in prawn farming.

Guests will visit the paddy fields, meet the farmers and learn the story of Pokkali from them over a traditional meal – after all where better place to eat rice and freshly harvested prawns. This is a unique window into the food heritage of Kerala, and offered by no other travel company. Properties like Malabar House, CGH Earth and Le Meridien has committed to purchase this rice for their restaurants, while TBY is also working in the local markets to create demand from public to consume this rice.

A trip to visit the Pokkali Rice Farmers is just one of the many new day trips that the Blue Yonder is offering out of Cochin this year. You can be a river fisherman for the day and try your hand at a unique fishing practice called 'Peru Vala'. Lovers of Indian handicrafts can escape the tourist trail and visit (and buy from) the women who make the most beautiful saris in all Kerala on the handlooms of Chennamangalam. A visit to this beautiful village weaves together not just fabrics, but religions - for while there it is also possible to visit the places of worship of the four main religions of the world – a temple, a synagogue, a church and a mosque, all within one square kilometre of each other. And on the musical trail local master musicians showcase their skills on a range of the traditional instruments of Kerala, whilst narrating stories and folk tales of the area. So popular has this tour become, that it has already won both the British High Commissions' Young Creative Entrepreneur Award and the Conde Nast Traveler's World Savers Awards.

Ever since The Blue Yonder started in Kerala over 8 years ago, the company has won countless awards and acclaim for its unique 'off the beaten track' trips. 

Our distinctive tours offer travellers authentic experiences of hidden customs and rituals, while providing their hosts with a meaningful income that enables them to sustain these threatened traditions. 

We now offers such trips across all of India – from Rajasthan to Sikkim, as well as into Nepal, Bangladesh, Singapore, and recently to South Africa.

The Blue Yonder can be found at stand 201 / Hall 4.1. Our colleagues will available for meetings throughout the course of ITB (06-10 March 2013). 

We are also organising several events and are part of Studiosus debate at ITB Convention. Please see more details here

Wednesday 20 February 2013

A-Z of Responsible Travel | Meaningful

"Responsible Tourism develops travel experiences that reveal truths about the places we visit; provide authentic connections to local people; and ensure our visits benefit those we meet and cause no harm to the environment. What could be more meaningful that that?"

This post card is part of A-Z series on Responsible Travel designed by TBYA for us.

At the ITB Berlin 2013, we are running a session called A-Z on Responsible Travel to demystify the idea of Responsible Travel, to get rid of thousands of academic jargons and make sense to travelers and industry. Shouldn't be Responsible Tourism be more fun than any thing else?

There will be an art interactive art-installation where representative from the trade as well as consumers get an opportunity to highlight a word that's more interesting for them. They could also provide alternative words and even translation in their local language.

On the facebook event, we are getting interesting proposals from public about alternative words. Today, for. e.g some suggested M for Mindful & Memories. What is yours? 

The Blue Yonder at ITB Berlin 2013

 We welcome you to meet our colleagues from The Blue Yonder, at 210, Hall 4.1 at ITB Berlin between 06-10 Mar 2013. We have new products, itineraries and destination details to share with you from India & South Africa.

Some of the events we are associated at ITB Berlin:
Studiosus Debate: ITB CSR Day
Holiday Encounters With Local People - What Does The Tourist Want, What Do The Locals Expect?”

Date:7. March 2013, Time:12:00 – 13:00 Location:Hall 7.3, Auditorium Europa

Moderated by: Andreas Stopp, Deutschlandfunk

Panel guests:
Johannes Klaus, Travel Blogger
Gopinath Parayil, Founder, The Blue Yonder
Peter Strub, Managing Director, Studiosus Reisen
Dr. Dietlind von Laßberg, Deputy Chairwoman, Studienkreis für Tourismus und Entwicklung e.V. (Institute for Tourism and Development)


Responsible Tourism ClinicsThursday 7 March 2013, 13.30 – 14.00, Hall 4.1
How to Use Digital Storytelling and Social Media to Market Your Responsible Tourism Offering - Daniel Noll & Audrey Scott (Uncornered Market)

Friday 8 march 2013, 17.00-17.30 Hall 4.1
The Fair Game Tourism Initiative - ensuring the future of the safari.
Jeremy Smith introduces the Fair Game Tourism Initiative, which aims to make sure tourism companies that profit from wildlife do more to ensure its survival

Friday 8 March 2013, 17.30 – 18.00 Hall 4.1
Tired of academic definitions of Responsible Travel, Zainab Kakal designed a series of A-Z of Responsible Travel in a fun and interactive way. From 'Authentic' to 'Zest', she explains how each word helps in creating innovative travel experiences. Following up on her research with travellers from Western Europe to developing countries like India, Mariska van Gaalen presents perspective of travellers on how they respond to some of the themes introduced in the A-Z series.

Hall 4.1 will also see an interactive art installation this time based on A-Z of Responsible Tourism during the 5 days of ITB Berlin. 

Responsible Tourism Networking on 8 Mar 2013 will be co-organised by The Blue Yonder, Tripbod, The Green Circuit and ITB-Berlin. This year ATTA, Cape Town, Gujarat Tourism, TBYA and Isthmus Connect is supporting the event.

For appointments please write to Ms. Anne Zummach or call our office in India +91.98860.53286 or Berlin on +49.30259.316517

Friday 8 February 2013

The Good Journey - Perceptions of a traveller

"How can a nice journey become a good journey? This is what gutereise (goodjourney) is all about. Taking India as an example, I want to show how travelling can be an unforgettable adventure for ourselves and actively support the environment and communities at our destination. For this aim I need you: Become part in every step of this project – from the idea to my research trip to India and finally to the book we will put together – and create a new, responsible way of travelling with me!" - Dorit Behrens 

Yoga by The River! A travel experience soon to be launched from TBY. 

Power to People:
I’ve just had an “aha-effect”: In preparation of my trip to India, I had learned that the overall aim of responsible tourism is to save the places we love to visit. But that is only one side of the story. For, in addition to the visitors’ perspective who want to maintain the environment and not exploit the people at their holiday destination, there is also the hosts’ point of view. Responsible tourism thus is really about two things: creating awareness in travellers for their responsibility on the way – and empowering local communities to look after their own economical, environmental and cultural well-being. But how can this be done?

Here a number of initiatives come into play that emerge in India right now, mostly on grassroots level. Their aim is to facilitate a lasting positive change long after the single tourist has left. In the southwestern state of Kerala, it seems, these initiatives are especially active. Maybe this is due to the fact that Kerala faces some special issues such as a drastically declining livelihood for traditional professions such as farming or fishing. It might also be a relict of the communist era (Kerala is the first state to have had a democratically elected communist government): Many of the projects are organized in community-owned “co-operatives” - doesn’t that sound slightly socialist? Well, never mind the wording – it works.

God’s own country

Kerala is pretty special: Located on the southwestern Malabar coast and comprising some 39,000 square kilometers, the state features an abundance of geographical and natural varieties: the Western Ghats highlands in the east, followed by midlands with dense vegetations and eventually the lowlands along its beautiful coastal zone with an elaborate network of streams and lakes, the famous Backwaters. The region usually gets an efficient rainfall of some 3,000 mm during the monsoon season (June-August) resulting in a rich biodiversity. A perfect place to grow veggies and livestock – the majority of local communities rely on agriculture – and to stay and spot the different shades of green: All around there is jungles with loads of wild animals (even Elephants!), innumerable lush tea, rice and banana plantations and palm trees all over the place. In fact, the name Kerala means “Land of the Coconut Tree” in the local language Malayalam.

An 'ordinary' meeting like this in the middle of the river for a local person is an 'Extra Ordinary' Travel experience for           a traveler.

Regional development

Another example of how to empower local communities is The Blue Yonder, one of the first responsible tourism businesses in India founded in 2004. The small team regards tourism a tool for a sustainable regional development and offers tours to create meaningful exchanges between guests and host communities. In Kerala for example, you can meet Varanath Asan, a humble man in his seventies who built a school to pass on the ancient art form of Mudiyettu. The ritual dance drama based on a mythological tale around the goddess Kali and the demon Darika was once performed in temples by his family, but nowadays is threatened with extinction. In his small school, Varanath teaches his wisdom students of all ages, even girls, who were formerly not eligible to learn the craft, and thus manages to keep the cultural heritage alive. Recently this was recognized internationally: UNESCO has declared Mudiyettu an Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

On other tours travellers may test their talents for the traditional craft of handlooming – a symbol of Kerala’s female culture of wearing saris – or learn how one of the oldest crops in the region, the red and very nutritious Pokkali rice, is being cultivated in a sustainable symbiosis with prawn farming. Set in the stunning Backwaters, Pokkali is the only variety that tolerates saltwater – and thus is a possible answer to food safety questions in times of global warming and sea-level rise in coastal areas. The communities benefit from these tours on various levels: Through fruitful interaction with incoming travellers, a growing recognition in the world and, very practically, though the support in kind of The Blue Yonder – while the projects always stay in their own hands. Meaningful encounters like these attract more and more travellers: The Blue Yonder now offers tours throughout India, in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and South Africa.

Mudiyettu : UNESCO declared Intangible Heritage of Humanity, unfortunately is struggling to survive.

Wanna do more?

The longer you stay in one place, the deeper will be your understanding of it. Kabani and The Blue Yonder both offer the opportunity to stay a while and get some hands-on experience. While it is possible to support Kabani as a volunteer to facilitate additional income for underprivileged communities, The Blue Yonder provides several Workshops and Art Residencies in their corresponding projects in which candidates can learn a handicraft from scratch and put in their own knowledge. At the moment, the Chennamanagalam Handloom is looking for a textile designer (or student) who is keen to learn the traditional way of weaving and who helps to introduce the use of natural dyes. Interested? Then go to or

The above text was edited for brevity. Full text including article on Kabani written by Dorit can be found here

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Does Voluntourism Do More Harm Than Good?

Voluntourism discussions again!

Dorinda Elliot from Conde nast Traveler reports after her volunteering trip to Haiti that: "A growing number of travelers are volunteering on their vacations, but they sometimes end up doing more harm than good."

After dabbling a little bit in this 'volunteering' business, here is our take away.

  • Look for solutions locally
  • Build up strengths of local community.
  • Promote 'local' volunteering enabling 'compassionate destinations'.
  • Facilitate that instead of 'going to save people' in another exotic destination.
  • Look in your own backyard and see if your volunteering can make a difference there before flying out.
None of this is a utopian idea.

The world has changed a lot, and there are loads of resources available locally that can be channeled effectively. This isn't the time of missionaries running around saving children left and right. (Although unfortunately such places still do exist!) Decades of funding and volunteering hasn't brought the sustainable solutions to the suffering that they were promised. Yes, a country that was devastated might need intervention from elsewhere, I agree. However the volunteering we are talking about is either delivered few years post that or in destinations where there isn't any major 'crisis'.

So what do I mean by these 'local solutions'? In my home state of Kerala, for example, local communities run a neighbourhood network called the Pain  and Palliative Care Society. Along with its associated organisations today its runs more than 800 palliative clinics. (Actually the majority now are run by Government after they saw this as a successful model reducing tremendous stress on Government or other (almost non-existent) private infrastructure in Palliative Care.)

These clinics have catered to more than 45,000 terminally ill patients. They are run by more than 42,000 local volunteers. Micro-donations are raised locally by students and other volunteers and well wishers.  And all this was built up - without international volunteers - from a one room clinic with two doctors, nurses and two volunteers 20 years ago.

We do invite international volunteers to come and work with us, but not to come and 'save us'. I know this might sound pretty arrogant (especially coming from a person whose country still has 400 million poor people wondering how to get out of the mess they are in!), but this is my experience of working in disaster zones - as well as doing a fair amount of work in community based health care... and running a travel company for the last 8 years...

Here's what we do instead. During 2013, The Blue Yonder is inviting about 100 international volunteers to India. They pay 500 USD for two weeks of 'learning' with us. As a result they learn how local people with limited resources and huge constraints built the world's largest network of palliative care volunteers (chosen by the W.H.O as it's first Collaborating Centre outside the so called 'Developed World').

We are not looking at these 'volunteers' as people who can come and save us. But we are happy to have people who can work with us. And with the money they spend, we can recruit another five local doctors specialised in palliative care who can work in the peripherals of Calicut city.

So what do the volunteers 'get' out of it? Ask someone like Kerrie Noonan, who volunteered here and was inspired enough to go back to her home country and set up another social enterprise called GroundsWell project. Shouldn't international volunteers be trying to do that? Learn from a destination and see how they can take that learning to build a system in their home country / state / neighbourhood?

I know it might not be as dramatic a story as saving India or Indonesia or Haiti, but please just don't tell me that Rotterdam doesn't have crazy drug problems among squatters (I have lived with them!); that London doesn't have it's own share of crime; or that Berlin or Paris don't have their own social problems needing dire intervention? And who better to solve these problems than locals living in those cities? They wouldn't expect a bunch of us Indians to come over on holiday to 'fix their problems'...

So for me the big question is: How can we all channel our energy towards cleaning our neighbourhoods  first - before we set off flying 3,000 miles to 'save the world'? I urge all well-meaning travel volunteers to think about this for a second before plunging into 'saving the world' and making another tour company in the source market rich at the expense of some poor community elsewhere!

Volunteering can be tremendous fun for both travellers and locals,  if the attitude is more about 'learning' from locals than what Dorinda in this article is mentioning as "White Man coming to save us". (or an Urban kid coming from a city like Delhi or Bangalore to 'save' rural Indians'). Think about 'what' happens thanks to your volunteering, and after you have gone? Are you building a system that can be sustained? Or as the author mentions here what if "Construction stops whenever funds or volunteers run out"?

If travellers are looking for rewarding 'experiential' travel, then do so, by chosing a company like Socialtours Nepal or Spiti Ecosphere or Ethical Travel Portal in Norway - or one of the many other like-minded companies that will help you travel through destinations where sustainable development projects are promoted, pioneered and supported. Just don't call it volunteering. It's an immersive travel experience. Isn't it?

The other day I met a well-meaning Dutch man (living in France) on a yoga course in Pondicherry. On meeting one of the trustees of Aurobindo Society, he was so touched about the good work going around that he asked 'How can I come in and volunteer'.

It was a well-meaning question. But the experiments of Auroville and wonderful initiatives of Aurobindo Ashram can not be scaled up if their system is 'burdened' with 'well-meaning' foreign volunteers. If the system (and the well intentional foreign volunteers) can get 'locals' to volunteer, then that's where the change will happen. If this wonderful Dutchman could 'learn' from this experience and go home and spread his knowledge, then that's fruitful too. He can even call it a spiritual quest of 'finding himself'.

But if this is not the result, then volunteers will keep coming with their skills, voluntourists will keep spending their money with some tour operator, and one day soon we will forget that this was all started in the name of some poor community somewhere in the world. What if, in our selfish quest for 'answers' or for checking off a list of things to do before one dies, we might be crushing the possibility of any progress in these communities?

Please, don't underestimate the intelligence and resourcefulness of local people (whether in Haiti or Uganda or my own village). Please, don't make another local person a lazy one waiting for her hand out thanks to your 'wanting' to save the world. And support our efforts if you can, otherwise for God's sake, just stay home!

I am happy people like Dorinda travel to find out what the reality is. We need to give a big cheers to such people who keep on reporting back.

Your comments?

Original article written by Dorinda is here