Frustrated with insensitive and mundane travel companies in India? Shivya Nath tells us about her fledgling travel company India Untravelled.
Interview by Anne John
Being a travel enthusiast Shivya Nath combined her passion for travel with her experience in the travel industry to launch India Untravelled, a socially responsible travel company quite unlike other mainstream travel companies in India. She talks about the challenges of running a travel business in India.
Anne John (AJ): Travel companies in India are aplenty. Yet what triggered you to launch India Untravelled?
Shivya Nath (SN): While in college in Singapore, I caught the travel bug, and landed a job at the Singapore Tourism Board with the hope of being paid to travel (who doesn’t want to?). My work exposed me to the potential of social media and digital marketing in the tourism industry. After 2 years, I took a 2-month sabbatical to travel in Europe & volunteer in India, not quite knowing what I wanted to do, except that I didn’t want to lead the corporate life anymore.
Those 2 months off helped me visualize how social media could impact the way we travel. I took up freelance projects to test my hypothesis, and decided to take the plunge to start India Untravelled, which aims to bridge the digital marketing gap between socially responsible travel offerings and travellers looking for unique, authentic and offbeat experiences.
AJ: What are the major challenges that you faced while starting up and running a socially responsible travel company in India?
SN: I think my single biggest challenge was making the shift from perhaps the safest country for women in the world – Singapore, to India, which everyone knows ranks low on safety. I took it upon myself to travel solo to explore new partnerships, in less travelled parts of India. These were typically home stays, farm stays and village stays that had little or no information and reviews online. It was a lot about trusting my gut and taking a leap of faith, especially with all the safety issues that single women travellers in India face (and some for good reason; don’t even ask how my parents responded). Fortunately for me, I have been overwhelmed by the kind of hosts I found and the experiences I discovered. It made me fall in love with India all over again, and gave me courage to go through with India Untravelled.
AJ: Being a niche travel company, how budget-friendly are your travel packages when compared to commercial travel packages offered by other travel companies in India?
SN: Based on the feedback we’ve received from our travellers, I think we’re a lot more affordable than typical travel packages. While we don’t offer stays in luxury hotels, some of our heritage homestays can offer the same indulgence at less than half the cost. We also organize fixed departure trips from time to time, which offer an experiential mix of exploring life in rural India and the roads less travelled, and our on-ground partnerships ensure that costs are kept low. We want budget to be the last reason for someone to not discover the gems of their own backyard.
AJ: How comfortable would urban travellers used to creature comforts be while travelling in rural India?
SN: You’ll be surprised! Most of our domestic audience belongs to the bigger cities of Delhi and Bangalore. I think after a point, most people become so jaded with our fast paced city lives that we start craving a break from routine. They want to go back in time when things were still simple, avoid much connectivity to the outside world (think Internet), and escape reality even if just for a few days.
While our offerings are varied, we try to offer basic urban comforts as much as possible, and that is always a hit with urban travellers.
AJ: Most Indian tourists try to get their money’s worth on vacations and do as much as possible – so much so that one ends up needing a vacation after the vacation! Do you think laidback vacations appeal to the general population?
SN: You said it; we offer that vacation after the vacation! To be honest, a laidback vacation is not for everyone. We do offer experiential and outdoor activities at many of our destinations, but again, those are not your typical sightseeing-stuffed offerings. However, many Indian tourists are evolving, in terms of what they want out of a holiday, and it is these evolved travellers we try to target. We give a lot of importance to managing expectations before someone sets out to one of our destinations.
AJ: Many pristine areas in India have been polluted and degraded by increased tourism. Since India Untravelled supports sustainability, how do you plan to tackle this problem?
SN: That’s a question we often ask ourselves, and to be honest, I don’t have the entire answer yet. Some steps we take are; handpicking partners who are socially responsible and ensuring that the revenue we generate gets reinvested to support the local community, ecology or heritage of a region.
Second, by encouraging solo travel, we hope to open up our travellers to unbiased views of how tourism can make or break a place. We have also talked about setting a self-sustainability goal for each destination, and dropping it from our marketing channels once revenues at the destination become sustainable by word of mouth. Most case studies will tell you that when responsible tourism offerings meet mass travellers, the result can be devastating; the Rann Utsav and Amitabh Bachchan’s Great Rann campaign is proof (we don’t ever want our destinations to reach that level).
AJ: What has been your most memorable trip in rural India?
SN: There have been many, each special in their own way. But one trip that clearly stands out is my first ever solo and volunteer trip, to the high Himalayas of Spiti. I saw, met, heard and experienced more in that one month that I ever have, perhaps in my whole life. It is home to the most hospitable and kind people I’ve met, despite life being extremely hard in this harsh mountain desert terrain.
AJ: How has the response been so far? What are your future plans?
SN: We have been in operation for almost 6 months now and overall things have been pretty good. We have received some big projects and groups and some pretty good feedback. We have done two organized trips so far (one each to Punjab and Spiti), and each has received on board a majority of solo travellers. But we’ve also suffered setbacks on some of our partnerships and have had to make some tough decisions. It is all part of the learning process!
This year, we intend to travel and explore a lot more in India, especially on the east and west coasts, and build new partnerships and offerings.
*Photo credit: Shivya Nath.