In the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu, a quiet transformation is underway. A social enterprise, Ecoscape , is demonstrating that sustainable tourism can mean good business – for tourists, tribal communities and investors alike.
Five years ago, Ankur Dhawan, one of the founders of Ecoscape, gave up a job in London to set up a social enterprise that could work with tribal communities in building tourist potential in the stunning hills of the Nilgiris.
Once he reached there he realised two things — one, to encourage ownership by the community required investing time to win their trust. And second, the tribal culture of the region was strong and unique.
“I chose to start this venture because its principles entailed the conservation of environment as well as the preservation of local cultures and traditions while providing economic benefits to the community,” Ankur says.
Ankur partnered with Action for Community Organisation and Development (ACCORD), an NGO that owns the spectacularly beautiful Madhuvana Estate, a 176 acre tea and coffee estate where Ecoscape has been based since 2014. “The involvement of the local community was crucial if the venture was to succeed. There was a strong foundation of trust built by the organisation that had been working with the community over the last 30 years. Secondly, there was existing infrastructure that gave us the opportunity to build on and modify further,” he says.
A majority of the funds for Ecoscape came as a loan from the community which provided almost 60 percent of the start-up capital for the venture. Community members are involved in virtually every aspect of the initiative, running and managing the estate on which many have lived for generations.
Profits from Ecoscape go back to the community, and a committee of tribal elders decide on how funds will be used to benefit all.
Set in a picturesque setting in Devala about 16 km from Gudalur, Ecoscape provides travelers a quintessential experience of Tamil Nadu’s tea/coffee plantations backed by the warm hospitality of the local communities, an age-old culture, and the pristine landscape.
It's a complete nature experience. Encouraged to spend time outdoors, travelers have a chance to tour the tea estate, spot over 45 different species of butterflies and over 90 species of birds, besides trekking or hiking in the quaint valley. “We encourage our travelers to commute on foot while they are here, as the picturesque landscape is best-experienced walking,” he says. Travelers can also swim in the waterfall and stream located on the estate.
Building Ecoscape has almost been a family venture. Members of the community have pitched in their own labour; materials are sourced locally and all fruit and vegetables come from nearby markets. The venture tries to keep its carbon footprint to the minimum. Once inside the estate, cars are not allowed and the teams operates with only a few electrical appliances, allowing for a simple but breathtaking experience.
Popular among international tourists, Ecoscape has also caught the imagination of urban tourists. A stunning seven hours from India’s silicon hub of Bengaluru, its proving a huge attraction from people looking to get away from city life for a weekend.
“Eco-tourism is a win-win situation for local communities and the tourists,” says Ankur. While tourists will be able to savor a unique cultural experience, increased footfalls will translate into more socio-economic benefits for the locals and environment.