Way back in 1991, when I, was a young lad of mere 16 summers, I met Anand Bala in the 1st year of junior college, and who introduced me to Western classical music, Harry Belafonte and Greenpeace.
I lived near a beach and besides going to the beach almost everyday, my grandfather would take us on a few Sundays every year to Sanjay Gandhi National Park, especially in the monsoons. So the love of nature was always there and hence I quickly wrote to Greenpeace and imagine my surprise when they quickly responded and sent me an extremely well designed folder with beautifully illustrated leaflets about the blue planet, It’s environment and critically endangered animals. I was hooked and kept that folder for decades.
Then in 1996, I joined many environmental and hiking bodies including WWF, YHAI, E&A and Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS). At BNHS I met Mahrukh Jal Bulsara on a mountain hike to Harishchandragad, now my wife and business partner, and made life long friends with a group of people who were nature lovers and whom I joined for hiking or conservation on most Sundays.
One of these friend was is a native of Majali, the first village in Karwar after crossing the Goa border, and who spoke with glowing terms about this pristine, verdant green forest on the Goa and Karnataka border that he recently visited and which needed to be protected from miners and timber mafia. He urged us to join him on a hike to this incredible forest called Bhimgarh in the summer of 1997.
So we tagged along and crossed the Sonal river at Valpoi in Goa to enter Bhimgarh and hiked 12 Km through leech infested extremely dense forest to reach a picture perfect village nestled deep inside the forest, and where the people lived in incredible harmony with nature along with Tigers, Leopards and King Cobras.
1. The 1st Epiphany – Connecting With Nature Enriches Life And Experiential Eco Travel Built Around Nature Does That Well
So we lived for 2 weeks in the forest in perfect harmony just like the villagers, who unlike us city dwellers with piped water had personal river canals outside their homes. When you wanted water, you stepped outside and dipped your head in your personal river and drank crystal clear water. And when you wanted lemonade, all you had to do was bend a little at the window, pluck your lemons and there you are. Out here When you wanted to bathe you went to the forest stream and bathed in the waterfall to the sound of Malabar whistling pie thrush, jungle dove and mynas, who by the way were also your morning alarm clock. Imagine being woken up to a melodious cacophony of chirping birds in a real forest! Life was hunky dory.
That was the epiphany moment of connecting with nature, of realizing that forests are beautiful and they sustain you and become aware how the eco system works and mother earth provides It’s fruIt’s in abundance provided you live in harmony with it. And that our water that we drink in city comes from these very forests and without which, the rivers will dry up. We learnt that these forest that nurture are under threat and we must protect this forest, where the Mhadei, the lifeline of Goa, called as Mandovi originated in order to protect us.
We formed a gang of eco warriors, contributed personal funds and struggled for 3 years where we met hundreds of forest officers, wrote tons of documents after night long research and months of personal survey in the villages when we practically lived in the forest. We ran signature campaigns though we were not convinced that it has any real value – it turned out to be a game changer.
We got threatened, cajoled, ignored and berated by those who didn’t want a sanctuary declared, some of them whom we assumed would be all for it. But in the bargain we were also supported by some eminent personalities, whom we had assumed would be against the sanctuary since it would make their friends a bit poorer than they otherwise can be. It was a revelation and an incredible learning experience to get not one, not two but three wildlife sanctuaries in India, where even one is considered as a very big ask – Mhadei WLS and Netravali WLS in Goa, and Bhimgarh WLS in Karnataka.
By the way, Goa in August 2016 won a battle to protect the Mandovi from being dammed in Karnataka, where it originates on the strength of this sanctuary! Goa also is the only state in India, whose entire share of Western Ghats, a UNESCO biodiversity hotspot is now fully protected and now serves as an important wildlife corridor and project tiger reserve. Getting these 3 sanctuaries declared cost me 3 years of my life and all my savings but I am proud that I was part of the core group that won this triple whammy for India and It’s future.
We learnt about the power of the research, about the power of network, about the power of, and the power of the constitution of India. We learnt that not all ministers and officers are bad, just as some are not so good.
Most importantly we learnt about the power of getting great things done by a very small team of people should they decide to single mindedly pursue a great cause against all odds, with determination, documentation, network and planning.
2. The 2nd Epiphany – Ecology Cannot be Protected If Doesn’t Make Economical Sense So We Created A Triple Bottom Line Business That’s Sustainable
But then there was a problem. In the jubilation of getting these forest declared as a sanctuary, we realized that the local villagers who supported our cause were now, no more allowed to collect firewood from the forest or any produce to propagate their way of life. One of them told us, “Look what you have done! We supported you but now we cant even cook our meals. Are you going to send us gas cylinders from your cities now?”
That was the second epiphany! We won the battle but apparently lost the war. We solved one problem and created many more. We learnt that the declaration of forest as a reserve doesn’t solve the people problem, who have protected these forests till now and on the contrary aggravates it by placing regulations before providing them with an alternative way of sustenance.
3. The 3rd Epiphany – Experiential Eco Travel is The Best Solution To Enrich Our Lives & Enrolling Us in Conserving The Planet At The Same Time
Now it so happened that as frequent hikers and nature lovers, we that is myself, my future wife and business partner Mahrukh Jal Bulsara, and my cousin Narendra Agarwal had got used to the idea of sleeping on railway stations, or under the leaking roof of village temples, or barn where we had to fight for space with the cattle and dogs, or in ruins with snakes slithering around or scorpions roosting and often in the open under the sky.
And while we all loved the idea of camping that was one crib that we always had. I mean who doesn’t love the idea of roasting fresh catch on the camp cookout, being close to nature while hiking, bathing under the waterfalls deep inside the woods and sitting around the fire on the bank of a river hearing the sounds of a forest, these undoubtedly are just a few of the reasons why people enjoy camping.
But at the same time being roasted in the sun and close to creepy crawlies, skipping showers, going to the bathroom in the woods, and sleeping on the cold, hard and most likely wet ground while being bitten silly by mosquitos are reasons why many don’t enjoy it.
We also learnt the unpalatable truth when we would see tons of plastic in extremely pristine and difficult to reach areas that tourism destroys the eco system wherever it succeeds. That to ensure that it doesn’t the region and It’s people way of life we need a master plan and which cannot just be done by creating rules and regulations, but by creating awareness about the way the planet gives us joy and sustains our lives, amidst the tourists and the operators so that all become a stake holder in preserving the place – a model that has succeeded in many countries.
So while returning from one of our favorite secret place in Palasdhari near Khopoli, we stumbled upon a beautiful bungalow and we all heard ourselves saying now what will I not give to take a break in one of these on proper beds, take a proper shower and go to a proper toilet. And on a lark, we went inside and took the owner’s number from the caretaker.
And on a lark we met the owner, Mrs. K and her next door neighbour Mrs. D, We use to call her K Aunty in Mumbai and asked her to allow us to hire her bungalow for us hikers. We thought she would say ‘no’ and that would be that. She heard us patiently and all she wanted to know was, will we be able to generate enough revenue that covers the cost of bungalow maintenance? She expected nothing more. We said, Oh Yes without thinking and she said, Ok fine, Let me know when do you people want to start. It was as easy that.
That was the 3rd epiphany. Experiential ecotourism was ‘The Solution’ to all three epiphanies of our life!
Just like that we had a pretty bungalow and also an insightful learning about the pain point of bungalow and ranch owners in pretty places. They were always made with lot of love and lot of money and they cost a lot of money to maintain, especially amidst raw nature and after the initial euphoria of a lovely weekend bungalow is over. The family who can afford to make a bungalow like could as easily afford to get bored going to the same place on all weekends. After a year or two, they will not visit that place once again for love or for money.
Apparently the theory of diminishing marginal utility that we learnt in college applies not only to monkeys with bananas but also High Net-worth Individuals with fancy bungalows and ranches.
The Solution! – Thus Ecomantra Was Created To Help Traveller Connect With Nature & Enroll Them in Conserving It While Having A Good Time
As a particular beneficiary of seeing and enjoying the prettiest and most beautiful natural places in India during our hiking and conservation days, we were convinced that we want to facilitate genuine eco travel experiences up, close and personal in sites yet unseen that are far from the madding crowd, and where our well travelled and highly educated travellers will wake up to bird calls, and bathe in the river, and eat farm fresh food after hiking to It’s highest scenic waterfalls and view points just like we use to do but only in much greater style.
Most importantly, we were also convinced that we could do this without damaging the destination with tons of garbage and shortage of water because of lack of foresight that mass tourism enterprises cause in popular destination because they don’t understand the web of life and the fragility and importance of nature.
So we said no plastic, only 100% energy and zero garbage, maximum local employment, only small group slow tourism and no mass tourism, and living in eco lodges built with 100% natural materials was the only way forward i.e. what was called as Experiential ecotourism or responsible tourism at that time.
We decided that our tourism will be 100% eco friendly, noiseless, pollution free and yet give you a window seat to nature in way that will blow your mind, be forever memorable and you will keep traveling with us. But we also realized that if want to succeed in our endeavors to make Indians connect with nature to enjoy it and conserve it, unlike us, they will want to sleep in warm fire-lit places and in great comfort, and for which they will be willing to pay good money.
So the three of us roped in another fellow called John Manjali, one of the original gang in the 3 Wildlife project and we formed ‘Ecomantra Nature Awareness and Travel’ in the year 2000 with a free desk space in the reception of my former boss’s office in Andheri East. Narendra and John quit soon after; Naren moved to the Himalayas lock stock and barrel and John went independent.
In the initial phases our business model was to rope in these 2nd home bungalows around Mumbai and build content around these bungalows and deliver it to corporate and FIT clients.
4. The 4th Epiphany – Quality Life Enriching Experiences Cannot Be Delivered Without Own Experiential Infrastructure So We Build & Operate Our Own Lodges, Outfits and Travel Services
But then there was a problem, as soon as we would make a place a success; that very success would ensure that the bungalow / ranch owner to take an interest in the bungalow and decide that he/she can now do what we do, only much better and sell it to our clients without giving us our share.
So next time we would call Khan Aunty, she would say sorry, but my place is already sold out to people who called her directly. And what would hurt more is that it was often sold out to people whom we had marketed the property to in the first place.
More over, we also were not allowed to do create and deliver many unique experiences that we wanted to do because it was not our property.
That was the 4th epiphany that selling somebody else’s dream projects and services reduce us to the role of a travel agent, and not a game changer or product creator that inspires people. It was a short term approach that doesn’t effectively contributes to your vision, is not profitable and that we needed to put more skin in the game and do things our way from start to finish.
We realized that we wanted to build a close apple eco system that can create a beautiful product, which gives joy rather than an open source windows eco system that is barely functional.
So Mahrukh Bulsara and I decided that It’s time to stop building somebody else’s home and business, and decided to stop our other endeavors and businesses and make a show case eco camp called Rivertrail Eco camp in the year 2004 to prove our hypotheses that you can built a plastic free 100% natural camp using earth and mud bricks and recycled materials that will merge with the surroundings, on the community tourism principle.
And where we could a lot of things we could not at other people’s property. And where travellers would come to hike, trek, kayak, do mountaineering, eat local food and swim in the river. And where they wont miss a coca cola or mineral water, and where they will take back their garbage on the way back home provided of course that they lived very comfortably and had plenty of incredibly enriching experiences that everybody in the family loved.
We made conservation fun, travel an enriching experience and contribute towards protecting the planet. And this we did without giving in your face social messages but did everything we could in the way we built the lodge and ran the operations to ensure that we don’t damage the planet.
We also realized that Indian travellers visiting a social enterprise itself is a big ask, asking them to pay for every experience like Kayaking, hiking and other adventures wont work. So from the very beginning we created an all-inclusive package where every thing is free – all you can eat drink and do experience at the camp.
This resulted in our travellers embracing all our experiences and being open to trying them because it wasn’t costing them a paisa. And when they tried, they were hooked. And they kept coming back and sending their friends despite the fact that the camp was ultra basic and raw.
That was the beginning of our journey to create our own experiential eco lodges, from which as a hub, we could create and deliver original authentic unique experiences and bundle it all to create a holiday for the discerning traveller who wants to do things and travel real.
The good news part is that the whole world now wants to go experiential, green and authentic and we have 17 years of head start in what is going to be a sunrise big business, and a business that is ecological, sociological and now also economically sustainable – It was perhaps utopian when we began but now it’s not only achievable but also the need of the hour.
We are confident that someday in the not so distant future, we will eventually win the war that we joined in 1997 – the war of preserving the planet and living in harmony with it, and to live, enjoy and travel in modern times in a way that gives us joy but doesn’t destroy the planet.
Welcome to Ecomantra.
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