|By Raju Bist
When Tatiano Oliveira first saw the womenfolk in the Garhwal Himalayas carrying large bundles on their backs, he was not impressed. “Only leaves,” the 17-year-old collegian from Brazil had thought to himself. “They must not be very heavy.” Till he stopped one of them, exchanged greetings in his broken Hindi and volunteered to pick up one of the bundles. No go. The young man could hardly lift it half way above the ground. “It was then that I realized the daily hardships faced by these brave women. Even fetching fodder for their animals was literally a back-breaking job. What’s more, they had to endure it every day!”
Oliveira had come to India as a tourist but he went back with knowledge about our country which even many Indians are unable to garner. Of course, his own curiosity and observations helped. But a large credit for seeing a visited place and people in a different light goes to the travel agency which had arranged his 16 day outing, the Thane-based Atithi International.
Atithi is an unique travel agency. Its founder and chief honcho, Yogendra Kainthola, 33, collects medium budget tourists in Mumbai and personally escorts them to the Himalayas and its environs, about 30 hours away by train. There, he shows them the sights but also actively involves them in his own brand of interactive tourism. Not for Kainthola or his clients the antiseptic, plastic 5-star tours. The young entrepreneur believes in letting foreigners study his country at the ground level. His reasoning? “Most of the foreigners who come all the way here are curious, intelligent people. So why not give them an opportunity to form their own authentic, unbiased opinions instead of taking refuge in assembly line tourist guide books?”
This “opportunity” comes through any one of Atithi’s “theme” travel packages. So, a participant in one of the Adventure Tours could find himself trekking, skiing, river rafting, water skiing or mountain cycling in pristine, virginal locales in the Himalayas. A Pilgrimage Tour could take you to some of the holiest spots of the country – Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri, Yaminotri, Hardwar or Rishikesh.
The name Atithi is derived from the ancient Sanskrit phrase, “Atithi Devo Bhava”. Translated, it means, “Our Guests are our Gods.” Kainthola runs a tight ship at Atithi. A large chunk of his administrative work is sub-contracted to relatives and college students so he does not end up carrying large office overheads. The result is that the tourists travelling under the Atithi umbrella can travel further on a modest budget.
Take the case of a typical trekking trip. Spanning over 16 days (Mumbai to Mumbai), one package takes the tourist through remote villages and splendid scenery to some of the most breath-taking spots in the Garhwal Himalayas. These include Gomukh, famous for the glacier which feeds the Ganges and Tapovan, home to only a few sadhus and the place from where you can have a magnificent view of many Himalayan peaks. With seven days of trekking thrown in, the tourist ends up paying $ 800 for the entire tour. “At some of the halts during our tours, foreigners have stayed for as low as $ 15 per night. They thanked me later for providing them with such reasonable but comfortable accommodation,” says Kainthola.
It all began a few years ago when Kainthola, just fresh from college, was himself taking in the sights in the Far East, USA and Europe. “In all the countries I stayed in, I found the newspapers advertising tourist packages to all corners of the world except India,” he says. “In Singapore, for example, tour operators were promoting tours to Sri Lanka and Nepal but none to the biggest tourist destination in south Asia, India.”
Bitten by the patriotic bug, Kainthola decided to amend things in whatever little way he could. He decided to get into travel and tourism and attract foreign tourists to India. But first, he needed some experience. So he started off with small, domestic packages aimed at his friends and relatives. The first one, a four night, five day caravan tour for 14 people to the beach resort of Ganpathi-Phule, about 450 kms away from Mumbai, went off well.
Others followed: treks to nearby Lonavala, Khandala and Kanheri Caves; mountain climbing excursions for company executives; nature camps for school children with astronomy, trekking and nature talks thrown in. “The trips helped build up self-confidence in the kids. Their fears and prejudices were removed,” says Kainthola.
In August 1991, confident that he had the requisite experience in handling large number of tourists, Kainthola took his first big trip outside Mumbai. Over 12 days, he accompanied five tourists to the world famous Valley of Flowers, about 315 kms away from Rishikesh, a centre for ashrams and yoga institutes, and then took them to the holy shrines of Badrinath and Kedarnath. The group, including a 60-year-old, trekked over 55 kms in five days.
Other memorable trips have followed. A package to the ice-clad Auli Winter Resort included one week of skiing, two days of river rafting and two days of jungle safari. For the last three years, every June, Kainthola has been taking about 20 tourists to Har-Ki-Doon, located on the border of the Garhwal Himalayas. The tourists have been river rafting, water skiing and climbing mountains and at times, reaching a height of 4,400 metres. Kainthola is just back from Uttar Pradesh, where he accompanied a group to Gangotri, the source of the mighty Ganges river.
In all these trips, Kainthola takes the help of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) to help the tourists become familiar with local people and customs. One of the NGOs, Janadhar, headed by Dr. K. Sunil, is active in the rehabilitation of physically handicapped people in the mountains. Says Dr. Sunil, “It is only through participating in community activities that tourists are able to really learn about any new place they have visited.”
In an interesting project, Atithi and Janadhar took a group of 19 tourists to Rajgarhi, a village four hours away by road from hill station Mussoorie. Two villagers, acting as local guides, accompanied by a cook and a helper, also from the village, took the tourists on an unforgettable trek. Liquor, smoking and the use of plastics was strictly no-no. Over two days and a night, the group travelled over hills and valleys, with the four locals enlightening them about local culture and history. Back to the village, the foreigners stayed in local houses. Atithi will shortly be diversifying with tours to offbeat south Indian locales like Periyar and Pondicherry. “Here too, we will have tourists staying with the locals,” says Kainthola.
Most of his new business comes to Kainthola through friends in the United States and Britain and through word-of-mouth publicity. But Kainthola would not like Atithi to grow into such a mammoth organisation that he would be bogged down by administrative work and would be unable to personally accompany tourists on the trips.
“It’s a great joy to see tired but happy faces on the top of a remote
mountain,” he says. “If, in the process, my foreign friends end up learning
something new and unforgettable about my country, my joy is multiplied.”