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High-end 'social tourism' boosts appeal of India's desert state

Luxury retreats allow visitors to engage with locals in rugged Rajasthan

A desert excursion near Jamba, the village in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan where the Dera Dune Retreat is located. (Courtesy of The Clement Retreats)

JAIPUR, India -- As a golden-hued sunset casts its last rays over the foothills of Rajasthan's Aravali Hills my camel walks steadily toward Gadoli, where there will be a private reenactment of the Tulsi Vivah, the Hindu ceremony of song and dance that celebrates the end of the monsoon and the beginning of the wedding season.

We are 70 km east of Jaipur in the Dausa district, home of the Dera Village resort run by The Clement Retreats, a New Delhi-based company that offers tourists an immersive travel experience in Rajasthan's less-visited interior. Instead of a typical tourist menu of Rajasthani lake and palace visits and city hotel stays, this luxury travel experience connects tourists with the lifestyle of local tribes and aims to contribute to development in this rugged region.

The Clement Retreats is a pioneer in this novel "social tourism" sector, which blends deluxe comfort with social enterprise. Its two Rajasthan resorts -- the other is the Dera Dune in Jamba, scenically built over a 30-meter-high sand dune in the Thar Desert -- offer jobs and hospitality training to disadvantaged local communities. Some profits are reinvested in social development and education.

"We want to teach villagers, especially women, who are the real hardworking core of any Rajasthani household, that they can find wealth and happiness in their own backyard without having to look for work in busy and polluted cities," said Anjali Babbar, a partner in Experientia India, a private company that owns the two resorts.

"Tourism can help locals support their livelihoods through farming and working for our resorts," said Anjali, who is also CEO of Far Horizon Tours, an associated company that specializes in trips to natural heritage destinations.

Top: Anjali Babbar, owner of The Clement Retreats, stands in one of the fields near Gadoli where villagers are planting the fruit trees that may give them a livelihood in the next five years. Bottom: The dining hall of the Clement Dune Retreat in Jamba, in the center of Rajasthan's Thar Desert. (Top photo by Kit Yeng Chan, bottom photo courtesy of The Clement Retreats)

The tourism sector is expanding quickly in Rajasthan, one of India's biggest states, which offers desert landscapes, ancient architecture and spectacular cities. The state logged 51.9 million tourist arrivals in 2018, up 21% over three years, with 2,975 guests staying at the two Clement Retreats properties over the last two years.

Anjali said Far Horizon Tours, which she co-founded in 1992 with her husband Sanjay Basu, had always focused on showing guests the India that can be found in villages. "Given the rugged locations, we were only able to set up tented camps as accommodation," she said, "but we thought it was time to show the back of beyond in real comfort."

The couple scouted various villages in 2001, looking for scenic yet offbeat locations between Agra and Jaipur which, together with New Delhi, make up the popular "Golden Triangle" tourist trail in north India.

Top: Locals from Jamba delight the guests of the Clement Dera Dune Retreat with a traditional Rajasthani dance. Bottom: The farmlands surrounding the village of Gadoli are inhabited by tame wild jackals that often come out at dusk to forage for food. (Top photo courtesy of The Clement Retreats, bottom photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

At first, the Gadoli property operated purely as accommodation for customers of Far Horizon Tours. In the last two years, however, the resort has developed a social role in the village thanks to its relationship with SAHIL, a nonprofit organization that promotes interaction with nature.

Guests heading for Dera Village are driven in a jeep owned by The Clement Retreats through underdeveloped countryside where women in colorful saris carry bundles of produce on their heads, cattle roam freely, and the landscape opens into a wide, ochre-tinted savanna.

The resort's 17 cottages, clustered in a horseshoe arrangement in a landscape inhabited by wild jackals and blue bulls, are built of traditional wood with thatched roofs and comfortable modern rooms. An immaculate lawn in front of the buildings provides a space where guests can relax, play games such as cricket or observe the wild squirrels that run undisturbed across the grass. Meals are sumptuous -- and entirely sourced from surrounding organic orchards that produce millet, custard apples, mangoes and other foods.

Top: A view of the cottages in the Clement Dera Village Retreat in Gadoli. Bottom: The rooms in the cottages mix modern furnishings with an exotic, timeless feel emphasized by wood and tented ceilings. (Photos by Kit Yeng Chan)

"It took a while, but we are educating the villagers to avoid the cutting of trees for the sale of wood, and instead think long-term and farm their lands with a rotation of crops," said Anjali, pointing to various trees that her local staff helped to purchase from villagers for conservation.

The resort has paid for fencing to encourage villagers to keep producing crops despite foraging by wild animals. The villagers are required to pursue chemical-free organic farming, but are paid 5 rupees per kilogram above market rates for their crops. "It's a way to move along with them, teaching the importance of preserving their land and village with this type of farming, which takes time and dedication to bear a sustainable income," said Anjali.

Guests can engage with locals by visiting the farmlands, the village or the local school, or by helping local children to improve their English at a village library started by the retreat. The spectacular Chand Baori stepwell at Abhaneri is also nearby. Stepwells are wells or ponds in which the water is reached by descending a set of steps, and Chand Baori is one of India's deepest.

The Chand Baori stepwell of Abhaneri is the largest in the world, and is only a 40-minute drive away from the Clement Dera Village Retreat in Gadoli. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

The guest experience in desert-bound Jamba is very different. The scenic but arid environment is little farmed, but features a rich ethnic tapestry. This is the land of the Bishnois, a Western Thar Desert Hindu sect formed 500 years ago whose adherents follow 29 life principles set by Guru Jambheshwar, an early environmentalist.

Even in Gadoli, rural Rajasthani women are accountable for most families' incomes, and are found working in the fields more than their male counterparts. (Photo by Kit Yeng Chan)

The Dera Dune serves as a link between tribal peoples and foreign guests, who can help by fostering education and avenues for local employment, and by generating profits that are recycled in infrastructure development.

As an example of how this works, Anjali pointed to a tractor recently purchased by The Clement Retreats for the community in Gadoli, where the organization is also starting a granary project to be run by local women. The aim is to produce grains for commercial purposes, and to manage operations independently from collection to storing, packing and shipping.

"Why we are doing all of this? That's the million dollar question," Anjali said with a laugh. "We want to take the people at the grassroots along with us in whichever way is possible. And the first way to do so is agriculture."

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