Bangalore / Pune: At Divarose Gardens, in the Terai region of Uttarakhand, Devinder Singh Bhooi and his wife Rachel Lawrence have gone native—and the piece of land where they have done so with all the accompaniments of native life has turned into a good business proposition.
Rural retreat: The Littlearth Group, which operates hotels in Ooty, threw open its five-year-old farm, Destiny, to guests last year. The farm offers activities such as agriculture, dairy and horse breeding.
On the 4-acre farm, which they frequently let out to visitors, “guests can milk the cows and wash the buffalos,” said Rachel Lawrence. “In summer, we encourage people to swim in the tube well. We don’t have a separate restaurant, guests eat with us…they learn to grind wheat. They join us in picking vegetables and cutting sugarcane.”
Started in 2000, the farm opened its doors in 2003 to guests who are housed in jhompris (cottages) around a central courtyard. The cost of the rural retreat is Rs2,000 per person a day.
Agricultural tourism is proving to be a big draw for urban Indians looking to unwind and get back to nature, albeit temporarily, during a holiday. And some are choosing working farms for their breaks instead of holing up in swanky hotels.
That has resulted in a gradual increase in the number of agri-tourism options available: from stud farms to dairy farms, and from bee farms to even large-scale full agricultural farms. Any of these farms can offer a farm stay experience with a certain level of participation.
As a concept, farm stays offer enough potential to attract hoteliers who are willing to pump in money to create an alternate form of tourism to keep guests from going off their books.
The Littlearth Group— which operates hotels in Ooty—already had a five-year-old farm, but it was officially thrown open to guests last year. “The farm is run on a professional level and we are probably the largest, full-fledged farm stay in the country, apart from being one of the first. It...(has) activities like agriculture, dairy and horse breeding,” said Vijay Prabhu, owner of Destiny, the farm that is part of the Littlearth Group. “The farm stay is something which developed later, and was not the forefront of our activities. We just felt that it would be nice for the people who live in the cities and towns to come and know what farm and outdoor life is all about.”
Destiny has two types of accommodation—priced at Rs1,775 per person a day (including meals) to Rs2,475 per person per day.
Meanwhile, the growing popularity of farm stays is getting the government’s attention. Sensing the potential, some state governments have come forward to encourage farm stay tourism with some incentives and signposts.
In Kerala, ancestral homes are being repositioned as farm stays, but Emerald Isle is among the few to have a so-called Grihasthali certification from the government. Emerald Isle is a 150-year-old ancestral home on an island in the backwaters of Alleppey, and became a farm stay in 2000.
“In its effort to encourage tourism and preserve ancestral homes, the Kerala government brought out a certification scheme,” said Vinod Job, managing director, Emerald Isle, The Heritage Villa. “Under the scheme, owners are entitled to a loan to maintain their homes and avail a subsidy of up to Rs5 lakh. However, the homes are certified depending on how old they are, their maintenance, size and other parameters.” Government recognition is an added advantage; Emerald Isle has been listed in the state tourism getaways. This has helped generate tourist inflows and the property has had Rs15 lakh of annual business in the last seven years.
The activities it offers, however, are usually very simple tasks such as fishing and helping in the kitchen garden.
In western India, the Agri Tourism Development Organization (ATDO), a non-governmental organization that started farm tourism in Maharashtra a few years ago, has compiled a directory of agri-tourism farms in the state.
The directory has listed 52 farm stay options in various parts of the state including Neral near Mumbai, Aurangabad, Nashik, Amravati, Ahmednagar, Ratnagiri and Dapoli. It also includes a few destinations in Karnataka and Goa, said Pandurang Taware, director, sales and marketing, ATDO.
The organization started an experimental farm tourism project at Baramati near Pune a couple of years ago and decided to set up a network of agri-tourism projects after this venture drew good response from tourists. More than 250 farmers applied to the organization wanting to set up such projects. “We carried out a feasibility study and chose 52 who are ready to do business,” said Taware.
The directory will provide tourists with all relevant information about various agri-tourism projects, including the number of rooms available for accommodation, activities they can look forward to on the farm and in the vicinity, distances from various metros and shopping in the region.
Tourists who want a sea-side holiday, for instance, can contact one of the listed farmers in the Konkan region, known for its stunning coast and beaches. For a quick break from Mumbai, they can call up a farmer who has recently started a fishing tourism project. There, they can try their hand at fishing in a large water body set up on the farm and bring home the catch to be cooked for them in the farm kitchen .
About 100,000 visitors stayed at various agri tourism projects in the state last year. The directories will be sold through travel exhibitions and will be stocked at all embassies, airports and hotels, among other places.
Meanwhile, ATDO is also looking at other ways of growing the network of agri-tourism projects in the state. It is currently working on an integrated agri tourism development project in collaboration with the state agriculture department, various district collectorates and district credit co-operative banks.
The Pune District Credit Co-operative Bank has agreed to lend money at a subsidized rate to farmers who have land holdings of between 2 acres and 5 acres, while ATDO will give them the necessary know-how to set up such projects.
“As a first step towards making this possible, we are holding a training camp for branch managers of the bank next week,” says Taware.
The farmers themselves get a six-day training session at the Baramati farm where they are taught the ropes of managing a tourism project, including interacting with guests and hygiene in the farm and surroundings.
A large number of farmers in Purandar taluka in Pune district, one of the strongholds of Maratha warrior Shivaji, have converted their farms and homes into tourism project with plans now to leverage the regions temples, the historic Purandar Fort and the region’s scenic appeal, to make it an agri-tourism hub.
The Baramati project, set on 110 acres, meanwhile, has seen 18,000 visitors between April and November 2007 against the 12,000 visitors in 2006. Visitors are treated to varied experiences from milking and feeding animals, walking through dense fruit orchards, breakfast and dinner under the sky, visit to local farmers markets, milk collection centres, silk processing and jaggery-making units, bullock cart rides and a visit to an emu farm. The cost of such an experience? Rs400 per person for a day’s visit to the farm and Rs5,000 for a two-day weekend break for a family of four.