The initiative wants to increase conversations around heritage sites
When Ajay Reddy visited Khajuraho in 2012, all he did was book himself a one-way ticket. “We (he was with a friend) hopped onto a train and just went there—no return ticket, no reservations."
After sightseeing and lunch at a local hotel, they managed a ticket and got back on a train and slept through dinner. When they woke up late at night, they were famished. But there was nothing to eat. “The coach attendant offered to share his dinner with us," Reddy said.
Travelling off the beaten track is something the former electrical engineer and founder of goUNESCO has always enjoyed.
In 2012, Reddy tried to go on an auto-rickshaw ride along the east coast of India. “That came very close to fruition but the sponsor pulled out at the last minute," said the 32-year-old.
Around this time, a tweet by Pallavi Sawant, asked him how many UNESCO World Heritage Sites (WHS) in India he had been to. “I didn’t know her back then. I just stumbled across her Twitter feed," he said, adding that much to his dismay he could not recognize even half those 28 places (today there are 32 WHS).
It was then that he decided to make that his project for 2012—travelling to all those World Heritage Sites. He went on to visit 9-10 that year itself and at last count has visited 15. “I’m travelling less after GoUNESCO kicked off," he said, a trifle ruefully. When he started that year was to focus on his own personal travel goals. “I told my friends about it and a few said they were interested in travelling too," said Reddy. So he decided to make it more fun by starting a common blog to record the journeys.
Also, he was working on the gamification of travel at a mobile start-up back then. “You were getting points for every check-in at a different place. So I decided to do something similar here."
Today, goUNESCO is a broad umbrella of initiatives which include online travel challenges, student programmes, heritage runs and social media campaigns—all aimed at making heritage more accessible.
“I do not consider myself a heritage traveller," he said, and added, “and that is the customer I cater to—someone who doesn’t have an idea of heritage and hasn’t thought about heritage as a vacation plan." Heritage, Reddy said, “in its broadest definition is something that is handed down from one generation to the other and you want to keep it for the next generation".
Some of the ideas that have shaped goUNESCO have come in as suggestions or to address a need. For example, their student programme started when a girl from the National Law University near Ahmedabad wrote to Reddy saying she loved the idea but couldn’t afford it.
So, goUNESCO decided to design a programme aimed at students. The site’s six-month-long global outreach programme for students, which was kicked off in January 2014, is now in its fifth session, “We have students in 25 countries over five continents participating," said Reddy.
Then there are the goUNESCO runs—their only paid initiative “These fun runs at heritage sites finance everything else," said Reddy, a runner himself, who was part of the starting team of the Hyderabad Marathon when it kicked off five years ago. “There is a culture of people travelling for running so I thought why not at a heritage site," said Reddy. He moved to Bengaluru that year.
The Go Heritage Runs, which bring together runners from all over the country to heritage sites, building awareness about them and engaging local communities, have been named as the winner of the 2015 Manthan Award in the E-Culture, Heritage and Tourism category.
Niranjan Gopinathan, an avid runner who regularly participates in these heritage runs, said, “You go to places you normally wouldn’t travel and it is a very different experience running through those. Here it isn’t about speed and timing and personal bests; you simply go for the fun of running—and yes, you experience heritage as you run."
Moe Chiba, section chief and programme specialist for culture, UNESCO, New Delhi, agrees. “More often than not, heritage is guarded by the more conservative experts but Ajay has managed to mobilise the masses by building awareness in a very unique way," she said, and added, “we are an informal partner in this initiative and help them with contacts and information. We have also given them a small grant for their website."
While it started as an initiative to explore heritage sites in India, in a year it went global, said Reddy. And he isn’t complaining. “We want goUnesco to be that one thing that is appreciated all over the world and not just India. We want to expand, become profitable enough to hire a bigger team, get some corporate sponsorship. We would like to increase the number of runs and would like to start doing them abroad too—especially in the UK," he said.
As far as India is concerned, Reddy wants to change the whole conversation around heritage—that it is something that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is the manager of. “ASI is only the caretaker, we are the real owners," he said.
Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the Manthan and mBillionth awards.