Kuldip Gadhvi runs Kutch Adventures India, an award-winning tour company in Kutch that helps tourists engage with the local culture and people.
I spoke to him about his passion for the region, its nature, people and cultural heritage and winning the World Responsible Tourism award for the best in engaging people and culture.
What made you want to start as a tour guide in Kutch, and how did you begin?
I naturally enjoy showing people things and am enthusiastic to share experiences with people. It first started when I bumped into a group from London who came to Bhuj. One lady asked if I would take her group to the desert at the last minute, as her guide hadn’t turned up. I was free, and thought “why not?” I spent a few days with them and really enjoyed it.
I then took a training course in Ahmedabad at the AMA – Ahmedabad Management Association that was connected with Gujarat Tourism, and got a certificate to be a local tourist guide.
It really all stems from the fact that I love to spend time with people, people from all over the world as well as local people.
How do you decide where to take people in Kutch?
I never set any specific programme. Each person who visits Kutch comes with a different intention and different interest. Some might want to see crafts, some communities, some nature. It begins with an exchange of emails to find the best fit and then decisions are made on which villages would be best to visit.
Usually somebody will contact me a few weeks or months in advance of their trip and, through exchanging a few emails I will get an idea of what they’d like to see. Sometimes, people will contact me last minute, and we’ll spontaneously decide what to do and go for it.
What’s your favourite craft in Kutch?
That’s the most difficult question! As you know, there are a rich variety of crafts in Kutch and you can’t compare one from the other. However, I do love ajrakh – the turban I wear is ajrakh. It is particularly special to me as it was a gift from an artisan in the village of Khavda. I love turbans, I also wear a wool one in winter which keeps me nice and warm! Most people I know from traditional communities appreciate it if you wear traditional outfits. I get so many comments from people saying they love my turban too!
What are the issues facing tourism in Kutch at the moment?
That’s an important question. While I’ve been leading tours over the last five years, I’ve been observing the issues. For me, there are two main issues. The first is infrastructure – we don’t have a good infrastructure in Kutch. This includes a proper information centre, accessible clean toilets and other basic needs.
The second issue that is a more serious issue is to do with people involved in tourism becoming caught in the web of commission-based activities. Many tourists will have experienced this in other more commonly visited areas of India. The classic example is when an auto rickshaw driver will insist on taking someone to a particular hotel because he’ll get commission for it. The locals in Kutch have been receiving tourists for many years, but never as much as other very touristy areas of India, and so this has never happened here.
However, now tourism is growing at a much quicker rate, you can already see this system infiltrating into Kutch. It corrupts locals’ brains. The people of Kutch are naturally very welcoming and friendly. In the past, when tourism was quite new to Kutch and on a small scale, locals would love welcoming tourists into their homes and there would be a genuine friendly interaction between the two. Now many locals see tourists as customers. This in turn affects the tourist’s experience, especially as many are expecting genuine interaction with the locals. But when they are pushed to spend money, the experience can seem artificial.
Some artisans are becoming more engaged with this commission system, having realised the strong interest in their craft from all over the world and realising the potential for income in tourism.
What do people who come on your tours, or to Kutch in general, want to see?
In the last five years, the number of visitors to Kutch has increased dramatically after the government campaign to promote tourism in Kutch and Gujarat. There is a 50:50 ratio of the things people come to Kutch for. In my experience, half of tourists come for the Great Rann of Kutch (the salt desert which is a geographically wonderful natural site) and the other half want to see the communities and the crafts. But people who mainly come to see the Rann are interested to see other sites while they’re there, so most often it’s a combination of things.
How have you built your business?
Initially it began with word of mouth. I’ve been in the business five years. For the first two years all my tours began via word of mouth. Then I started a Facebook page and people would mention me on their website. Internet networking grew and I now have a website. TripAdvisor has also been a very useful platform and I’ve had a lot of good reviews there.
How have you become known for responsible tourism, and how do you maintain ethical relationships with the people you visit on the tours?
I respect local cultures and traditions, and am always thinking about the best ways of interacting with local people, and the best ways of showing them respect. I’ve been practicing and developing the best ways over the last five years that I’ve been a tour guide.
Last year, I found out about the World Travel Market and the Responsible Tourism Awards. I got in touch with them, sent responses to questionnaires and information on my tours and got longlisted, then shortlisted. I was never particularly interested in receiving awards or certificates, because I thought as long as I know I’m honest with myself and the people I work with and the service I provide, I don’t need any specific certificate to show that.
The reason I applied was in hope that I would share my achievements with others and encourage similar ways of working to others who want to work in tourism.
In your opinion, what is the one must-see/do thing in Kutch?
That’s a hard question. I’ve travelled a lot in Kutch and seen many places but I think the one best thing to do is to see the great Rann. Make sure you travel further out past the tourists who hang around on the edge and walk a bit further – two or three kilometres into the Rann to experience the silence and greatness of the great desert. That is something not to be missed.
How can people get in touch with you?
I always love to meet new people, even if I can’t meet their exact needs for a tour straight away. I’m always happy to provide advice on visiting the area by email too.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Kutch.Adventures?fref=ts
Tel: +91 9327 054172