Agriculture now moves into the field of tourism

A growing number offarmers are turning entrepreneurs and earning big bucks from something they offered free to friends and relatives - a healthy and relaxing weekend to unwind in lush green farms, drive a tractor, ride a bullock cart, milk a cow and pluck fresh fruit from orchards.

Farm tourism, once a small niche, is expanding rapidly and getting a big push from the tourism ministry. Tour operators, including some who were farmers to begin with, are aggressively pushing farm tourismin India and abroad. They are attracting tourists from prosperous Punjab to scenic Munnar with packages of Rs 500-10,000 for a day in the lap of nature.

And tourists, particularly foreigners and those from the metros, are lapping it up, helping the niche segment expand nationally, and going far beyond its beginnings in vineyards and old bungalows in coffee plantations.

"There are parents from Mumbai and Pune who want their children to see that milk actually comes from cows and buffaloes and not from factories. For a farmer, it is a daily grind but for a tourist, it is a great experience," said Baramati-based Pandurang Taware, who won the 2012 national tourism award for best responsible tourism project of India.

His venture, Agri Tourism Development Corp, clocked a turnover of Rs 1 crore with a net profit of Rs 25 lakh.

It was in 2005 he realised the huge potential of his ancestral 30-acre farm land. "People thought I was crazy, but I knew that if Indians travel to Florence and Naples to enjoy the farm experience, they will do so in India too," he said.

New Source of Income

Today, he conducts training sessions for bureaucrats from states like Bihar and is involving other farmers in the business. For farmers, it is not only a brand new source of income, but also much easier than planting and harvesting crops. The new income comes without the frustrations of irregular weather, volatile prices and fear of droughts, pests and plant disease.

Rustic experience comes as a complete package. The traveler gets to ride bullock carts and horses, milk cows or goats, sow, plough and harvest, bathe at a tube well, climb trees and pluck fruits. They can watch the making of jaggery or rearing of silkworm and enjoy traditional food and folk arts show.

Harkirat Ahluwalia of Punjab's Hoshiarpur district, who offers farm holidays in luxury tents at 8,000 a day per person, said that people were ready to loosen their purse strings for a quality experience.

He bought the first luxury tent in 2008 and now has nine tents on his 40-acre farm complete with all modern facilities. "There is a growing percentage of repeat tourists who come to visit us. It is enabling us to expand our services - from providing yoga services to cooking classes of Punjabi dishes," said Ahluwalia.
Down south, estates like Kanan Devan Hills Plantations (erstwhile Tata Tea) and Woodbriar Group of Coimbatore feel tourismcan be a good source of income earner in the long term. Kerala government's recent decision to permit the use of 5% of plantation land for tourism and allied activities has inspired farmers to diversify. With 23,000 hectares of tea plantations spread over the Munnar high ranges in Kerala, the Kanan Devan is the largest tea corporate in south India with production over 20 million kg. The company plans to invest around Rs 100 crore in the next two to three years to give thrust to tourism.

By tying up with a hospitality company, it intends to manage 21 bungalows, many of which were built by the British when they started tea estates that were subsequently bought by the Tatas. "We will be setting a dairy project with 150 cows to manufacture products like cheese and chocolates to give a thrust to our tourism activities,'' said Kanan Devan MD Chacko P Thomas.

The Coimbatore-based Woodbriar Group, which has 23,000 acres of tea plantations ranging from the high ranges in Kerala to the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu, is going for renovation of existing bungalows and construction of new cottages under its newly formed hospitality division. They have nine bungalows in Munnar, Valparai and Meghamalai.

"With the Kerala government's decision, we plan to build additional cottages in Munnar. In the past two years, there has been a steady increase in flow of tourists to our bungalows,'' pointed out Tharani Tharan, head of hospitality division of the plantation company. Besides the colonial ambience, the tourists get to enjoy the wildlife as the tea estates are located near the forest.

Most of the coffee estates in Karnataka are sprucing up their home-stay facilities to accommodate more tourists. "Earlier Coorg was the sought after destination. But now Chikmagalur is also becoming popular with its proximity to famous temples. The visitors are mostly IT professionals from Bangalore who come to enjoy weekends," said Nishant Gurjer, chairman of Karnataka Planters' Association. This has definitely added to the income of the growers as they charge on average Rs 1,500-2,000 per person for a day.

Tour operators have started pushing the concept of agri-tourism to travelers by making a farm visit as part of various tourism packages. Akhilesh Dubey from Delhi-based Creative Travels guides foreign tourists visiting Agra-Fatehpur Sikri circuit to spend a few hours or a night at Barara Village, 15 km from Agra. The village had been hosting international researchers and farmers under the International Farm Youth Exchange Programme from 1953 till 1980. "There is an interest among foreign tourists to see rural life. It is a growing segment," said Dubey.

A tourism official of a North Eastern state said that tea and cotton plantations across India are attracting a number of tourists from Japan, Korea and other South East Asian countries. Old British bungalows of the owners and managers attract tea & coffee connoisseurs, apart from other tourists.

"We have world-class farms and gardens. What needs to be done is to sell tea gardens as a boutique concept and customise the package as per the tourist needs," said tourist operator and farmer, Manoj Jalan, of Purvi Discovery.

Punjab tourism department has started registration process for farmers keen to promote their farms for home stay and farm tourism this month, according to Geetika Kalha, tourism secretary. "Tourism flow to farms increase during winters when weather conditions are ideal," she said, adding that these locations have become good weekend getaways.


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