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The Next Economy
Amidst India’s Tourism Boom, Boutique Accommodations Focus on Sustainability

Whereas the country’s major cities have attracted the major hotel construction in the past, boutique properties and hotel chains alike are popping up in lesser-known areas — to showcase not only the natural appeal but the proprietors’ commitment to the environment and local communities.

“We should make our own jam.”

I was sipping coffee, listening to the titter of birds over a leisurely breakfast, when Akhilesh said this. “If we did that, we could reuse the jars.”

He stated it so casually, as if he had commented on the warm weather. But, then again, in his role as operations head of Bagh Villas, Akhilesh (Umesh) Nair is constantly thinking about the next step, the next project — anything that makes the property more unique and sustainable.

Once a barren piece of land, the 15-acre Bagh Villas property today is teeming with thousands of trees and dozens of termite mounds. During my stay, Nair pointed out the laundry list of eco-conscious features — including solar panels, a sophisticated water-harvesting system, and energy-reducing coolers in the reception area. More than 140 species of birds flock to the two man-made lakes, which have increased the water table significantly over the last decade.

One of Bagh Villas’ star features is its garden — where lettuce, eggplants, beans, basil and dozens of other crops grow; 70 chickens provide eggs. A garden 10 times the size of the current one on land across the street will service the property next year, and Nair has plans to buy cows that will provide the property’s milk. “It’s so important to know what you’re eating and where your food is from,” he told Sustainable Brands® (SB).

Situated on the edge of India’s Kanha Tiger Reserve with its 10 tented accommodations, Bagh Villas might be small — but its positive impact is noteworthy. Given the significant growth of tourism in India, it might also be more important than ever.

According to Skift, India’s tourism industry is expected to grow 9.6 percent annually between 2024 and 2028. Hotels accounted for the largest share of revenue in 2023. Between January and September 2023, 131 hotels opened across India, and there are more to come: Radisson Hotel Group announced plans for 21 hotels, Marriott plans to open 12 hotels, and Hyatt is doubling its Indian portfolio from 50 to 100 hotels.

Whereas the country’s top destinations have attracted hotel construction in the past, hotel brands are increasingly moving toward tier 2 and tier 3 cities (as Skift calls them). It’s in these lesser-known areas that existing small, boutique properties already showcase not only their appeal but their commitment to the environment and local communities.

“Discerning travelers are looking for small luxury properties,” said Shoba Rudra, founder of RARE India — a community of 62 companies encompassing 89 properties across India, including Bagh Villas. (Note: My trip to India was sponsored by RARE India and the ImPart Collective to attend the recent BRIDGES event.) RARE’s portfolio consists of heritage palaces, boutique homestays and other intimate accommodations — many of which are family-owned and -run. All have a critical eye on combining high-quality guest experiences with environmental protection, cultural and heritage preservation, and social and economic benefits beyond a property’s physical footprint.

“A lot of the RARE properties are in off-the-beaten-path places,” Mohan told SB. “The small hotels promote the destinations with a story. If you don’t have a ‘why,’ then why would people go there?”

At the 200-year-old Belgadia Palace in Odisha, for example, sisters Mrinalika and Akshita BhanjDeo opened the doors of their family home as guest accommodations served with a side of social impact: “We believe in using tourism as a vehicle for sustainable development,” Akshita said. “Tourism shouldn’t be only for one family. It should benefit the whole community.”

A part of every Belgadia Palace guest fee goes toward a local non-governmental organization or community group. Additionally, the sisters work with local women, in particular, to offer experiences that showcase the culture and history of this corner of India — which is home to more than 30 Indigenous communities. “Women are the guardians. It’s only right they tell their stories,” Akshita said. “We are only the facilitators.”

Nirmalya Choudhury, executive director of operations for Assam Bengal Navigation, also emphasized the importance of relationships between accommodations and the destinations where they’re located: “Many small properties widely dispersed benefits more communities,” he told SB. “New hotels need to be small, reflect local design, use local materials and be built by local labor. Only then do they have the potential to be sustainable.”

Assam Bengal Navigation operates four river boats, as well as Diphlu River Lodge — a property with 12 cottages right outside of Kaziranga National Park. Like Bagh Villas, it recycles greywater, composts organic waste and has its own organic farm. The majority of staff are hired from local villages. Its philanthropic arm, the ABN Foundation, sends 5 percent of every room fee back into the surrounding area to support education, environmental initiatives, and rural community development.

“We’re a little afraid of growing too big,” Choudhury said. “As long as people are happy, we’ll keep doing what we do best.”

That’s a sentiment that seems to resonate with Nair as well. As we reached the back edge of the Bagh Villas property during our tour, we stopped to rest on a raised platform shaded by sal trees used by visitors during yoga retreats. Over this past year, he’s been focused on the construction of an onsite wastewater-treatment plant and is preparing the new garden for next year’s planting season.

Meanwhile, his wife and Bagh Villas’ general manager, Lia, has helped women on staff upcycle old tent coverings into bags sold on site, started making soap and learned about beekeeping, in addition to her other daily tasks. What else could they possibly do?

“I’m always looking for ways to improve,” Nair said.

A potential answer came a few days later — when Nair sent me a beautifully styled food photo, with the caption: “Homemade pineapple jam and marmalade.”