Every year, there are several regional, national and international awards presented to tour operators, hotels and organisations for their efforts in developing responsible tourism. The Blue Yonder Awards are a little different, as they are awarded to the remarkable people from the local communities who make the places special.
Even the trophies given are different to what is expected, imbued as they are with the character of the awards. A handful of Nila sand that has been witness to history and the fusing of the various influences. The Rice grains (പൊക്കാളി) represent the organic culture of the land that grows verdant even in hybrid conditions. The Coconut blossom (തെങ്ങിൻ പൂക്കുല) signifies the auspicious and ushers in an era of goodness. The Red Seeds (മഞ്ചാടിക്കുരു/
Jeremy Smith spoke to The Blue Yonder’s founder and CEO Gopi Parayil about his company’s typically unusual approach to awards…
Jeremy: Most ‘tourism awards’ give prizes to tourism companies and organisations working in tourism. Why don’t you?
Gopi: Our focus is on celebrating the people who make a destination. This is an award for the people and the places they create. It’s about what makes the place liveable and somewhere to be worth aspiring for. It’s about celebrating those efforts and showing a path to create a holistic and sustainable destination.
This is an effort from our side to show others in the trade as well as many others about the efforts taken by people towards sustaining traditions, culture and how this in fact can be linked to supporting livelihoods with dignity.
And finally, authentic experiential holidays are still a niche and not the norm. This is our way of highlighting how these types of holidays can be created by linking and transforming various development challenges into solutions that a community needs.
Jeremy: How many years have you been running these awards?
Gopi: The Blue Yonder was doing it sort of silently for years, but it was in 2013 that we first made an official certificate – we gave one lifetime achievement award, one fellowships and 6 scholarships.
Jeremy: Who is eligible to enter?
Gopi: Up until this year, it was anyone we worked with, because we knew their work closely. But from this year onwards, we are going out to the public asking them to nominate.
Jeremy: What is the tourism aspect to these awards?
Gopi: The five winners this year are the region’s only practicising glove puppeteer, one of the two shadow puppeteers remaining, the only bell metal mirror craftsman, a social entrepreneur who teaches 800 young students music, and the only remaining kathakali crown craftsman. It is because of such people that the place becomes relevant and attractive as somewhere to live and also as somewhere to enjoy experiential tourism.
Tourism became a successful tool for the revival of these art forms and The Blue Yonder is recognising that in public, so that it might inspire more people to look at the potential of responsible tourism. Some of the houses you see in the videos wouldn’t be there if not for responsible tourism, they would be rotting away, or have been demolished.
Jeremy: What sort of impact have the awards had?
Gopi: The first time we gave any money was in 2007 – although back then we didn’t call it an award – when we gave one entrepreneur some micro-funding to help set up a bell metal craft workshop. As a result, they were able to become part of our The Blue Yondder trails and so continue to earn money not just once, but through the years. This is the sort of impact it can have on any local artisan or entrepreneur who wins an award.
Jeremy: How do your guests react to the sort of experiences and interactions that you offer and that win the awards?
Gopi: They find them to be the most authentic experiences around as they aren’t stage managed . They get to meet artists and artisans in their real context and not in hotels or resorts. They see the intricacies and beauty of their lives so that even souvenir shopping direct from the artist becomes a meaningful experience with no middlemen involved. (And as a policy TBY doesn’t take commission for facilitating souvenir sales.) And the souvenirs they might buy come imbued with a real sense of their reality that is different from had they bought a product off a shelf in a fancy showroom .
Jeremy: What would you tell people wanting to repeat in own communities?
Gopi: That this is a great opportunity to be connected to the roots, to the people and initiatives. Searching for good initiatives that make a difference in itself is a journey, that will add value to the self and to the organisation and by and large the community one represent or part of. Such an effort compared to a CSR contribution (which unfortunately is still the easiest form of support travel companies / any corporate would give), gives better standing to the organisation within the destination they work.) It helps the organisation understand the challenges communities face and help them position or reposition their business in a way to become a solution for issues faced by the community. It is an intervention done with dignity and respect and offering long term support and engagement.
All this while we have been looking out for such talents by ourselves, but this year onwards we want to spread it through a crowd sourcing effort. We want to communities to nominate. We want the communities to identify the talents and we would become the facilitator for that celebration and acknowledge them. Indeed it was during the award night that many people started coming out to us telling: “I know this person”, where we realised it’s time to take it public and not only use our own small network.
Do you think this is replicable elsewhere in the world?
Gopi: Yes, it’s very much replicable anywhere. Peter Richards and his community team in Thailand are trying to replicate this. We have told them, if they have issues raising funds, The Blue Yonder is happy to sponsor an award.
So we contacted Peter Richards, and asked him what inspired him about these awards.
Peter: The awards celebrate and support living culture, and link cultural preservation to tourism and new economic opportunities in very concrete ways. Elders are rewarded and respected for their contributions to keeping culture alive. Youth are encouraged and supported to learn traditional crafts. And The Blue Yonder provides high value markets to create employment for the artisans. It’s great model.
However, what I particularly appreciate is that culture is not framed purely for its value to create jobs and income. The respect of The Blue Yonder team for the value of these artisans and their crafts is tangible.