What’s the best way to get to know a city? Staying at its best hotels and sampling the local food don’t cut it. If you really want to get to know the pulse of a city, explore its bustling gullies on foot and meet the people who make it what it really is. At Reality Tours and Travel, founders Chris Way and Krishna Pujari help you do just that.
They organise highly localised tours in Mumbai and more recently, in Delhi’s Sanjay Colony too, with responsible tourism as their core philosophy. Their sister NGO Reality Gives works towards empowering the locals, by educating and training them in fundamental English, practical computing and life skills.
In an interview with IndiBeat, Krishna talks about their inspiring venture.
IB: What was the purpose behind starting Reality Tours and Travel?
Krishna: Reality Tours and Travel was founded in 2005 by Chris Way (UK) and myself. After Chris came back from a trip to Brazil, where he experienced a slum tour in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, he convinced me to start a similar project in Dharavi. But there was an important difference: he wanted to conduct these tours with a community benefit, by giving back to the slum community and change the perceptions people harboured about slums and/or underprivileged communities.
IB: Responsible tourism was unheard of a decade ago in India. How do you ensure that each of your projects lives up to it?
Krishna: Reality Tours and Travel is a social business and 80% of all the tour profits (our slum tours, as well as our city tours and multi-day tours) fund our sister NGO, Reality Gives. Reality Gives helps underprivileged communities in Dharavi and beyond by running and supporting local education projects. Our tours help break down harmful stereotypes of slum areas as well as increase the pride and confidence of local residents. Reality Group also trains and employs about 40 local staff.
The tours introduce more than 15,000 people per year to Dharavi and the projects and partners of Reality Gives. This brings extra resources to Dharavi and Dharavi-based NGOs through donations, partnerships, supplies, programs and volunteers.
IB: Your tours are majorly dependent on the support of slum dwellers; was it difficult to get them on board?
Krishna: After Chris and I decided to start Dharavi tours, we spent an extensive amount of time in the community learning about it and seeing how they felt about the idea. We had discussions with community members about why they wanted to bring people to see Dharavi. These discussions continue to this day. I have also given a TEDx talk about the challenges surrounding starting the tour.
Residents were initially hesitant because they thought people wanted to come to take pictures of “poor India.” But when it was explained that the intent of the tour was to show the industriousness of Dharavi, that photography was prohibited, and that the money was for local education projects, they became enthusiastic about the idea and some even wanted their home or business featured on the tour.
In 2007, even though Reality Tours was not yet profitable, we decided to begin community work. After discussing with various community members what they most needed, we founded a community centre that provided English classes. Before long we began offering computer classes as well. In 2009 we decided to expand on our social work by establishing our own non-profit organisation that would focus on providing quality education to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
IB: What are your expectations from people who sign up for these tours?
Krishna: We’ve been operating for 10 years and are really not a niche experience anymore. All types of people come on our tours— independent backpackers, tour groups, school groups, luxury travellers, volunteers, Indian locals. Between 50% and 60% of the people in Mumbai live in slums, so I think tourists are naturally curious as to what this means.
Also, there’s a big trend in responsible tourism where visitors are looking for authentic experiences and ways to educate themselves while traveling responsibly— precisely what we help them to do.
IB: You also organise festival special tours throughout the year. Tell us more.
Krishna: We offer some special tours during festivals to get our clients to experience Indian festivities and also to celebrate with the community. During Holi, we conducted an Educational Dharavi Tour in Mumbai as well as an Educational Sanjay Colony Tour in Delhi. We gather together our friends and partners from the community, children in our various programs as well as the staff from Reality Tours and Travel and Reality Gives for a massive community Holi Party after the tour.
In Mumbai we also run a monthly Midnight Bicycle Tour on the first Sunday of every month and the Ramadan Street Food Tour during Ramadan, where you get a taste of Mumbai’s vibrant Muslim culture. Similarly, we also conduct a Ganesh Chaturthi Special Tour and a Diwali Dharavi Tour.
Image Credit: Reality Tours and Travel