A remote mountain retreat with a purpose, Nayalap showcases sustainable tourism while throwing a lifeline to a community in need.
After a decade working with India’s leading travel companies, Tanuja Sah returned to her home in the Himalayan mountain state of Uttarakhand to open Nayalap, a remote mountain retreat for discerning tourists, in an attempt to provide local employment and help save villages like hers from rural depopulation.
More than 1,000 villages in the Himalayas have been affected by urbanisation. What effect has this has had on Uttarakhand?
Locally, this migration is called “Palayan”. In a way, it is forced, as people must leave their homes and villages for better opportunities in larger towns or the cities. In these villages, the main source of employment was sustenance agriculture and the ancillary functions that revolved around it. When people leave their land to move to more urban areas, the land turns barren and the heritage slowly erodes.
Tell us about Nayalap.
Nayalap (“Palayan” spelt backwards) is a luxury rural camping retreat in the Himalayas, created to prove that villagers need not migrate to a city, and can work as a viable economic unit in themselves. I wanted to create a homestay for travelers who wanted a rural experience with more than just basic amenities. As we developed, we focused more on food, making the rural Kumaon cuisine more contemporary, and offering all the experiences a village provides, like walks, hikes, and tours of the old towns of the Kumaon region.
How is your retreat unique?
Guests can experience a complete immersion into the local Kumaon culture. Nayalap is open plan; neighbours and local villagers drop by to meet travellers, local school children visit when they want to throw a party for their friends, and guests can choose to interact if they wish. For us, it is as important that the village is satisfied with what we do as the guests are.
What input has the rest of the community had in this project?
The village has been involved from the smallest to the largest of ways. From supplying us with milk and vegetables to helping in the design and construction, Nayalap has been as much my project as the village’s. The staff are all local; our chief mason, who incorporated modern tents with traditional floor-making techniques, is from the village as well. In fact, 50 percent of the fixed costs and 80 percent of the recurring expenses have gone to stakeholders and suppliers in the village.
What’s next for Nayalap?
We will soon be working with local homeowners to lease the properties that they have left unattended. These beautifully-painted homes would then be set up as exclusive stays for guests. Our belief is that the income generated from these homes would inspire other homeowners to start maintaining and rebuilding their spare homes, bringing life back to these villages. We also want to increase the number of experiences. Currently, I lead all the walks on offer to guests. I’m working on training young people in the village to lead experiences like these and to come up with excursions of their own.
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