The one constant during this COVID pandemic, apart from the virus evolving into a new variant every few days, is the urge of urban folk in escaping to the mountains and rural hinterlands- or rejuvenation and recuperation from the confines of four walls.
Owing to this trend of ‘staycations in villages and mountains’, rural tourism in India has slowly but steadily evolved, amid the on and off lockdowns.
At the helm of this welcome change across the rural landscape of Uttarakhand, is a lady hailing from Chennai, Vasudha Sondhi, who runs a tranquil private boutique resort named 'Parvada Bungalows' at village Parvada- a picturesque hamlet snuggled deep in the state's Kumaon region- not far from the famous temple town of Mukteshwar, and a few hours journey from Delhi.
And, this gritty woman is no newbie to hospitality and tourism.
Vasudha Sondhi, Managing Director of Outbound Marketing Connect Worldwide India and Joint MD OM Tourism, is one of the most distinguished faces of the Indian travel and hospitality sector. She is also an active member of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce Ladies Organization (FICCI- FLO)- the largest body of Women Entrepreneurs in Asia.
Over the weekends Vasudha is usually found at her village hideouts, including Parvada- where she mentors artists and villagers. Although based out of Delhi, she is involved in girl-child education as the Chairperson of Annapurna Charitable Foundation. More recently, she also worked on self-employment and sustainable tourism projects in Peora, Uttarakhand.
Apart from being an entrepreneur who’s always ahead of the curve, Vasudha is a fiercely independent woman with steely grit and resolve, and has over 35 years of experience with international hotel companies and travel trade.
Drawing on this experience of hers, Parvada Bungalows opened its doors for travellers in the year 2018. Since then, Vasudha has worked with the villagers of Parvada- teaching them knitting, and trade dynamics behind selling home-made products like pickles.
Even during the pandemic and the long lockdown that followed, Vasudha plonked herself at Parvada, and helped the villagers to start their own home-stays under the flagship brand of Parvada Rural Stays.
“The heart of India lies in her villages, and Parvada Rural Stays provides this authentic experience”, she says. “ If you’re concerned about sacrificing your comforts, don’t be. The homestay owners are all trained and without compromising on the authentic experience, they will surprise and delight”.
Since its inception, Parvada Rural Stays has paved the way for the development of interesting rustic local experiences, and homestays in and around the hamlet: Facilitating livelihood to the mountain folk. This has in turn strengthened the rural economy of Parvada by creating employment opportunities and producing revenue through tourism.
But it wasn’t always like this.
A few years back, when Vasudha Sondhi and her beau Sanjay Sondhi, first bought a 3-acre piece of land in Parvada, resident villagers were apprehensive and welcomed them with displeasure.
They treated them as yet another lot of urban folks bound to the mountains with an eye on their lands. However, since 2018, Parvada Bungalows [part of The OMPL Group] has been deeply involved with the Parvada community. They manage their waste responsibly, protecting their surroundings and environment, as part of the sustainable development goals.
“Our destination is not just a place, but a new way of doing things”, she emphasizes.
Cautious optimism has kept her ahead of the curve in various roles, and her ability to “unlearn to learn” has made Vasudha a professional face of the industry. This very outlook also helped her immensely in nurturing a bond with villagers over the years. So much so, that they look up to her for guidance now.
Today, under the aegis of her, Parvada has positioned itself as an off-beat rural stay experience, with currently one homestay in each of the four categories- Luxury, Gold, Silver and Bronze.
While, Parvada Bungalows (luxury) boutique cottages built in traditional-style to weather the different seasons are flanked by verdant fields and orchards, the Kaaphal Homestay (Gold) located on the edge of a forest is home to the local village head.
On the other end is Chandra’s Homestay (Silver), which is a short but exhilarating walk uphill, as the owner is a fabulous cook, says Vasudha. While, Lucky Homestay (Bronze) is hosted by the very charming lady of the house, Deepu.
“If you are excited about a homestay experience, don’t limit yourselves to one homestay”, she says, “ … take in 500 plus acres of the village and 700 plus acres of forest as your experience”.
True to her words, Parvada offers riveting activities beyond farming, and milking of cows: Plucking fresh fruits from orchards, cycling, trekking, listening to folk songs over a bonfire, serene walks around the village, meeting villagers, enthralling water cascades and springs, or simply relaxing and enjoying the serenity- the options are innumerable.
“We encourage our guests to not drive around, but to traverse on foot”, adds Vasudha. “... this is to reduce their carbon footprint to a bare minimum”.
She also makes it a point to emphasize [to her guests] that the village and its activities are the mainstay of their holiday. And, recommends them to pick a new homestay each day of their stay- so as to experience finger-licking local delicacies.
When she finds time from her busy routine, she tends to the VS Fruit Tree Estate- a budding orchard of the family- laden with apple, plum, peach, apricot, pear and walnut trees.
Ask her how she finds time to handle so many things, pat comes Vasudha’s reply that every day is a new day and every challenge is new. “ So, rejuvenate, recharge and reset”, she quips.” And, you can never have a boring day syndrome!”