These are difficult times for the tourism industry and we have much to learn from sustainable tourism in Kerala.Cover photo: Ponraj Krishna Pandi (CC)
These days, lying under the warm sun, soaking up spring in my hometown Dehradun (luckily I’m in lockdown here!), I’ve been thinking a lot about Kerala. Just a few weeks ago, I was lost in the bountiful south’s magical beauty. Cycling along bright yellow marigold fields. Hiking amid the mist-engulfed Western Ghats. Devouring organic, sumptuous, vegan Kerala meals off banana leaves. And devouring stories of kindness, humility, entrepreneurship and humanity from the many souls I met along the way.
Being in an unprecedented lockdown has led to many of us discussing the future of travel. We have no idea when the on-going crisis will be behind us. Or what the world – and travelling in it – will look like thereafter.
But one thing is for sure.
Responsible travel will become more important than ever. After all, nature might have wrecked havoc on us to remind us of the havoc we’ve been wrecking on her.
When Kerala Tourism reached out to me with their latest campaign on the ‘humanscape’ of Kerala, it immediately reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write. Responsible tourism lessons for India and other developing countries, from my travels across ‘god’s own country’:
Create linkages between vocational skills training and responsible tourism
It’s no surprise that Kerala was India’s first state to launch a “Responsible Tourism Mission” in pursuit of a single-minded goal: “Making better places for people to visit and better places for people (locals) to live in.”
Tourism projects often tend to focus only on the former. To create more infrastructure for tourists, for instance. This mindless focus has led to roads being built through pristine forests and hill stations being overwhelmed with ugly, concrete construction. Officials often feel obliged to pander to tourist demands, no matter how they destroy the local ecology or culture. In the dry mountain desert of Ladakh for instance, that has led to the phasing out of centuries-old dry composting toilets in favor of flush toilets. Across India, that means tourism often hampers local life instead of enhancing it.
This winter, while travelling across Kerala, I understood what the latter part of that statement meant. I ended up meeting several micro entrepreneurs and women’s self-help groups who were trained by Kerala’s RT Mission to develop their vocational skills (one of the mission’s many initiatives). These range from making poppadums and crafting recycled candles to sewing cloth bags to replace plastic bags. Vocational training is offered by many Indian states, but often fails due to the lack of job opportunities. Kerala’s success came from integrating these skills with tourism. By connecting entrepreneurs with hotels, resorts and homestays, market linkages were created to sustain livelihoods.
Many entrepreneurs I met have managed to grow their business and improve their standard of living. Responsible tourism accommodations now have a steady supply of locally sourced, environmentally conscious products. Together creating a better place to visit and a better place to live!
Support dying art forms by creating value for the time and knowledge of local artisans
Many of us would love to support traditional arts, music, dance, crafts, storytelling rituals and other creative expressions that date back several centuries. But for a long time, I struggled with the how. As much as I value the effort and intricacy behind many dying crafts across the country, I simply don’t have the space in my bags (and the money in my wallet) to invest in them. And even if I did, the minimalist in me would probably cringe. Besides, many ornamental crafts are only relevant to a specific lifestyle – performing artists, ritualistic storytellers and the like.
And yet, I still want to experience and value their efforts. I want to fill myself with awe as I watch a bell jar artist at work or comprehend why a jaali artist continues to use rudimentary tools instead of giving in to modern temptations.
While travelling along the River Nila with the Kerala-based travel organisation, The Blue Yonder, I had a moment of clarity. We spent time with several artisans who are single-handedly keeping their craft alive. We learnt about their lives, asked them burning questions and documented some of their work. It was unlikely that we’d buy Kathakali ornaments or metal (bell jar) mirrors though!
But unlike most responsible travel companies I’ve travelled with, The Blue Yonder compensates artisans for the time and knowledge they share with travellers. A novel concept for artisans who rely on the sale of tangible creations, but perhaps the only way to leverage tourism to save many of India’s dying arts!
Leverage environmentally-conscious luxury travel for employment opportunities
Environmentalists and conscious travellers often argue that high-end, large-scale tourism is detrimental to the environment and the local way of life. I used to feel the same way. But I’ve come around to the fact that hotels and lodges create significantly more job opportunities than homestays or guesthouses, with the potential to impact many – for better or for worse.
This winter in Kerala, one family-run business settled my internal conflicts. CGH Earth currently operates several accommodations across Kerala (and Tamil Nadu), employing 1500 people directly and many more indirectly. Their signature property – Spice Village in Thekkady – is a single-use plastic free zone, runs 70% on solar energy, has kept the tribal art of elephant grass thatching alive (so no air conditioning is offered / needed, even on hot days), has its own water bottling plant to collect rainwater and recycles paper waste for registration sheets at its own handmade paper making unit, among many other environmental initiatives.
To me, Spice Village is setting the benchmark for luxury travel. One that offers unique experiences, creates large-scale employment, preserves the indigenous culture and is largely positive for the environment.
Tap indigenous wisdom for wildlife conservation
Travelling through the tribal belts of Odisha and Chhattisgarh left me quite disenchanted with the concept of development. In our “modern” scheme of things, the indigenous people of India are considered “backward”. Despite their connection with the earth, their invaluable knowledge of nature and their largely sustainable way of life. Instead of tapping upon their vast reserves of wisdom, they’ve been sidelined into the fringes of society. Relocated from their forest homes, and encouraged to change their diet, clothing, traditions, customs and rituals to fit in with the rest of the country.
In Central Kerala, in Thekkady’s Periyar Tiger Reserve though, I was inspired to learn about a visionary forest department initiative. The Mannan tribe lived in this forest for centuries, sharing their space with tigers, leopards and other wild creatures. They cultivated small patches of remote forest land, fished occasionally and largely lived off forest produce. When relocated to the buffer zone, with little to no livelihoods, many resorted to poaching. A community tourism initiative set out to create alternate sources of income. They were born in these forests, so basic tourism training readied them to be guides, bamboo rafting crew and anti-poaching squad.
Leveraging indigenous knowledge has aided wildlife protection, created sustainable livelihoods and offered travellers an opportunity to deepen their understanding of the forest through guided walks and treks. An idea that can and should be replicated in the rest of India’s tribal areas.
Encourage tourism as a means to support sustainable development in rural villages, not an end in itself
The current pandemic has put a lot in perspective. In the responsible travel space, one important learning is that tourism – with all its ups and downs – can no longer be relied upon as a rural community’s only source of income.
This made me reminisce about my first trip to North Kerala and the conversations I had with the founders of Kabani and URAVU, Kerala-based social enterprise and NGO respectively. In the picturesque village of Thrikkaipetta aka Bamboo Village (named after its bamboo artisans), they’ve developed a community tourism program with a difference.
The goal is first, to supplement farming and craft incomes, through minimal investment in tourism development. That means the experience is raw and genuine – living with local families in their homes, sharing meals and conversations, hiking, getting involved in farming if you’re so inclined.
The second goal is to ensure that the entire community, even those not directly involved in tourism, reaps the benefits. While 25% of the tourism revenue is used for administrative costs, the remaining 75% is channeled in two ways. Towards direct tourism providers – homestays, guides etc, and towards a sustainable development fund for the entire village.
The assessment of what rural dwellers need is often done in air-conditioned offices with gross misassumptions. So the third goal is then, to let the community decide how to use the village development fund. This could include vocational skills development, waste management, renewable energy initiatives and organic farming – and ultimately contributes to the empowerment and sustainable development of the entire village.
Lower carbon emissions through local plant-based cuisine
I guess I can wax lyrical about inspiring initiatives that promote sustainable tourism in Kerala. But like the rest of India and the world, much of Kerala too can learn from Kerala itself.
A conversation still jarringly missing in the sustainable tourism space is the conversation about food. Tourism currently accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions. I haven’t yet come across a study that estimates the carbon footprint of food in tourism. But this is what we know: Animal agriculture – raising livestock for meat and dairy – accounts for 14.5% of global emissions, a whopping 7 times more than flying! This doesn’t include emissions from fisheries, which is now estimated to be higher than previously believed. So my guess is that animal-based food contributes significantly to the carbon emissions of the tourism industry.
Besides, to travel responsibly means factoring in the ethical aspect of using animals for food, clothes, zoos, riding and in the case of Kerala, elephants used for temple festivals. Perhaps their responsible tourism mission needs to have a third goal: to create better places for all living beings that share this planet with us.
Which brings me to a small ray of hope in Kerala – a vegan homestay in the hills of Thekkady! Indhrivanam (a combination of two Malayalam words to imply “a feeling of forest”) is the home of Sarah and Morten. Built painstakingly with local materials, featuring dry composting toilets and rainwater harvesting. But what really sets it apart from other sustainable tourism projects in Kerala is the focus on locally-sourced plant-based cuisine. The food offered here – curries, millets, cashew cheese, lemon cake, kombucha and other mouth-watering delights – is entirely plant-based with substantially lower carbon emissions. And no animals are harmed in the process.
Have you experienced sustainable tourism in Kerala or elsewhere? What are your takeaways?
*Note: I wrote this post as part of Kerala Tourism’s new campaign ‘Human by nature’. Opinions on this blog, as you know, are always mine.
The post What India (and the World) Can Learn from Sustainable Tourism in Kerala. appeared first on The Shooting Star.
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Back in 2011, when I quit my full-time job as a social media strategist in Singapore, I had no idea how to work from home. I struggled with my newfound freedom and lack of accountability. It was a challenge to be disciplined, meet deadlines and maintain a work-life balance in the face of myriad distractions.
And yet, as a newbie freelancer with little to fall back on, I knew I had to make it work. Iâve worn many hats since â travel writer, digital marketer, social entrepreneur, travel blogger, sustainable tourism consultant and author. As a digital nomad, Iâve worked on the go from a wide range of places: Guatemala, Georgia, Germany and Goa, among others.
Ever since the on-going crisis put us in a lockdown, Iâve seen plenty of work from home tips floating around. Get out of your PJs, draw up a regimented schedule, wear shoes (really?!), leave the TV on in the background (REALLY?!) and use fancy workflow tools.
I donât know about you, but for me, the best part about working from home is being able to do it in my PJs No shoes, no bra, no complicated apps, no regimented schedules. Some discipline certainly helps. But so does the flexibility, and the creativity that stems from it.
You could be looking for working from home advice to continue your full-time job, or simply to make this lockdown period more productive. A bit different from the work from home tips out there, here are mine to boost your productivity during these difficult times:
Tackle the biggest work from home challenge â social media
I guess itâs pretty obvious that in order to work from home (or anywhere else), you need to get your scrolling butt off Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Youtube, Whatsapp, Quora and whatever else youâre addicted to.
As someone who relies on social media for work, I could fool myself in my early work from home days that I was being productive. But over the years, Iâve mastered several tricks to ensure I donât squander away all my time on social media:
Also read: Life Lessons From 2 Years of Travelling
Keep old-fashioned notes, a long list of tasks and a short list of priorities
Iâve tried a whole bunch of note-keeping, productivity-boosting and to-do list keeping apps often found among work from home tips. But I always revert back to good old-fashioned notes (on my phone or in a physical notebook). Constantly distracted by technology, I always feel like I can do with one less app. Plus the joy of physically crossing something off your to-do list never diminishes!
Whatever your preference, itâs easy to feel overwhelmed by everything you need / want to accomplish in a day or week. Some working from home advice that works for me is constantly jotting down all my pending tasks â even the ones that pop into my head just before sleeping. Every day or two, I realistically pick a few that are priority and dedicate my time to them.
Figure out a couple of music playlists that help you focus â and stick to them
You could be sharing your work from home space with a family thatâs constantly buzzing around you. Or roommates with high decibel levels. Or with yourself, trying to keep the loneliness at bay. In every case, music helps.
Iâve found a fair few instrumental music playlists over the years that help me focus. Every time I listen to them, my mind automatically goes into work mode. Take some time to figure out what kind of music inspires you and lets you concentrate â and use it over and over again.
Some of my favorite âwork from homeâ playlists:
Work out little rewards for yourself
When you work for yourself, or when your boss isnât breathing down your neck, it can be hard to stay disciplined. I learnt early on in my work from home life that if I wanted to get some instant gratification for any work I managed to accomplish, Iâd have to give it to myself. So I started setting little incentives for myself. I swear among all work from home tips, this one really works!
If I work without distractions for half an hour, or finish writing part of a story, or manage to cross off a time-consuming task on my to-do list, I reward myself. My rewards range from a snack, a quick call with a friend, a quick video on youtube or a few minutes of social media. Iâve even watched entire movies with 15 minute bites as rewards!
Flexibility, exercise and recreation time helps
Iâm not a big fan of having a fixed routine. I find that it stifles creativity. Instead of a fixed work schedule, I find short bursts of high productivity far more effective than dragging work all day. Depending on the kind of work you do, maybe you feel differently. But atleast itâs worth experimenting with the flexibility that working from home affords.
I must confess that in my early work from home years, I let this flexibility consume me. Being self-employed, I felt there was always more I could squeeze into my time. But sacrificing that work-life balance can only burn us out.
These days, I try to workout in the morning (usually functional training or yoga), take out time to read and spend atleast an hour on something recreational. During the lockdown, that could mean practicing a language, watching a movie or bird watching. On days when I get lazy and donât exercise physically or mentally, I can see a huge drop in my productivity.
If you live with someone, figure out your âcornerâ or clarify youâre working
Yes, Iâm totally thinking of the Michael Scott Paper Company from The Office (if you havenât seen the show, go binge watch!). Anyway, the best working from home advice while youâre living with someone is to create some space where people know not to disturb you. Ideally, this would be somewhere no one can even find you.
But failing that, it could be as simple as letting your partner, family or roommates know that youâre going into that mental space where youâd rather not be disturbed. Cutting out even 50% of the distraction can do wonders for our productivity.
Practice ânews distancingâ (essential addition to work from home tips in 2020)
Weâre already practicing social distancing. But Iâm finding that for my own sanity, some amount of news distancing is important too! In the past few days, Iâve ignored my own work from home tips and found myself scrolling endlessly on news websites, while also consuming news from social media, whatsapp and offline conversations. Itâs been mentally overwhelming, and terrible for my productivity.
Iâm now determined to catch up on the news only once a day, and focus the rest of my time on staying productive and positive. I recommend you do the same.
Donât be hard on yourself
This global travel lockdown is unprecedented. No one in our generation, or the one before us, has seen anything like it. Weâre all dealing with the information overload, panic and social isolation in our own ways. So when it comes to implementing working from home advice, donât be hard on yourself.
Even when I chose this life all those years ago and felt determined to make it work, it took me a long time to figure out how to stay disciplined and create a work-life balance. Whether youâre choosing it or have no choice, take a step back and think of all the things we take for granted. An income, access to technology, health. Go with the flow and stay positive. Youâve got this.
Are you working from home these days? What are some work from home tips youâve found helpful?
The post Work From Home Tips From Someone Whoâs Been Doing it for Nearly a Decade! appeared first on The Shooting Star.
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Curious how to meet locals while traveling? Some introvert travel advice from a fellow introvert.
Iâve been quite torn about talking about travel (with snippets of sustainability, veganism and personal battles of course) while weâre in a global crisis. But this week, 84% of you voted in my Instagram Stories that I should, atleast occasionally.â£ Iâm a bit relieved, because dreaming of travel allows me to momentarily escape these bizarre times too.
âSocial distancingâ is the need of the hour. We must keep our distance from people and stay away from social gatherings to (hopefully) contain the on-going crisis. For social butterflies, this is a trying exercise. But for introverts like me, itâs no big deal.
Over the past few days, Iâve hardly stepped out of my gate except for the occasional grocery run. Iâve been writing, catching up with my folks, watching pointless movies and reminiscing about my travels over the years. And that got me thinking.
As an introvert, I donât enjoy hostels, seldom go partying, avoid social gatherings and can rarely strike up a conversation in a group. Yet Iâve built beautiful friendships in several corners of the world based on shared interests and meaningful interactions. Iâm constantly asked how. How to meet locals while traveling? Whatâs some practical introvert travel advice for meaningful encounters on the road?
Here are some tools that have enabled me to connect with people while I travel:
How to meet locals while traveling based on your interests: Airbnb Experiences
Youâve probably used or heard of Airbnb as a platform where people around the world can host travellers in their homes. Iâve been using it for years, staying at experiential accommodations like remote fincas in Central America, hip hideouts in Europe and even an off-the-grid treehouse in Sri Lanka.
But a while ago, Airbnb launched something even more epic â âAirbnb Experiencesâ. A collection of unique, curated travel experiences (hikes, day trips, classes, workshops etc) offered by locals in their town or city. Itâs the perfect answer to how to meet locals while traveling. A game-changer for introvert travel. A chance to experience places from a localâs lens. It democratizes livelihood opportunities through tourism. But most of all, itâs a rare opportunity to meet locals who share similar interests.
Over three months in Cape Town in 2019, we connected with some beautiful souls through Airbnb Experiences. Hikers, social workers, vegan chefs and marine biologists. Some went on to become good friends, some hiking buddies. And some definitely moulded our perception of life in South Africa.
Not on Airbnb yet? Sign up with my referral link to get upto 40$ off Airbnb Stays / Airbnb Experiences.
How to meet vegans on the road: HappyCow
I remember my first evening in Matsumoto (Japan) quite vividly. I was on assignment with a group of fellow writers / photographers, and had a long day out. By early evening, I was famished, ready to have an enormous meal, but devastated to discover that on offer was a meat-laden buffet with only slim salad pickings for my vegan self. I decided I needed to eat better, and walked away.
Outside, the weather was cold and rainy. I walked on the deserted, dark street, with no shops or restaurants in sight. I had no local SIM card and no idea where to look for food. Luckily, I had turned on international roaming on my Airtel SIM and cellular data worked fast. I quickly opened the HappyCow app and was delighted to see a vegan-friendly izakaya listed a kilometer away. I had no idea it was going to change my entire experience of being vegan in Japan!
Through the noren (a traditional Japanese fabric used as a door), I walked into a charming old wooden tavern, to be greeted by a sweet elderly woman. In basic Japanese Iâd been practicing, I tried to ask for vegan food. She pulled out a stack of handwritten cards, each explaining traditional dishes that could be made vegan! In broken Japanese and English, she went on to explain how traditional Japanese food was essentially plant-based until the Meiji era. Over warm sake, we talked about food and life in Japan, her beloved city of Matsumoto and my excitement to explore more of Japan. While parting, she gave me a hug and a gorgeous collection of her origami!
Since I turned vegan in 2015, I owe it to HappyCow â an app which maps vegan / vegetarian food wherever you are â for leading me to incredible vegan food and soulful encounters around the world <3
Introvert travel on a budget: Meetup.com
Iâm hardly one to sign up for social meetups. Iâd probably be found in a corner, unwilling to make small talk, cursing myself for showing up! But interest-based meetups are different. You meet a bunch of strangers yes, but thereâs already a common thread to skip most of that dreaded small talk.
Meetup.com has been around forever, but Iâve started using it only recently. In South Africa, I joined a meetup group of female writers â right up my alley. The platform also led us to local hiking groups, especially for trails rarely traversed or incredibly expensive to do independently.
Especially as a digital nomad, spending a month or two in a spot, interest-based meetups are a great way to connect with like-minded people. And thereâs nothing quite as beautiful as a friendship formed halfway across the world, especially one that lets an introvert come out of her shell.
Also read: Four Years of Travelling Without a Home
How to meet locals while traveling to bond over food: EatWith
As much as itâs fun to explore new restaurants and cafes in a new place, I love the idea of a homemade meal in a local home â and thatâs exactly what EatWith is about. A platforms where chefs open their dining rooms to travellers.
My first brush with EatWith happened years ago in New York City. Together with a friend, I landed up in the home of a Jewish family for a traditional Sabbath dinner. As much a cultural experience â complete with Hebrew prayers to bless the wine and challah (braided Jewish bread) â as a culinary one.
Virtual connections before real ones for introvert travel: Instagram
Instagram has changed travel in many ways. Personally, itâs become a channel to connect with like-minded locals and discover responsible travel experiences around the world.
In Bhutan, Instagram enabled me to connect with amazing women in the country. Some working tirelessly to promote compassion towards animals, one revolutionizing the digital space in Bhutan and even the countryâs first solo female traveller!
In Iran, an Instagram hashtag led me to an underground vegan movement! One that spans food, travel, music and spirituality. Iâm constantly in touch with the friends I made, often exchanging poetry, articles worth reading and life updates.
In Myanmar, Instagram led me to someone who has been exploring unmapped villages in the countryâs tribal belts. And my own motorbike adventure, of which I must write about soon.
As I often write, like all social media, Instagram is merely a tool. Itâs totally up to us how we use it.
How to meet locals while traveling as a digital nomad: Facebook groups
While writing this post, I began thinking of my most memorable (planned) encounters around the world, and traced so many of them back to Facebook.
Location and interest based Facebook groups have led me to a Mayan Spanish teacher-turned-friend in Guatemala. To a bunch of committed animal rights activists in Thailand. To a tribe of inspiring zero waste practitioners in South Africa. To a Syrian refugee and his awe-inspiring life story in the Netherlands. And to many local events, talks and spots that have helped me immerse myself in a place beyond typical tourism.
Also read: How to Earn Money While Travelling
On my wishlist
In remote, offbeat places, I love to leave my encounters up to chance. But in cities and tourism-oriented spots, Iâve started relying more on technology to lead me to meaningful experiences. Iâm currently eyeing the following platforms:
Veganary Mini-Tours: As a passionate vegan, Iâm always looking to connect with local vegans wherever I go, learn about the evolution of cuisines and of course, try local vegan food. I think Veganary Mini-Tours is going to add more magic to my vegan travel life â with short meetups with local vegans around the world! Theyâve launched in 20 destinations so far, and as more people support their crowdfunding campaign, I hope theyâll be everywhere soon.
WithLocals: A platform that connects travellers with local hosts to explore a city from a local lens, spanning hiking, cooking, music and other experiences. WithLocals sounds like an easy way to beat the introvert travel blues, while building meaningful connections.
How do you meet locals while traveling? Have you tried any of the above platforms?
*Note: I wrote this post in collaboration with Airtel. Opinions on this blog, as you know, are always mine.
The post How I Connect Meaningfully with Locals as I Travel the World. appeared first on The Shooting Star.
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It’s clear that these are unprecedented times. With the current situation changing day by day, it’s hard to predict what will happen in the coming weeks. However, we are doing all we can to stay one step ahead of the situation and keep our policyholders updated.
We are taking steps so that our Customer Service team will be as unaffected as possible. All of our staff can work from home to continue to provide the best possible service to our policyholders.
However, given the nature of this situation, we are experiencing higher call volumes and may take a little longer to respond to your query.
Your policy documents
If you have any questions regarding your insurance and what you’re covered for, please log in to your online account, from here you’ll be able to access all your insurance documentation and this will explain the conditions of your policy in more detail.
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(photo by Sean McNamara) The final Associated Press Top 25 poll is out, and West Virginia came in at No. 24 to close the college basketball season. Due to the global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, all postseason tournaments — including the NCAA tournament — were canceled last week. The Mountaineers finished the season with a […]
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The past few days have been rather scary. Mask-covered faces. Queues to wash hands in public toilets. Sanitizers constantly out of stock. Accusatory looks towards anyone coughing or sneezing. Eerily empty hotels, flights and streets following the lockdown travel advice for Coronavirus. Places that were once plagued by overtourism are now deserted. The spread of the COVID-19 Coronavirus has suddenly brought all usual life – and travel – to a halt.
Until a week or two ago, the panic felt rooted in social media, whatsapp forwards and even racial profiling. At that time, I posted on Instagram that I would continue my travels. But in light of recent developments, I’ve archived that post, cancelled some rather exciting travel plans until April and urged everyone to do the same.
I was scheduled to conduct a workshop on responsible tourism marketing in Madhya Pradesh and speak at the prestigious Economic Times Women’s Forum this month – but both events have been cancelled.
In fact, India has cancelled all visas for foreigners till mid April. Sri Lanka has suspended its e-visa facility. Italy is under lock down. Public events have been cancelled in most parts of the world. Schools and colleges have been shut in most Indian states. India’s travel advice for coronavirus is to cancel all non-essential travel abroad. Indians returning from China, Italy, Iran, Korea, France, Spain, Germany, Malaysia, Nepal and even the US can potentially be sent to 14 days of quarantine!
Chances are, you already know that. You, like me, have cancelled your immediate travel plans. And probably you, like me, are wondering what you can do now to indulge your wander-lusting soul!
Here are some creative ideas to satiate your travel cravings – safely and responsibly – during this uncertain coronavirus period:
Read non-fiction books by local authors to virtually explore a new region or country
I’ve dreamt of setting foot in Tibet for a long time, knowing fully well that the Tibet of my dreams is off limits (or no longer exists). So a while ago, I did the next best thing to travelling in Tibet – reading a book that movingly explores its lost beauty, culture and way of life. Tibet With My Eyes Closed is a collection of short stories by Madhu Gurung, based on the lives of Tibetan refugees in India. Some stories moved me to tears, while others left me with an insatiable longing. I can’t recommend it enough!
My point is, as per official travel advice for coronavirus, the entire world is off limits right now. But we can do the next best thing – travel to our dream places through the words and insights of people who know them deeply.
For more book recommendations, see my favorite (unusual) travel books by local authors around the world. If you’re keen to explore the world from my lens, you can also get a copy of my travel memoir, The Shooting Star
Learn a new language that will make a future trip more meaningful
Everywhere I travel, I try to pick up a few words in the local language. But in the weeks before I travelled to Japan, I tried to listen to one episode of a Japanese language podcast every day. By the time I landed in Tokyo, I was able to say many basic phrases in Japanese – which sure made it easier to make friends, find local vegan food and even get some unusual recommendations.
The process of learning a language can certainly make us feel like we’re almost on our way somewhere. The Survival Phrases podcast is good for conversational skills and the Babbel / Duolingo apps can help with basics. But if you really want to commit, consider signing up with an online teacher for one-to-one Skype lessons on a site like italki (I haven’t used it yet but heard good things).
I took Urdu writing lessons last year, but have been terrible at keeping up with what I learnt. I’ve pledged to practice a bit everyday now!
Document your past adventures
I still have tons of untold stories from my travels over the years. If you’re a travel writer, blogger, photographer, Instagrammer or any kind of storyteller, you’re probably full of stories too – and always wishing for more time to be able to tell them. Or perhaps you have a special interest in architecture, vegan food, wildlife, languages or something else – and you could combine that with your past travels to create unique stories.
All travel advice for Coronovirus suggests not going on a physical journey. But we can still journey into the recesses of our minds, relive some of our adventures and share them with the world. After all, we could all use a little break from the negative news out there!
Binge watch the wonders of our planet
Many of us travel to witness the breathtaking beauty of nature and the cultural wonders of the world. Unfortunately both are fast disappearing.
Video streaming sites online are full of films and documentaries about our incredible planet, wildlife, remote cultures and more. Now is a good time to plug into them, both to feed our wanderlust and to remind ourselves what we stand to lose. Maybe the travel advice for coronavirus and this time away from the road, work, school, college and social gatherings can be a time to reflect on how we need to make better life and travel choices to collectively help the planet.
I’ve been meaning to finish watching One Strange Rock on Netflix, which explains the wonders of earth from the fascinating perspectives of astronauts. And start Our Planet, which documents the impact of climate change on the world’s most remote and vulnerable regions.
Support small responsible travel businesses virtually
As you can probably imagine, this is one of the worst times for the travel industry. March, otherwise peak travel season for many places around the world, has been a month of cancellations. April might go the same way, though I really hope not. Small business owners, family-run homestays, social enterprises and responsible tourism businesses will be some of the worst hit this year.
All travel advice for coronavirus suggests we can’t physically travel this month to support them or the work they do for local communities and environment conservation. But small gestures can go a long way. Leave them a heartfelt review on Google Reviews / TripAdvisor. Mention them on Instagram / Twitter. Recommend them to family and friends for future trips. When the coronavirus pandemic is behind us, they’ll need our tourism money the most. Let’s make sure they’re found, remembered and supported then!
Work on your storytelling
Perhaps experimenting with writing, blogging, photography or videos has been on your mind for a long time. Or you still need to perfect some skills. I know I need to get better at editing videos. I could use some professional photography help, but my heart is only half in it. I still have a ton of SEO work to do on this blog. And there’s no end to becoming a better writer.
Here’s a silver lining for the travel advice for coronavirus: Use the time you would’ve spent travelling or socializing, to work on something that might enable you to travel or work on the go in the future!
International travel is out. But should you travel domestically now?
Many of you have reached out to ask for my travel advice for coronavirus with respect to domestic travel in India (and elsewhere). I think it’s a bad idea. For several reasons:
It’s best to postpone all international and domestic travel atleast until April (maybe longer, depending on how things turn out). We need to avoid busy places, public transport and any physical contact. We must constantly wash and sanitise our hands. And if we have even the mildest symptoms of fever, cough, cold or flu, we absolutely must stay at home and follow official protocols!
How has coronavirus affected your travel plans? If you run a travel business, what’s it been like for you?
The post How to Indulge Your Wanderlust During the Coronavirus Pandemic. appeared first on The Shooting Star.
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(AP photo) Hey y’all. I’m just arriving at the hotel in Kansas City for this week’s Big 12 men’s basketball tournament, and while I was in the air the conference put out a press release regarding steps the league is taking to help ensure everyone’s safety with all of the panic and concern about the […]
via Tumblr Big 12 addresses Coronavirus concerns ahead of this week’s basketball tournaments in Kansas City
I can close my eyes and picture myself standing awestruck on the fascinatingly busy Shibuya crossing in Tokyo. Gaping at the dazzling lights, fancy skyscrapers and scores of businessmen darting about in dark suits. I was travelling to Japan for the first time, and it was my first day in Tokyo. In equal parts, I felt excited, intrigued and apprehensive, recalling all the Japan travel tips I’d read online. I had dreamt about Japan for so long, but now that I was finally here, I couldn’t help but wonder what spending an entire month exploring the country would be like.
In the months since I left Japan, I faced a strange melancholy… and a barrage of reader questions. Many of you reached out to me to ask, “When is the best time to visit Japan?” “Is the Japan Rail pass worth it?” “Do they speak in English in Japan?” “How to survive as a vegetarian / vegan in Japan?” “Do you have any Japan travel tips?”
I’ve finally put together this post to answer all your questions about travelling to Japan for the first time – including visas, flights, where to go, what to eat and how to stay connected.
In this post:
How to score a Japan tourist visa on an Indian passport?
Until 2016, it was a pain to get a Japan tourist visa for Indians. We had to get an invitation letter from a sponsor in Japan and go through a tedious application process.
Luckily, the Japan visa requirements for Indians have finally been relaxed. Although a Japan visa on arrival for Indian citizens is still a distant dream, the Japan visa application now takes only 4 working days to be processed, without the need for a sponsor. The application must be filed at VFS Japan – the official visa application centre for the Japan Embassy in India. The process is similar to the Schengen visa application, with return flights, accommodation bookings, and bank statements needed to score the visa.
While travelling to Japan for the first time, I received a single-entry Japan visa on my Indian passport. It allowed me to stay in the country for 30 days. I was given 2.5 months from the application date to use it.
Japan Travel Tips: How to apply for a Japan tourist visa on an Indian passport
When is the best time to go to Japan?
Most people tend to plan their trip during the much-anticipated cherry blossom season in Japan. It’s a beautiful time, but it’s also when Japan tends to get the most crowded and expensive.
I landed up in Japan in early March 2018 and stayed exactly a month. Although Honshu, the main island home to Tokyo and Kyoto, was quite chilly, I enjoyed the quiet shoulder season. And I got a chance to catch the Ume – plum blossom – almost as beautiful as the cherry blossom yet somehow more introspective. I then headed south to Kyushu Island, which was warmer, with many offbeat places to explore.
Cherry blossom time in Japan
My plan was to leave just before the cherry blossom began in Japan. But as luck (and climate change) would have it, the cherry trees bloomed early that year!
One of my most important Japan travel tips – even if you’re travelling to Japan for the first time – is don’t be hell bent on seeing the cherry blossom. Nature won’t time itself according to our dates. And Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are seriously crowded during that time. There is so much more to Japan that I highly recommend visiting in late winter, autumn or early summer.
Cheapest time to visit Japan / low season in Japan
I witnessed accommodation prices in Tokyo skyrocketing and availability falling drastically between the beginning (winter) and end (spring) of my trip. It gets exorbitantly expensive in Japan in spring and I was forced to downgrade myself from a charming ryokan (traditional inn) to a pod hostel to financially survive the last few days of my trip. Autumn and summer are fairly popular too. That leaves winter as the low season.
If you enjoy winter, prepare to be spellbound as popular cities turn into winter wonderlands from November to February. With heating indoors, good clothes, few tourists and relatively low prices, it’ll be quite a delight.
Best time to visit japan weather wise
Early spring and late autumn are beautiful and wonderfully warm across the country. They aren’t the busiest, especially away from the main cities.
What to pack for Japan
What you pack for Japan totally depends on when you travel there. And where you plan to go. If you’re travelling to Japan for the first time, chances are, you’ll spend time on Honshu, exploring Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. The island distinctly experiences all four seasons – and can get very hot or very cold, even in spring or autumn.
Among my Japan travel tips, I always say pack in layers. Carry clothes that you can add on or remove. In my bags, I always have warm inner wear, t-shirts / tops, a couple of sweaters, a rain jacket and a light winter jacket. If you’re travelling in winter, definitely carry warm socks, boots and a real winter jacket. As someone who tries to avoid wool and down feathers for ethical reasons, I recommend the synthetic fabric jackets at Decathalon and those made with recycled plastic at Save the Duck.
Essentials to pack for Japan:
How to access the internet in Japan?
Japan is the land of modern technology and high speed internet. But it comes at quite a cost. Outside of the big cities and train stations, Wifi is not as readily available as I’d hoped. And yet I found it important to have internet in Japan to use Google Maps, Google Translate and other apps to make life easier – especially since I was travelling in Japan for the first time.
Airtel international roaming plans for Japan
Before I began collaborating with Airtel last year, I had no idea it was actually possible to buy an international roaming plan for Japan. Compared to SIM card costs in Japan, the offers looks very promising (and is valid across 82 countries):
Local sim card in Japan
Japan is probably one of the most expensive countries when it comes to buying a local SIM card! Mine cost 6000 yen (INR 3850) for 1 GB for a month – data only. The other option was 7000 yen (INR 4500) for 200 MB/day. Local SIM cards are available at international airports and 7-11s across the country.
Wifi in Japan
Many accommodations and restaurants in Tokyo offer fast and free Wifi. But unfortunately, Wifi availability steadily decreases as you to head to the countryside.
Where to go if you’re travelling to Japan for the first time?
Japan is a huge country and it can be quite overwhelming to figure out where to go! I spent the first week in the city on assignment for Japan Tourism Board. We explored the Kantou region of Honshu, including Tokyo, Matsumoto, Nagano and Nikko. After that, my partner and I spent two weeks travelling south to Fukuoka and Hiroshima on Kyushu island, and then all the way to Yakushima island. And I spent the last week exploring more of the Honshu countryside and a bit of Kyoto on my own.
If you’re travelling to Japan for the first time, I recommend splitting your time between the popular cities and getting a glimpse of offbeat Japan:
First time in Tokyo
I stayed in three different areas of Tokyo, and most enjoyed the vibe of the Asakusa neighborhood. It retains the old world charm of the city with old Buddhist temples, little shops, a walkway along the river and charming sushi bars and izakayas (local bars). It’s also home to the stunning 14th century Sensoji temple – Tokyo’s oldest. I remember hanging out there late at night, when the crowds were gone, and witnessing breathtaking “sakura rain” on the way back. Oh how I miss Japan!
First time in Kyoto
I unintentionally hit Kyoto during the cherry blossom season – and must confess it was way too touristy for my liking. I borrowed my host’s bicycle for beautiful early morning rides to some parks and temples. But the overtourism thereafter killed the vibe. I imagine it must be a delight in winter though.
First time in Osaka
Osaka is just a short train ride from Kyoto – and a regular Japanese city without much of the old-world charm. I’d suggest picking one of Kyoto or Osaka – if at all, for your first time in Japan. I hopped over to Osaka for a vegan cooking lesson, based on macrobiotics and yin and yang principles, with a local Japanese family – and it was definitely one of the highlights of my trip!
Offbeat places to visit in Japan
Outside of the cherry blossom season, you are unlikely to encounter the crowds of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka anywhere else in Japan. Places like Nara, Nagano, Hiroshima and Matsumoto, though not offbeat, are beautiful enough to spend a while getting into the Japan vibe while still having access to the comforts of tourism. Some people speak English, restaurants have English menus and there are plenty of accommodations to choose from.
If you really want to stray off the beaten path, head south. Some places I loved:
Where to stay in Japan
Airbnb, my favorite go-to platform for unique accommodations, is complicated in Japan. After a government crackdown, only places with a tourism license are allowed to rent on Airbnb. And only for 180 days of the year. This might make sense in tackling overtourism in places like Kyoto, but is a lost opportunity for the less-explored countryside villages.
Anyway, travelling to Japan for the first time, I relied mostly on booking.com and direct google search to find traditional ryokans, small B&BS, guesthouses, hostel pods and homestays.
Important Japan travel tip: Most accommodations allow check-in only after 4 pm and expect check-out by 10 am. This is to allow for their rigorous cleaning schedule!
Accommodations to try if you’re travelling to Japan for the first time
My favorite accommodations in Japan
How expensive is Japan?
I hate to break it to you, but compared to most places in the world, Japan is expensive. Getting a local SIM, accommodation even in guesthouses / hostels, public transport, even food, can be a bit of a shock to the wallet, especially when you’re travelling to Japan for the first time.
Average costs in Japan
Travel tips to experience Japan on a budget
Do they speak English in Japan?
Within Tokyo and Kyoto, you’re likely to find English speakers at accommodations and restaurants frequented by travellers. But beyond that, most locals tend to speak very little English. Which is great, because Japanese is a beautiful language and it’s fun to attempt to learn atleast a little bit.
Before travelling to Japan for the first time, I learnt a few basic Japanese phrases through a podcast. That, mixed with google translate, broken English and sign language, made it easy enough to get by. Besides, Japanese people are so friendly and kind that no language barrier could stop them from helping you out.
Japanese words to know, especially if you’re travelling in Japan for the first time
Best podcast to learn Japanese
I learnt basic Japanese phrases on the Japanese Survival Phrases podcast, available on iOS and Android. The podcast is recorded by a Japanese woman, which makes it easy to learn the diction without a foreign accent.
Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it?
Every time I got into a shinkansen (bullet train) in Japan, I felt like I was flying business class instead of rolling on ordinary railway lines! The Japan Rail Pass is a physical train pass, only available for tourists, that offers unlimited rides on most trains across Japan for a fixed number of days.
Priced between INR 18,000 – 36,300 (265 – 535 US$) for 7, 14 or 21 days, it’s probably the biggest travel cost you’ll incur in Japan. And yet, if you spend a week or less in Japan and do only the return Tokyo-Kyoto-Tokyo train journey, the Japan Rail Pass for 7 days is already worth it. The individual Tokyo-Kyoto journey costs 13,000 Yen (INR 8300 or 115$) one way!
If you plan to explore only one specific region of Japan – for instance, Kyushu island – you could also consider buying a regional train pass.
How to survive as a vegan in Japan?
While travelling in Japan for the first time, I was surprised to learn that during the Edo period, the traditional Japanese diet was largely plant-based and meat-free! Both Buddhism and Shintoism, practiced for centuries across Japan, promote compassionate eating. And many Japanese rulers had banned the rearing of cattle and consumption of meat, because they couldn’t afford to lose more forests to animal agriculture. Unfortunately things changed during the late 1800s and veganism became an alien concept.
All these years later, as a vegan traveller, I felt spoilt for choice in the popular tourist cities of Tokyo and Kyoto. The HappyCow app is full of vegan friendly spots to try. But beyond, in smaller towns and villages on the countryside, surviving as a vegan or vegetarian requires a bit more effort. What really helped me was a note in the Kanji script explaining I’m vegan and what I can’t AND can eat. Overall, from vegan bento boxes to shojin ryori to incredible tofu and yam based meals, I mostly thrived!
What is the best travel insurance for Japan?
Instead of opting for Indian travel insurance plans that are often cheaper but a pain to claim funds from, I usually opt for World Nomads travel insurance while travelling in extremely expensive countries. And so it was in Japan. Better safe than sorry!
Is Japan safe?
Japan is one of the world’s safest countries to travel in. I walked the streets of Tokyo alone at midnight (akin to some of Murakami’s famous characters), without a care in the world. I took trains and buses by myself, rode a bicycle through small villages, stayed in local homestays, and never once felt concerned for my safety! The lack of crime and the general friendliness of Japanese people sets a true benchmark for safety.
Coronavirus in Japan
The unfortunate spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus around the world has made many people reconsider their travel plans. But I guess the sad truth is that we are as susceptible to contracting it at home, as in Japan. If you have a trip lined up to Japan, don’t cancel just yet. Follow updates closely, avoid areas with cases, and remember that Japan is a huge country and most parts, like in India and the US, are corona-free.
What are some Japanese etiquette for tourists?
Before travelling to Japan for the first time, I was a bit apprehensive about all the intricacies of Japanese etiquette and customs that I had read about online! Much to my relief, a lot of it applies to business travellers in formal settings. The locals are quite relaxed when it comes to travellers. Still, here are a few basic Japanese etiquette for tourists that you should consider:
Is Japan among your dream destinations? What else would you like to know / share about travelling to Japan for the first time?
*Note: I wrote this post in collaboration with Airtel. Opinions on this blog, as you know, are always mine.
The post Things to Know Before Travelling to Japan for the First Time. appeared first on The Shooting Star.
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Physical Educator and sports coach from 6 years , with degree in sports science and physical education from RLT University in US. Coach of football, skating, hockey and rugby teams. Now working as Sports development officer in Perth city.