We had a chat with Husna-Tara Prakash who co-founded the award winning, Glenburn Tea Estate on sustainable tourism, what you’re really paying for, the challenges travel businesses are facing during COVID-19 and hope for how sustainable models can help preserve culture, communities and conserve ecology.
What led to you starting the Glenburn Tea Estate?
It happened very organically by chance because I kept working at the product, with designers, and kept improving things. I fell in love with a tea planter and married into a tea family. We ended up with this beautiful estate and it made sense to have a hotel here. I went to visit my parents in England one summer and they introduced me to some travel agents. It was all about being at the right place at the right time. One thing led to another, I found a mentor in the brilliant interior designer, Bronwyn Latif. We also worked together for our second project. She’s very creative and I’m good at getting things done, so it was a good match. We just kept working. There was no fear factor.
One of the few things I brought was my exposure. I grew up in England but also went to boarding school in India, so my understanding of what the international traveller wants, came very naturally to me. For example, people like taking walks and sitting down for dinner at a table and have long conversations. A lot of Indians asked me why I wasn’t sticking with a buffet, but I knew people didn’t want that so now our dinners are a thing people love. Before I knew it people wanted to come and stay with us.
The luxury tourism industry has been hit hard. What are the challenges you’re facing?
Yes, it’s a challenging time. The first is a loss of revenue. COVID-19 has led to a loss of bookings and hit the tea industry. So the drying up of cash flow is challenging especially because it has also affected our sustainability programs. We’re working with local fishermen who would illegally dynamite rivers to fish for The Golden Mahseer which is an endangered fish to preserve that ecosystem. The loss of cash flow especially from out international supporters who understand the importance of our work with conservation is challenging.
The second is also a fear of when to open. For example, I was speaking with someone just today who wanted to come in the next few months and were willing to book out the whole space for themselves, which is a dream booking for us but we also have 4000 residents in our estate to think of. If one person comes and brings in COVID-19, we’re putting a lot of people at risk. The uncertainty lies in the fact that we don’t know when things will change.
Yeah, it’s a sticky spot, nobody knows what the future holds. The Glenburn Tea Estate is on a plantation, so when you came in, how has your presence changed the lives of the existing community living in and around the plantation?
The community is the hotel and the hotel is the community. It was one and the same thing and we really wanted to involve them every step of the way and they were naturals with it. Our strength has always been our involvement with the community, they are the backbone of what we do and our product is centred around them in fact, and celebrating their individual personalities. They are the drivers who pick up our guests from the airport, they’re the ones who show our guests the birds, the landscape, lay out the picnic, take them around the garden. There’s never been a barrier between the community and our guests. And you know, it’s not just service, it’s also an exchange of culture, cooking, birdwatching, fishing, tea making and so the community is the hotel. We have 55 staff members to look after just 16 guests, so that’s a huge staff to guest ratio. It’s key to what we offer. All of them are from local villages and they have no training but still bring world class service to their guests. It’s a big boost to the livelihood and local economy of the area. That’s the impact our tourism has. Plus we’ve got a thousand acres of forest and the two rivers so the community and the hotel are really guardians of this resource.
In this moment, we’re all learning the importance of adapting our lifestyles to preserve our ecology. What do we as consumers need to pay attention to when planning our holiday and how can we be better?
Travelling teaches you and gives you space to think about certain things you wouldn’t think of in everyday life. So for example, if kids learn about a bamboo toothbrush in a sustainable hotel, they’ll then go home and point it out to their parents, to switch from plastic, or something as simple as not throwing a towel away in the wash everyday. We are so secluded, and surrounded by nature which we want our guests to engage with. But sometimes our domestic guests are hesitant to led their kids explore. For example, once we were in moth season, we have a lot of moths in July and one family stayed locked up in their room and didn’t want their kids to go play with bugs outside. But when they take a leap of faith and trust that their kids will be fine, everyone ends up learning a lot more about resilience, about nature, about a different culture and lifestyle. So I hope that this moment does in fact, allow all our guests to come in with an open mind and pick their holidays carefully. Pay attention to your carbon footprint, to where you’re going, to the impact your visit will have on the community and also to engage with that community.
Yes, when we travel domestically, we tend to think we know all there is to know when in fact there’s so much history and culture and diversity in our own backyard.
Thank you for speaking us with Husna-Tara. We hope you'll visit this beautiful estate when travel is safer and consider sustainable experiences and allow yourself to take a tiny step outside your comfort zone, next time you travel.