Cooking up change

It was while training as a resource person for the World Wildlife Fund in 2017 that Mitali G Dutta awakened to the potential of culinary and community-based tourism.

That led the Guwahati-based entrepreneur to set up FSM Food Trails, a food tour agency that runs culinary tours with training and dining concept in the national parks of Kaziranga and Manas, creating sustainable livelihoods for rural communities in Assam state while promoting North-east India’s rich food cultural histories.

Dutta founded FSM Food Trails to create alternative livelihood opportunities for Assam’s rural communities 

During these tours, rural women share different traditional recipes of local cuisines with tourists and host them for a meal.

“These tours are not merely focused on tantalising only the taste buds of food tourists or preserving the food-based customs and traditions of the rural communities but more about bringing a social change in the livelihoods of the communities,” explained Dutta, who also runs culinary venture Food Sutra by Mitali, which provides online and offline baking workshops and Assamese cooking classes in urban areas.

“One such successful social change that we could bring was to the wives of the former poachers near Manas National Park, who are getting empowered through their household skill of cooking and have converted it into a culinary tourism enterprise.”

Dutta added that the biggest challenge in the initial stage was to change these locals’ mindsets to accept their business concept, as culinary tours are a novel product in the state of Assam.

But continuous capacity-building activities conducted over a few years eventually built up their trust in the company’s vision and instilled an entrepreneurial mindset in them to execute these culinary tours.

To prepare these locals for hosting such tours, Dutta trains them in capacity building, digital promotions and market linkages, as well as hospitality and code of conduct to equip them to handle all types of tourists. About 60 women have benefitted from her training to date.

While survival used to be a struggle for these locals, this sustainable culinary tourism business model has imbued them with a newfound financial independence, and has created positive ripple effects for the whole community, shared Dutta.

“The entire village reaps benefits in different ways, like in our tours, visitors are taken for handloom experiences, farm and fishing experiences, rice-beer making experiences and other allied rural tourism experiences which are generating revenue incomes for everyone,” she said.

About 60 Assamese women have benefitted from Dutta’s training to prepare them for hosting culinary tours 

Dutta was one of several women entrepreneurs from across India who were selected by the Ministry of Skill Development & Entrepreneurship, Government of India, for Women’s Day Recognition on March 8, 2021. Her concept of empowering rural communities in a sustainable fashion through culinary tourism has been lauded by celebrity chefs, renowned food bloggers and travel writers from India and abroad.

Since its inception in 2017, FSM Food Trails has hosted around 500 domestic and international tourists – with majority of the foreign guests hailing from European countries – during the peak seasons of October to March every year (due to heavy rainfall, the Manas and Kaziranga national parks remain closed from June to September for safety reasons).

These tours “religiously follow sustainable and responsible tourism principles”, said Dutta, adding that with the increasing adverse impacts of mass tourism, it is crucial for destinations like India to sharpen their focus on sustainability and community-based tourism.

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