1 on 1 with Manu Chopra, Founder, Project Karuna

Tell us about Project Karuna and how it links to your work in rural India?

As part of my work in India on tackling extreme poverty, I visited over 1000 villages and realised that there’s a lot of good work happening on the ground. Most Indians didn’t know about these stories of hope and progress.

My personal vision with Project Karuna is to help travellers see the real India and to recognise and learn from the phenomenal work already happening. We believe in creating bespoke luxury experiences in the most stunning corners of rural India.

This is tourism that allows you to contribute to local movements, where your money actually makes a huge difference, and tourism that is ethical, sustainable and life-changing. We believe that traveling in rural India the right way will change your life.

How do you think this high-end tourism can benefit rural India?

Tourism can easily be a burden to a developing country like India (especially if you are visiting villages with limited infrastructure). We believe that there are only two forms of ethical travel here: you spend money (which goes to local businesses) or you give your time (by volunteering).

We work with local communities and non-profits and together gauge how many visitors a village wants. The money our clients spend goes directly to support local infrastructure projects, such as building schools and water storage systems.

We keep the location of our villages hidden, and we ask our clients to resist the urge to share the locations on Instagram. Project Karuna is a not-for-profit. All the proceeds go to local charities. You will be told exactly where your money is going, to which project, and will meet the people leading it.

How are these villages chosen?

Through my work, we have identified rural leaders we want to support. Eg: Chhavi Rajawat (India’s first MBA sarpanch). We spend a minimum of two weeks with these leaders on the ground and this allows us to truly understand a village, its challenges and how/if money brought through tourism can help.

Finally, we brainstorm bespoke luxurious experiences we can arrange near the village. Eg: being serenaded by a local fifth generation flute player in the middle of an oasis in the Thar Desert, setting up a 14-course tasting menu in the backdrop of the world’s tallest mountains while Himalayan yaks graze in front of you.

Will you also highlight the realities of these village and their hardships?

We intentionally select villages that are headquarters of inspiring rural movements. Our job as rich urban travellers is to amplify the incredible work that’s already happening on the ground in rural India.

Instead of focusing on what’s wrong with our country, we want to focus on people trying to fix those wrongs. We want to showcase solutions to our problems and use tourism as a means to financially support these solutions.

What are some of the more innovative/ interesting experiences on offer?

My favourite experience is two weeks in rural Ladakh. We house our guests in village homes, next to turquoise blue rivers, in the middle of white sand dunes, and inside Dalai Lama’s favourite monastery in India.

We set up walks with Ladakhi entrepreneurs, activists and monks, who show the favourite areas of their home, and drop priceless wisdom about their culture and things we can all learn from the Ladakhi way of life.

— Interviewed by Joanna Lobo