|A room in Gauthami Guest House, Hampi.|
Right until you reach the road that leads down to the Hampi Bazaar, you’ll have a signal on your phone. It magically disappears the minute you enter the streets of Hampi. But worry not, every guest house and restaurant in Hampi provides free WiFi and you’ll never be disconnected, although sometimes when too many people are connected to the same network, it can get excruciatingly slow.
Nested in Bellary district in Karnataka, Hampi is the oyster of the former grandeur of the Vijayanagara Empire. Legend has it that when King Krishnadevaraya ruled, the kingdom was so prosperous that rubies were sold by weight in the same stone-paved marketplaces where hippie clothes and trinkets are sold today. A constantly popular destination for Russian tourists among others, local guest house owners claim that the number of Chinese tourists visiting Hampi has seen a sudden rise in the past three years.
Most of these guest house owners run their businesses out of their homes. These are small buildings with no more than half a dozen rooms to spare at a time. Auto rickshaw drivers who bring tourists from the closest railway station in Hospet convince them to stay at these guest houses. But ever since people began to book their stay online, most of these guest houses have been listed on at least one travel aggregator’s platform. It gives them some security because they know their bookings in advance, but the downside is the high percentage they pay as a commission to these platforms.
When NowFloats set up the Digital Hampi campaign, everyone was keen on joining in. Yes, they wanted their own websites with a booking engine. Yes, they were tired of paying a commission. Yes, they ran a better guest house than the others and they deserved more customers.
|In the absence of their owners, managers figure out how to set up their NowFloats site- using only the manual.|
The response was huge. In the first three days, everyone had heard about NowFloats and wanted to try it out. However, some people politely declined the offer. The reason was usually “I don’t need my own website,” which seemed counter-intuitive to their own market behaviour.
River Tungabadra flows through Hampi. It separates the main bazaar and temple from “the other side”. On the other side of the river, there are larger guest houses, no temples, and a ready availability of non-vegetarian food. The area is largely exclusive for foreign tourists who are looking to “chill”.
The first guest house you’ll find on the other side of the river is run by Santosh (name changed) who immediately puts his hands up when he sees the NowFloats team in “Digital Hampi” T-shirts. “I can’t go online,” he says, and it’s different from what other people said about not needing to go online. Santosh is hesitant and won’t spend more than two minutes with the team. He leaves.
Needless to say, the response from the other side of the river is rather mixed. However, there is a single similarity in everyone’s response- they would like to try NowFloats at least once. And that is how a conversation sparked when the team met Elango Pandian, a guest house owner on the other side of the river.
|Elango explains why he “can’t” have a website.|
Even though Elango downloaded the NowFloats app and set up a site for his 70 room guest house (one of the largest in Hampi), he began by saying “But I can’t have a website,” as if it was a risk to be discovered. When pushed to speak, he reveals “All these properties might get bulldozed soon”.
As it happens, the local business people and guest house owners in Hampi are at loggerheads with the government. This article from The Economic and Political Weekly (from two years ago) explains why the haphazard urbanization in Hampi is deemed a threat to the World Heritage Site, especially affecting the businesses in the area closest to the Virupaksha temple. Already, several large guest houses have been razed to the ground. The rest of them are fighting it out in the Supreme Court, and a decision is pending. This decision might very well backfire and bring these thriving, yet “illegal” constructions to the ground.
It seems rather counter-productive that on the one hand, the ministry of tourism is making every effort to boost traffic in places like Hampi, and on the other hand are trying to eliminate services that are helping tourists have a memorable time. Will the local economy really suffer in the cross-fire between preserving our archaeological heritage and protecting hundreds of small businesses? Or will the once-prosperous land of the Vijayanagar empire thrive again in the digital age?