Travel+Leisure India & South Asia’s champions of community tourism are Mrinalika and Akshita Bhanj Deo, two sisters who are putting Odisha’s Mayurbhanj on the tourist map. In a conversation with the publication, the directors of The Belgadia Palace talk about running a boutique hotel, assuring sustainability, and more.
Excerpts from the interview with Mrinalika and Akshita Bhanj Deo
T+L India: What were the main challenges of turning the 200-year-old Belgadia Palace into a boutique hotel?
Mrinalika Bhanj Deo: A major challenge was working without a conservationist or museum curator, since antique pieces needed to be catalogued, researched, and styled keeping a contemporary decor approach in mind. A special challenge was getting skilled labour to work with the ceiling—it is nearly 50 feet.
T+L India: What are some of the sustainable practices and community initiatives that are adopted at The Belgadia Palace?
Mrinalika Bhanj Deo: Belgadia was restored keeping in mind that travel can be a means of sustainable development and that homes can be seen as a platform with social impact. We preserve and create awareness about local flora and practise edible landscaping. The property has a towel and linen reuse programme, which saves water by over 40 per cent, along with usage of only glass bottles, ceramic mugs, and refillable refreshment containers. As for community initiatives, we support nutritional climate resilient agriculture. We’ve tied up with Odisha Millet Mission, a branch of Odisha Agriculture Department, to procure millets from local self-help groups to promote livelihoods via nutritional farming. Additionally, all our staff have been hired regionally, many of whom are in their first hospitality role, so that the economic benefits of tourists stay within the community.
We also have tie-ups with Project Chhauni, Mauna Dhwani Handloom School, Mayurbhanj Art Foundation, Sabai Grass Communities, and Dokra Handicraft Villages to promote business and provide an alternative livelihood from eco-tourism.
T+L India: What are your recommendations for tourists who come to Mayurbhanj?
Akshita Bhanj Deo: I recommend trying the local delicacies, such as red ant chutney and mudhi mangsho (mutton curry with puffed rice) and Simlipal wild raw honey fresh from the forest. One should also take a walk through the local haat in and around Simlipal, which is the best place to forage organic food and spices.
T+L India: What kind of travellers are Akshita and Mrinalika? Do you travel together? How do you reconcile differences when you travel together?
Bhanj Deo sisters: We do travel together; we are both adventurous and like to mix backpacking with luxury stays. We can go to the same place, then solo travel for a bit and come back to meet each other.