Ajay Reddy, founder of GoUNESCO, has helped revolutionise heritage travel in India, making a fun learning experience for travellers of all ages.
If you want to understand today you have to search yesterday. But if yesterday is getting slowly erased, then where would the search for today end?
Our yesterday is all around us—the historic buildings, the dilapidated structures, cultural landscapes, the temple ruins, etc., all depict our rich heritage. Yet the surprising thing is these heritage sites, even those classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites are threatened, not by natural calamities, but through unplanned development, unsustainable tourism, neglect, and vandalism. In short, humans are more often primarily responsible for vanishing of heritage.
The GoUNESCO tries to address this issue. With its travel challenges, heritage runs and student programs it is trying to make a difference by creating awareness about the heritage sites in the community. The Alternative catches up with its founder, Ajay Reddy to know more about this initiative.
A picture tweet gave this electrical engineer the idea of starting GoUNESCO. The tweet posted a picture of Hampi ticket bearing the images of World Heritage Sites and posed a simple question, “How many have you been to?”
The tweet forced him to think. “I could not recognize half of the images on the ticket. I pride myself in being a travel enthusiast and knowing a fair bit of the country. The tweet sparked in me the idea to travel to all these places,” he says.
So in 2012 he created a goal for himself: to visit all the heritage sites in the country. He shared the idea with his friends, and some of them joined in and started sharing their travel stories in a group blog.
A challenge is no fun if it is not made interesting. “So I introduced the system of points for every heritage site that one visits. It was a simple fun challenge with no incentive to win. I had not guaranteed any prizes at this point of time,” says Reddy. This was how the GoUNESCO India challenge began with a travel aspect to it.
The travel challenge reached media outlets and GoUNESCO stories started getting published. A lady named Jai Bharathi got interested in the challenge and took it up religiously. She became the winner of the India Challenge by visiting all 28 heritage sites in the country by end of 2012.
“After this we realized that there was no reason to restrict it to India alone. We felt we should extend the challenge across the world. So we introduced the Epic challenge that inspires people to travel to all the 962 [in 2013; currently 1007] world heritage sites in their lifetime,” says Reddy.
The international media then heard about the global challenge, with some companies pitching in and offered to sponsor the prize money. Meanwhile GoUNESCO secured a one-time token grant from UNESCO, Delhi. UNESCO Delhi at this point also suggested that cultural elements be added in to the challenge and so cultural challenges also became part of GoUNESCO.
Connecting students to heritage
An Indian student then wrote to them and asked if they could do such an initiative for students. “So to engage students in heritage [architecture], we started a Campus Ambassador Program,” says Reddy. With technical support from UNESCO, GoUNESCO got help publicizing the program and even foreign students registered for the program. The program got off to a successful start with 80 students participating in the first session, the next session saw around 350 registrations and the third session had around 150-200 students participating.
Reddy’s motive is simple when designing tasks for students. “Don’t lecture, keep tasks simple and make it easy to understand. This way when students get involved in the task they learn on their own about heritage,” he says.
Beginning of GoHeritage Runs
Reddy has also been involved with Hyderabad runners for a long time. He used to organize Hyderabad Marathons earlier. One of his friends suggested that he organize a run for Hyderabad runners at Hampi. “As it was a heritage site and I knew a lot about the place I agreed and we did a test run in Hampi in July,” says Reddy. Thus began their GoHeritage series of runs. Last year in November there was a Bidar run in which about 200 people participated. Coming up, there is a Hampi run on January 25th that Reddy promises is going to be a unique cultural experience.
Fun runs—not races
What makes these runs different is that these are fun runs and not races. There is no time factor involved. A family can very easily participate in such runs.
“Runs are a great way to get people interested in a place; because of the run, people learn about the place even before they go there. They then travel and learn more on the tours we arrange. Through our promotions we reach a lot more people and get them interested in a place and the rich heritage surrounding it,” says Reddy.
In Bidar for example, the GoHeritage Runs had arranged an informational tour of the famous Karez water system ducts. “The underground aqueducts are not well known; yet Bidar is on the World Monument Watch list because of it. So through our runs we strive to bring attention to such lesser known places,” says Reddy.
Motivating people to care
The runs give a good incentive for local people to participate in heritage and understand its importance. “When we take a few hundred people to different places for such events it is a huge economic impact and when local people see that heritage is giving them this money, they will probably be a bit more interested in protecting their heritage,” says Reddy. “Then you don’t have to tell people ‘go protect your heritage’,” opines Reddy.
Inspiring people to travel
GoUnesco has inspired people to travel. “The challenges are flexible, there is ready made list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites to travel and the introduction of points has added a bit of fun in to the travel. People with more points are profiled on the leader board and this urges them to travel more,” says Reddy.
There is also a change in mind-set in the way people travel. “If you want to travel more you have to travel on budget. So this has changed the way people travel-from a typical luxury traveller to a regular backpacker to save on expenses,” asserts Reddy.
The Student Campus Programs have created quite a buzz too. “Many students write back after the programs end, wanting to do more. They don’t want the tasks to end. Some volunteer with us to become coordinators for other student programs as well,” says Reddy.
The entire operations of GoUNESCO is run singlehandedly by Reddy with friends pitching in here and there. “Managing the travel challenges, the website, runs, etc. come with their own set of challenges,” says Reddy.
The Campus Ambassador Programs too has kept him on his toes. Reddy says, “Every 15 days we have to think of a new task for the students that is interesting. Students do not have much patience and so the tasks should be exciting.”
When asked about his future plans Reddy says, “This year our focus is on Heritage Runs. We are planning about nine runs in different locations in South India and hopefully next year we will be able to extend the runs to other parts of the country too.”