In the last few years, many Himalayan inhabitants have found a new vocation: hosting tourists as guests in their homes. This kind of tourism, now commonly known as ‘community based homestay ecotourism’ is gaining popularity. The attraction is the first hand experience of culture, cuisine and interaction with the community for a reasonable price. These are initiatives where the economic benefits from tourism go directly to the community and if located close to an area of conservation value, also contribute to the protection of the site. This movement is becoming an important source of livelihoods for the Himalayan communities. In the changing scenario, exacerbated by climate change, this enterprise may work as an important adaptation strategy as well.
The article describes some of the Himalayan homestays, discusses what may or may not be qualified as a home stay, and delibeartes on some key guidelines that are necessary to make this a successful initiative.
Travelling to the Himalayas is an age old phenomenon. The 2,700 kilometre or so long and about 300 kilometre wide range has within it, some of the oldest trade routes. The trans-Himalayan region has been the hub for trade and commerce for centuries. The famous silk route brought the region into greater focus during the early Han dynasty, extending from 206BC to 8AD. But more important is the religious and spiritual significance of the Himalayan range. The entire mountain range is considered the abode of Gods and is viewed as a sacred landscape by the Hindus. It is believed that pilgrimages to Himalayan sanctuaries started between the fourth and second century BC. The earliest written evidence of religious journeys to the Himalayas is found in the Mahabharata dating to first century BC. The Himalayas as the source origin of the most revered of rivers; the Ganga and the Yamuna, adds to the region’s religious significance. These mountains are equally important centres for Buddhism, and monasteries spread across the states of Jammu and Kashmir (primarily Ladakh), Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh attract Buddhist visitors and other tourists equally.
The arrival of the British in the early 19th century introduced the concept of ‘Hill Stations’ where they developed select places in the hills as resorts to escape the summer heat. The majority of these are in the Himalayas, the first one being Shimla that was founded in 1838. From the late 1830s, hill stations became popular with the civilian upper and middle classes and remain so even today.
The last two to three decades have seen the growth of different kinds of tourism in this region, the newest entrant being adventure tourism. Diversification has resulted in the accommodation sector also becoming more flexible to to address the needs of a broader tourist profile. One of the outcomes of this diversification is the concept of homestays which is fast becoming popular, particularly in the Himalayan region.
Community based homestays: Korzok, Ladakh
The concept of homestays centres on the local community which welcomes tourists to come stay with them, and tourists in turn experience local hospitality. The accommodation is simple but comfortable with basic furniture and clean bedding and most villagers keep aside one room for this purpose. The attraction is the firsthand experience of local culture, cuisine and interaction with the community for a reasonable price. At the edge of the high altitude lake Tso Moriri in Ladakh, stands the village of Korzok. Korzok is a village of the nomadic Changpa community, typical of the Changthang plateau. The Changpas spend the summer in the village. The Tso Moriri Lake at 4,995 metres above sea level is one of the highest and largest brackish water lakes in India. It provides the ideal habitat for hundreds of migratory water birds. The lake is a major tourist attraction. Korzok also has a 300 year old Tibetan Buddhist monastery belonging to the Drukpa Lineage. Until early 2000, there were few facilities for tourists to stay. World Wide Fund for Nature-India (WWF India) had been working in the area since 1999, primarily to address the conservation issues relating to the lake. The women of Korzok approached WWF India and requested support to set up homestays, since they had heard of the success of homestays in another part of Ladakh.
In 2006, 10 homestays were selected and WWF India provided the initial support through supply of basics such as mattresses and furniture for the one room in each home. Each room is simply furnished. Meals are taken with the family in the family kitchen and are generally traditional with a choice of some delicious local cuisine. The homestays have continued the use of the local Ladakhi toilet, perhaps one of the most eco-friendly and hygienic of toilets and are part of the Ladakhi homestay experience.
The homestays at Korzok have become increasingly more popular and in the absence of any other hotel or guesthouse in the area, are in great demand. The community based homestay movement is growing across the Himalayan region. Homestays offer an innovative opportunity to tourists, and are actually ideal examples of ecotourism. Simply stated ecotourism is ‘environmentally responsible tourism’ that includes ‘Travel to natural areas; minimal ecological, social and cultural impacts; education for the traveller for environmental awareness; direct financial and other benefits to the local community and respect for different cultures’. The International Ecotourism Society (1990) defines ecotourism as ‘responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people’.
Almost all the Himalayan states have started promoting homestay based ecotourism. For example, selected organisations in the three Himalayan states of Jammu and Kashmir (primarily Ladakh), Himachal Pradesh (primarily Spiti) and Sikkim are promoting homestays under the banner of ‘Himalayan Homestays’. Communities in North-east India have also started promoting homestays at various locations.
Instruments of empowerment: Rumbak, Ladakh
Homestays in the Himalayan region are increasingly being looked upon as a viable alternate source of income. Since they are primarily run by women they are also instruments for empowerment. The two household village of Zingchen is an hour’s drive from Leh and the starting point for the short trek to Rumbak in the Hemis National Park. The Zinghchen residents run a ‘Parachute Cafe’ serving tea, snacks and instant noodles which have come to be known as the ‘modern’ staple diet in Ladakh. Visitors can trek through the Rumbak Valley, the home of the snow leopard and eventually arrive in Rumbak, another small village. Each household here offers a homestay and the allocation is through rotation. Rumbak is a pioneering initiative for homestays in Ladakh started by the Snow Leopard Conservancy India (SLC), a local Non Government Organisation (NGO) working in trans-Himalayan regions of Ladakh, Zanskar and Spiti for the conservation of the endangered snow leopard in India. The home stays in Rumbak have recently been taken over by the Wildlife Department of Ladakh. The Youth Association for Conservation and Development in Hemis National Park also supports the homestays by marketing them and supporting tourism. Rumbak is significant because many treks originate from here into the Hemis National Park. The popular Parachute Cafe in Rumbak is run by the local women. It is a testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of these women. The entire homestay experience is personalised and informal with emphasis on quality of services.
The women from the nine households run homestays in Rumbak. The sense of empowerment comes from the fact that these women are no longer financially dependent on their husbands. These women are now ready to build the capacity of other women in Ladakh. The expertise and confidence of these women has been built over the years with training provided by SLC, the Department of Tourism and Department of Wildlife. Each homestay also has a feedback form that guests are urged to fill for suggestions that would help improve these homestays.
Incentives for conservation: Thembang, Arunachal Pradesh
If located close to an area of conservation value, the homestay initiatives also contribute to the protection of the site. Take the example of Thembang in Arunachal Pradesh. Thembang is a village in the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. At an altitude of 2,300 metres, this village offers a breathtaking view of the Dirang River and is surrounded by magnificent mountains. Still untouched by urbanisation, Thembang provides an ideal opportunity of experiencing the traditional lifestyle of the indigenous Monpa community. For naturalists the area offers a range of diversity that includes rare orchids, the Red Panda, Musk Deer, Himalayan Black Bear and birds such as the Blood Pheasant, the Monal Pheasant and the Tragopan. Recognising the biodiversity significance of this area, WWF India has worked with the community here to declare part of the community owned forests as a Community Conserved Area (CCA) where strict rules of conservation are adhered to. WWF India also supports nine homestays here. The homestays have given the communities an alternate source of livelihood, and also an incentive to conserve the biodiversity within the CCA. This biodiversity will continue to survive only if the community protects it.
For the ecologically fragile Himalayan region, homestays may be ideal. However, there are several issues that need to be kept in mind while promoting this concept. It cannot be presumed that because communities are keen to operate homestays, they are equipped to do so. Homestay owners need basic orientation in aspects of hospitality and cleanliness etc. and significant capacity building is required. It is preferable that this capacity building is done through NGOs that have a close rapport with the communities in question. As part of the home stay initiation, an interesting capacity building exercise was conducted at Korzok in Ladakh with resource persons from Markha Valley in the same state. The objective of the workshop was to train the women of Korzok in how to manage these home stays by experience-sharing and detailing of practical aspects. This was indeed a unique training exercise where the women of Markha valley shared their experiences on running home stays with their peers in Korzok. The women of the Rumbak village in Ladakh are extremely supportive of the need for orientation. They said that it helped them realise some basic expectations of visitors like knocking at the door before entering the guest room, ensuring cleanliness in the room, maintaining a regular timetable for meals, etc. They also stressed upon the need for more shared learning with other locations in the Himalayan region.
It is not only the hosts who need to be oriented. The guests, on their part, also need to understand their responsibilities, or a ‘code of conduct’. An important aspect is a clear indication of acceptable behaviour and responsibilities for tourists who need to be sensitive to the culture and traditions of local communities. If located near a place of cultural and natural significance, tourists need to be informed about how best to conduct themselves. Equally important is feedback from tourists as to what needs improvement, and what they liked the most. This could be through a feedback form provided in every room or any other mechanism.
As the popularity of homestays grows, it is possible that outside entrepreneurs will invest in this sector and ‘create’ homestays. This goes against the philosophy of homestays and there need to be very strict regulations on who owns and runs homestays. In a village with several homestay options, conflicts will also arise around how tourists are assigned homestays. Creation of a system whereby homestays are assigned on a rotational basis is absolutely essential. Rates for homestays need to be fixed after discussions with all homestay owners and adhered to. This is possible if a monitoring system is established. Environmental aspects such as waste disposal and the use of alternate sources of energy where possible also need to be kept in mind. The disposal of plastics is perhaps the biggest issue, particularly in the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. Constant interaction with the homestay owners is required to address such issues. Homestay owners in Ladakh for example, point out that very often guests are told to take back their plastic water bottles to Leh. But a more sustainable alternative may be to set up a common water filter to help reduce the use of plastic.
As the community based movement grows across this region, there will be a need to ensure that all the issues mentioned above are addressed. This is possible if an appropriate set of standards is developed. This then will need to be implemented, monitored and adhered to, and for the long term sustainability of the initiative, a local body established to carry out this. Marketing this concept also presents a big challenge. Although community based homestays are becoming popular, and many have websites, there is still a need for the travel industry to acknowledge and promote this concept. Travel operators thus need to be sensitised and brought on board.
It is equally important the community based homestay movement remains small in terms of the scale of operation. Homestays are not meant to cater to the mass tourism sector and their increasing popularity should not encourage any institution to promote them on such a large scale that they lose their individual character, and unique selling point.
A vehicle for change
Community based homestays in the Himalayan region provide an alternate source of income for local communities. They may become even more relevant in a time where agriculture becomes unpredictable due to effects of climate change. For nomadic communities such as the Changpas that roam the Changthang plateau, their traditional lifestyle and livelihood may also be impacted by climate change. Community based homestays, such as the one run by Changpa women in the village of Korzok can then potentially become the mainstay of their lives. For the people in the Rumbak valley in the Hemis national park, the income from community based homestays has helped to compensate for the loss of their cattle by the snow leopard. This movement has also empowered the women in the region as the primary homestay managers. Most significantly, this kind of tourism has restored the pride of the community in its culture and traditional heritage.
With the increasing popularity of this concept there is a fear that it will become ‘commercialised’. There are now state governments promoting this concept but adapting it to make it ‘sell’ better. Communities are being given subsidies to set up homestays. Others are being given furnishings, without any orientation or training. There are also non-local entrepreneurs that are creating similar infrastructure and calling it a ‘homestay’. Strict guidelines are therefore absolutely essential. Homestays provide a vehicle for local communities to showcase their culture, as also an alternate source of income. This is a concept that needs to be first understood, and then accepted by the community in question, and not something imposed on them. As one elder at Korzok says,
We once invited the occasional lone traveller who had no other place to seek refuge, to come and stay with us and share our life out of common courtesy, and to express our hospitality. Who knew that one day this would become a viable source of income for us.
It is hoped that this innovation does not degrade into a commercial tourism venture, and that the warmth of the homestay experience is retained in letter and spirit.