Home away from home in NepalA model of resilience for Nepali tourism in the age of pandemics, conflicts and the climate crisis
Nepal had just welcomed an all time high 1.2 million visitors in 2019 and was aiming to bring 2 million tourists the following year. Come March 2020 and everything ground to a halt. Thousands of Nepalis lost incomes, and faced an uncertain future.
While foreign tourists have returned to Nepal after three years, tourism entrepreneurs now must consider how best to safeguard the sector from future crises. Covid-19 wasn’t the last of the pandemics, and now there are more conflicts and disasters.
One solution is a shift to a sustainable and inclusive model through community-based homestay tourism, which is already spreading across Nepal.
Homestays in Nepal allow visitors to pay for living in family homes rather than in guest houses or hotels, and to eat whatever the family eats, rather than ordering off a standardised menu. But there is significant diversity in the types of homestays available, ranging from simple rooms in traditional village homes to multi-room outbuildings with attached bathrooms and wifi.
Homestays can be privately run by individual families or belong to a community homestay program, in which neighbours form a governing committee and agree to rotate hosting duties between households and contribute a share of profits to local development funds.
Community homestays started to proliferate just a decade ago with support from government bodies and travel enterprises such as the Community Homestay Network. According to Krishna Chaudhary of the Homestay Federation of Nepal, as of summer 2022 there were around 6,500 registered homestays across 1,500 villages in the country.
Saroj Tamang opened his homestay in Gre village of Rasuwa district shortly before the first Covid lockdown, and believes many tourists prefer staying in village homes over large guest houses so that they can experience local culture.
“It’s more fun for them to stay with families, here the tourists can live how our grandfathers lived,” says Tamang who had no guests at all during the pandemic but is optimistic for the future of homestays and the benefits to his village. “Development will come with the tourists. The town will be clean, we will share the benefits, and income would stay here in Gre.”
Profit-sharing and collective investment by homestay operators now allow development of local tourism infrastructure such as community halls for cultural performances, signposts, and footpaths. The homestay business is by definition integrated into home and family life, so homestays have lower operating costs than hotels and are thus more resilient to economic shocks. The economic impact of the lockdown may therefore not have been felt as harshly for village homestays as they were for hotels.
“In the homestay sector, we own our houses and land, and it’s a family business, 99% of homestay job holders are family members,” says Krishna Chaudhary, the Homestay Federation official who is also the chair of Gabhar Valley Community Homestay in Banke district. “But many hotels must pay rent for their land and buildings, and they have to hire staff and pay them.”
Chaudhary is expanding his homestay and sees some silver linings in the tourism shutdown: “Here we can grow our own vegetables, we have land and jungle. During the lockdown we could rest with our families and do renovations to create more opportunity going forward.”
Additionally, homestay tourism can provide positive spillover effects to the broader community beyond homestay operators. Salik Ram Chaudhary, who has operated a homestay in Dalla village in Bardia district for 11 years, says, “Other households in Dalla sell chicken and eggs to the homestays, and vegetable farmers sell food to us too. So other local people also benefit.”
The homestay program in Dalla has also attracted outside funding to build a community hall, and tourism proceeds are used to finance conservation efforts in the village’s community forest, which is part of an important wildlife corridor on the Bardia National Park.
“There’s a good relationship between tourism and the environment,” he says. “Conservation has improved with homestays."
Husband and wife Dhanishwar and Janaki Bashyal have run their homestay in Tansen of Palpa district for 12 years. Their homestay was initially a private family business, but five years ago the Bashyals and a few other homestay operators in Tansen joined hands to form a community homestay group with government support.
In addition, the homestay committee in Tansen collaborates in knowledge sharing and in hosting joint cultural programs for tourists which is educational even to the locals. Says Bashyal: “Young people in Tansen also see the traditional culture and dress… because of the homestays, our culture is preserved.”
There are challenges. Many foreign tourists are unaware of community homestays unless they hire a homestay-focused travel agency while domestic tourists view homestays as a downgrade to hotels.
Additionally, inequality within communities can cause tension, as some homestay operators are able to afford larger investments in guest rooms and facilities, and thus end up with a greater share of revenue than others. Promotion and advertising, which many homestay operators see as a priority for post-pandemic growth, can be costly and difficult, especially for locations not on traditional tourism circuits.
In established tourism hubs such as Ghandruk in Kaski district in the Annapurna Conservation Area, homestays can struggle to find a foothold in a highly competitive tourism environment. “Tourists see the big hotels and stay there, they ignore the homestays,” says one operator.
In contrast to the collaborative spirit often seen in smaller village homestay groups, the homestay operator in Ghandruk felt that the members of the homestay committee there did not support each other because they were competing among themselves for a limited customer base, especially in the aftermath of the lockdown.
Juma, a homestay operator in Thini village near Jomsom in Lower Mustang, also noted a rise in competition. “The guest houses compete with the homestays here. The guest houses have attached bathrooms and more facilities. Here we have simple, local food. But homestays offer cultural programs and are cheaper.”
The post-pandemic boom in domestic travel filled Thini’s homestays to capacity in peak tourism months, and Juma was planning to recruit neighbours into the program. “In the high season we have to turn back tourists because all the homestays are full,” she adds. “We need more houses to join.”
Seeing the success of homestays in other parts of Nepal, tourism entrepreneur Rabin Karki is seeking to create a community-based homestay tourism program in his hometown of Butwal. “Right now this neighbourhood is only a residential area, it’s not a source of income for anyone,” says Karki. “But homestays could make it a business area as well.”
Karki has seen enthusiasm from his fellow young people in Butwal for developing a community-centric tourism industry in the city, which is a transit hub in southern Nepal with highway links to popular tourist sites like Lumbini, Chitwan and Pokhara.
Homestay operators, especially in rural areas, still must contend with the economic realities that posed difficulties even before the pandemic. In Narchyang village in Myagdi, some residents who had supplemented their income by operating homestays have moved away for better opportunities.
“Before the pandemic, 20 people were on the homestay committee here,” says Hukum Pun, a homestay owner in Narchyang. “But now there are only four or five homestays. It was destroyed by corona. Some people moved abroad for work, some left the village for the city, some have gotten too old.”
Narchyang is close to Tatopani, an established stop along the Annapurna Circuit and the site of many large hotels. This meant that the lockdown’s effects were less severe in Narchyang than in Tatopani. “There were no tourists here, but we are not reliant on tourism. So here it wasn’t hard. We grew vegetables…there is a lot of agriculture here. In Tatopani there is only tourism,” he explains.
Nepal recorded 600,000 arrivals in 2022 and Nepal Tourism Board has a goal of 1 million in 2023. The tourism landscape has changed drastically post-pandemic and in the age of the climate crisis.
Now is the time to build a more resilient tourism industry that shares benefits at the community level. Promoting and supporting homestay tourism may provide one path forward.
Jack Shangraw is a Fulbright scholar documenting the impacts of the pandemic lockdown on community-level tourism in Nepal.