Homestays keep former migrants in Nepal

A guest is welcomed at the Ayodhyapuri homestay cooperative located in the Chitwan National Park buffer zone. Photo : WWF

Hari Bahadur Pun from Madi Valley in Chitwan returned from Malaysia three years ago, and has been running his own homestay since then. He is thankful he made that decision, and spends his day welcoming guests into his home.

“The rooms are never empty because guests keep coming and I spend my time taking care of them. This is great work for myself, and good income for the village."

The boundary of Chitwan National Park is 1km north of Ayodhyapuri village and the Indian border is to the south. An ongoing problem in the village is wild animals from the park raiding crops, which is why most young people here migrated overseas for employment.

But today, homestays have given jobs  to villagers. The guests are visitors from Nepal and abroad attracted by the rustic lifestyle, and wildlife tourism in Chitwan.

Ward Chief Krishna Raj Adhikari says there is no shortage of guests, especially from October to May. Bookings need to be made by July, or visitors won’t find a room. Says homestay operator Om Bahadur Pun Magar, “Many times, we have had to send tourists to hotels after serving them meals but we don’t like it when we have to do that. It spoils the whole homestay experience.”

Many people from the area who had migrated abroad for work have returned to open their own homestays, attracted by the income that can be made in their own houses. Many earn about Rs35,000 per month. The benefits go beyond individual homes. Previously there was no electricity in area villages, and streets were filled with mud during the monsoon and dust in winter. Today, roads are paved, and in the evenings the villages light up because of new solar-powered street lamps.

The locals are less dependent on Chitwan National Park as well. “Before the homestay was established, everyone owned cows and buffaloes, and when we went into the jungle for grass we used to have run-ins with army rangers guarding the park,” says Som Maya Pun. “Now, people have stopped raising livestock or stall-feed them, and are busy with running their homestays.”

The homestays have also allowed locals to reconnect with their culture. Years ago,

Dambar Bahadur Pun, who migrated here from his home in Myagdi in the mountains, joined the Indian Army like many of his forebears. He used to return home every year for 45 days of vacation, travelling from Raxaul through Sauraha. But that trip took at least a month. Tired of spending most of his holiday travelling, he moved to Ayodhyapuri, which is just three hours from his Indian Army base.

“We didn’t know much about our culture because we had not seen much of it,” says Khil Bahadur Pun, also from Myagdi. “But after we started our homestay, everyone was interested in the Magar culture again. We reconnected with our roots, and discovered our songs, dances and festivals.”

To perform for guests, locals learnt Maruni and Soreti, traditional Magar dances. Now a ‘cultural home’ has been set up so homestay visitors can gather for performances.

Supporting homestays can be a way of helping not only local economies but also conservation. People who live near national parks like Chitwan are often poor and rely on farming and livestock. Wild animals put livelihoods at risk. But by providing income from tourism, national parks can ease the burdens on those living around them.

Through the Tarai Arc Landscape program, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) Nepal supported buffer zone communities to set up homestays, and the Madi cooperative is one of them. The 13 houses have hosted 11,000 visitors in the last three years, and the homestays are marketed by the adventure travel company Intrepid Travel.

Tul Bahadur Pun Magar, the secretary of the cooperative and operator of one of the homestays, himself used to work as a driver and a construction supervisor in Bahrain, earning Rs70,000 a month. He is happy to be back near nature, and planning for the future.

“Through the homestays, we have learned to live with wild animals. Our guests love to see them and we have realised that they are precious,” he says. With the 13 homestays fairly well-established, Pun Magar has plans to create a bird sanctuary near his village.

Many operators of Ayodhyapuri’s homestays are women, who have been empowered by the income and exposure. “We never used to deal with people from outside the household,” says homestay operator Sharmila Rai. “Now we feel confident  engaging with anyone.”

While only a few of Ayodhyapuri’s households host homestays, they generate income beyond lodging fees. All vegetables needed for feeding tourists is grown organically in the village, dairy products are made locally, and the fish and poultry are also raised by the village.

The growth of economic disparities within the village is a problem faced by homestay programs, particularly in places where for reasons of caste, there is already a socio-economic gap. In Ayodhyapuri, at least, the distribution of income-generating activities as well as the limit of one homestay per operator, seems to be keeping these disparities in check.

Read also:

Nepalis open doors to a better life, Sanghamitra Subba

Migrant worker finds farming in Nepal more rewarding, Naresh Newar

No need to migrate for work, Nepali Times

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