Visit Nepal (Virtually) 2020

Sonja Rusticus and Buddhi Darlami at their Bardia Homestay. They say live virtual tours have allowed them to keep staff employed during the COVID-19 lockdown tourism slump. Photos: MUKESH POKHREL

For travellers whose Visit Nepal plans in 2020 were scuppered by the pandemic, Bardia Homestay is bringing Nepal's Tarai plains into living rooms around the world through virtual tours.

Co-owners Sonja Rusticus and Buddhi Darlami came up with the idea of virtual tours during the long hours under lockdown with no in-person tourists visiting the Bardia National Park to admire its abundant biodiversity and indigenous Tharu culture.

“This is the next best thing to being in Bardia yourself, and it will also generate income at a time when there are no visitors so we do not have to lay off staff,” says Darlami who set up Bardia Homestay six years ago, combining his two-decade experience as a tour guide with Rusticus’ entrepreneurial expertise.

The tours come with cooking lessons in local cuisine, farming tours, wildlife safaris and cultural tours. Bardia Homestay, together with Dutch tour operator Travel Nepal, created the tourism platform, of which the virtual tours are a part.

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For €8.5 euros per person, the 40-minute long farming tours involve rice planting, harvesting, de-seeding of seedbeds and ploughing of fields using oxen. Local Tharu guides take travellers on virtual walks through the lush Bardia countryside while explaining traditional farming methods.

The jungle walks also cost the same, but online tourists will accompany guides as they stalk Bardia’s abundant wildlife, including swamp deer, gharial crocodiles, black bucks, the one-horned rhinoceros. And if it is your lucky day you get rare sightings of the tiger or the endangered Gangetic fresh-water dolphin.

In the simulated safaris, guests will follow guides as they go deep into the jungle, peer through undergrowth into clearings, tip-toe along the Karnali’s ox-bow lakes, and wade through grasslands. The guides also explain the various vegetation zones of the National Park, as well as the conservation research efforts underway there with Himalayan Tiger Foundation based in The Netherlands.

Slightly more expensive at €15 per person are cooking lessons for Nepali-style dal bhat, or Tharu specialities including fresh water mussels, snails and tiny crabs, accompanied by sesame rice.

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"We try to make the live virtual tours as real as possible with two cameras," Darlami explains. One is a GoPro on the guide so guests see what he sees, while the other focuses on the guide as he describes the tour.  The online excursions use the Zoom application, and last 40 minutes each.

Rusticus and Darlami were inspired by the success of virtual city tours and cooking classes in Europe. Says Rusticus: “Their methods and approach to guiding impressed us, so we wanted to bring such tours to our homestay.”

Most of those have signed up so far are Dutch tourists among the 400 most recent visitors to the Bardia Homestay, and they have been happy to relive their experience in Nepal.

As information spreads through word of mouth, more and more people are Zooming into Nepal and the Homestay plans to move into the second phase.

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“As this is a new experience for us, we are still in the developmental phase,” says Rusticus, “our target group so far has been Dutch nationals but we want to expand now to German, British and others in Europe."

Virtual tours also allow Bardia Homestay to generate some revenue and retain employees at a time when most companies in the hospitality business in Nepal have been forced to close or retrench staff.

Says Rusticus: “For the moment our virtual tours are just to manage costs during the lockdown so people do not lose jobs. It is not to earn profits.”

The fact that people are signing in to the virtual tours may be a model for other crisis-ridden hotels and trekking agencies in Nepal. There can be virtual treks, virtual cultural tours of Kathmandu Valley towns and festivals like Saparu on 4 August this year.

There could be virtual pilgrimages to Gosainkunda on Janai Purnima which this year falls on 3 August, or even online day-by-day sightseeing along trekking trails after the rains are over.

Read also:

Homestay brings locals home, Reeti K.C.

Homestays keep former migrants in Nepal, Mukesh Pokhrel

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