As we first arrived about a year ago in the twin villages of Thandi and Kamad, in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand – to work with the local community in developing the two villages as ecotourism destinations – we quickly realised the immense challenge posed in developing and marketing them as homestay destinations focused on ecotourism. The villages were picturesque, but away from any main tourist or pilgrimage route. In fact, so distant was the place from the market that we ended up eating locally grown pumpkin in all three meals for the entire week we spent there. Some of my colleagues vowed never to set eyes on pumpkin for the rest of their lives!
Mobile phone connectivity was poor, electricity supply quite erratic. The otherwise pristine streams were choked with plastic waste. In most settlements, vernacular homes had given way to brightly painted, uncomfortable, box-like concrete homes. No wonder we found an initial lack of enthusiasm for tourism. The community’s attitude reflected something I have initially experienced in many village communities, an attitude that says, “These NGO people have come, let them click pictures for their glossy reports, and share a bit of their grant money with us, and then we shall never see them again.”
Determined to initiate community action into ecotourism, we were here to work with the Delhi based organisation, Development Alternatives. Homes were carefully and transparently chosen to become future homestays, and these vernacular homes were upgraded with only minor adjustments of reorganising space and adding toilets. A community centre was built and handed over to the community. Long term training programmes in communication and house-keeping skills were initiated until the community leaders felt confident about being able to handle tourists. We developed walking trails with the community to keep the visitor engaged with adventure, village culture and cuisine for a three to four to five day vacation.
Today, in a pandemic scenario, even though the results are mixed, we have witnessed the community’s confidence rise, as local youth have risen to the challenge. The side effects have been positive too. Yashveer, a local lad has not only set up a homestay but has also managed to get a mobile phone tower installed in the village. He has helped put the villages Thandi and Kamad on the tourism map through his photography skills and social media posts, learnt at some of our workshops. Gajendra Rana has emerged as a successful alpine adventure guide and is leading that part of the initiative. The only lady to have shown some enthusiasm for ecotourism has upgraded her eatery and will offer much more than pumpkins now. There is a long way to cover, but at least the community feels that they are getting there.
Undoubtedly, Uttarakhand Himalaya can boast of some of the most stunning alpine locations in the north of India. We also have pristine forests and free roaming terrestrial wild and bird life in the upper reaches. Equally inviting are the Kumaoni bakhlis or row houses with their indigo likhai doors and windows or the Garhwali Koti-Banal style homes with intricately carved tibari terraces. All these, and several other factors, could contribute to homestays being the first choice among staying options for travelers to the region. Yet, the many efforts to launch homestays in the state have proved to be non-starters.
The state continues to face the stark prospect of 1,500 villages with unviable populations. As villages become empty or sparsely populated, they also lose their vibrant rituals and traditions, something that could have pulled in the tourists for their grace and beauty. Beautiful homes lying in ruins in the best locations is a common sight in the mountains. What, then, has gone wrong with the government’s efforts? To begin with, our homestay policy has been based on facilitating easy loans to homeowners, hoping this would encourage homeowners to create “hygienic” facilities for visitors. What this loan eventually ends up doing is that it encourages village homeowners to replace the vernacular architecture home with a concrete house that looks exactly like a city residential unit. Naturally, no tourist looking for a typical Himalayan experience would want to stay in such a place. There is little transparency or logic in selection of sites for developing them into homestays. The criterion for any village home to become a homestay must be clearly defined in terms of architecture, view from the windows and motivation of family members to run such an enetrprise.
We have also completely missed the point that no tourist would come to the Himalayas to stay indoors. While a homestay is being developed, we must support communities by developing heritage, nature, birding, butterfly trails for the villages where homestays are being developed. Local youth must be empowered and trained to guide visitors through these trails, even as homeowners must learn basic housekeeping skills to match the standards demanded by the travel industry. Needless to say, this has to be done and delivered in a language the village folk can comprehend. Also, villagers must be helped in overcoming the other virus, plastic pandemic that is choking their streams and ravaging their fields. People do not travel far to see trash.
In the scenario of the Covid pandemic, new challenges have emerged for the travel and tourism industry. Perhaps, the travel and tourism sector has been hit the hardest and our nascent homestay industry is at the receiving end. For our homestays to emerge from the pandemic, we have to focus on new experiences for the tourists. Sanitation and sanitization need to be the new skills that homestay owners must acquire. Work from mountains has to be the new credo and aggressively promoted. It would be great if the government can focus on improving internet connectivity at several identified destinations, if not the entire state. The emerging change needs to be embraced quickly, but what emerges as the most significant aspect, until now missing in government policy is the handholding of communities for the long term, to help them emerge as ecotourism entrepreneurs. Only then will we be able to invite tourists with confidence, post-pandemic, asking them to stay over for much longer, and experience pahadi village life while working from the Himalayas.
(The writer is an anthropologist, author, traveler & activist who also runs a public walking group called Been There, Doon That?)
Monday, 07 September 2020 | Lokesh Ohri