A year ago today, I set off to Nepal on a consultancy project as part of the work we do with Indian Experiences. A few weeks earlier, I had been introduced to Shiva Dhakal, found of Royal Mountain Travel Nepal and Community Homestays Nepal, a true visionary who wants to change how travel to Nepal operates, to grow it out into destinations currently barely explored but in a way which benefits the rural communities. Nepal very much focuses on two areas, it’s mainstream destinations, The Kathmandu Valley, Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini and budget trekking. It has focused on quantity of travel and not the quality of the experience or traveller, a problem everyone I encountered on my journey with Shiva bemoaned. He was on a mission to ‘be the change’ and I was honoured that he had invited me to be a part of the project, working with the rural communities, assessing the ‘product’ and helping them to upgrade these remote destinations in a way that was authentic but that would also attract a higher spending clientele to Nepal. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, this project is on hold, but to mark the one year anniversary of my association with Shiva and his amazing team, I asked him if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions for us, to share with you his vision for tourism in Nepal and how he has been helping his teams and the rural communities during this difficult time.
- Where do you think that Nepal has made mistakes in the past?
One of the biggest mistakes Nepal has made in the past is not investing in developing infrastructure in places that have a high tourism potential. We have always just focused on a handful of destinations (the tried and tested ones) and cannot seem to move beyond that. Even then, the focus has been on getting a high volume of travelers rather than providing good value for the travelers.
Furthermore, in many rural places that we do promote, we have not been able to upgrade the facilities of lodges and accommodation providers to meet the needs of travelers who seek more comfort. We have not focused on building comfort lodges in remote areas which is one the biggest reasons why we are not able to attract high-end customers to those locations. It is not enough to just have five star hotels in major cities, we need to offer more comfortable accommodations to travelers beyond the cities. The Great Himalayan Trail, for example, is a trail spanning across the Himalayas that has been widely promoted. However, not much attention has been given to the type of accommodation offered by accommodation providers there. We also need to ensure good quality and comfortable accommodations along with promoting trails and destinations.
Finally, because the number of destinations are also limited as we stick to few destinations, there is a lot of competition between tour operators sometimes to the effect of engaging in a price war. If we are all to act collectively with sustainability in mind, I think we would all be in a better place.
- What is your community homestay project about?
Community Homestay Network (CHN) is a social enterprise that works with 24 communities at the grassroots level to develop community-based tourism in those destinations. In doing so, CHN aims to enable benefits of tourism to reach the lesser known destinations in Nepal while giving travelers an opportunity to experience local living.
In general, CHN acts as a liaison between global travelers and local communities. More specifically, CHN’s work can be divided into three categories: 1) Logistics management 2) Marketing and Training 3) Product development. Under logistics management, CHN’s team handle bookings and communications with the end-clients, manage the front-end and back-end of the website www.communityhomestay.com and provide live chat support through the website through intercom to answer any queries travelers may have. Under marketing and training, CHN provides marketing support to local communities by featuring these destinations in travel magazines across the globe and organizing familiarization trips to partner agents. CHN also provides trainings to homestay hosts on a range of topics from best hygiene practices to basic English. Finally, CHN helps communities develop their homestay products and helps design experiences as add-ons to further enrich the experiences of travelers and create value addition for communities.
Examples of experiences can be found on this link:
- How can this impact both tourism and local communities?
One of the biggest strengths of Community homestays and community based tourism in general lies in its potential to address mass tourism or over tourism. Through CHN, we have been actively promoting destinations that seldom hosted any travelers but are beautiful and with a high tourism potential nonetheless. In doing so, instead of offering the same destinations that every other tour operator is offering, we are promoting less crowded areas.
At the family and community level, we have divided the impact on local communities into five categories: i) Empower women ii) Increase standards of living iii) stimulate local economies and create employment opportunities iv) preserve cultures and enable cultural exchange v) enable personal and community development.
CHN has helped empower women by training them and helping them manage the homestays. In Panauti for example, women feel more confident, more in control of their spending, and feel that they are now more respected in their communities as they have become more financially independent. Women who were once very shy are now conversing confidently with the tourists that visit them.
Similarly, the additional income that travelers have been able to gain from hosting travelers has helped families afford things they were previously unable to afford. A host from Panauti says she has been able to complete her two daughters’ education seamlessly because of the extra income from her homestay.
CHN has also helped stimulate local economies and create employment opportunities. Most of the items that hosts require for their guests are sourced locally. In many communities, this has led to an increase in the volume of business for the neighboring shops near homestays. In Panauti, owing to the popularity of the community homestays, a group of youths have opened their own bike touring company.
CHN has also helped many communities recognize the value of their culture and has helped them preserve their culture by developing it in the form of experiences. Cultural experiences like cultural dance or a concert of traditional instruments that CHN has helped develop ensures that such activities are preserved.
Finally, when it comes to personal development, with CHN’s trainings, hosts are able to enhance their skills and knowledge. At the community level, since each community in CHN’s network is required to allocate certain amount of income towards community development initiatives, the community also benefits.
Community-based tourism allows travelers to experience a destination in a holistic manner. When people visit Bardia, for example, they don’t just go there admire the landscape and wildlife and come back. They look at the destination in a holistic manner including how the local people live in harmony with nature. This holistic perspective is crucial in promoting sustainable tourism.
For more information, please refer to CHN’s 2019 impact report:
- What is your vision for this in the long term?
Our vision ultimately is to empower communities so that they can handle bookings on their own and handle communications with travelers on their own. We are here to support them in whatever way we can.
We also want to help communities diversify their sources of income. We understand that tourism can be vulnerable to a lot of external shocks, which is why are in the process of working with communities to identify local products they have and help them develop and distribute them.
Finally, we want to expand CHN’s model to more communities across Nepal and possibly even globally.
5: The pandemic has hit everyone incredibly hard, how have the rural communities that you work with coped during this time and how have you adapted to help them through this crisis?
The tourism industry in Nepal, like in most other countries, has been severely impacted because of COVID-19. Although there are positive signs with the vaccine and the number of worldwide cases falling, there is no denying that tourism will take some more time to revive.
Faced with this challenging situation, Community Homestay Network developed a project to support local communities develop and sell unique local products that will promote the destinations in which they are made. The project was awarded with a Booking Booster grant in July 2020.
Through the project, Community Homestay Network plans to engage 10 communities spread across Nepal in its network and help them develop and package their local products for distribution and sale. Many communities already have the technical knowledge and resources to develop products (example homemade pickles or handicrafts). The sale of these products will support communities financially, at a time when their revenue from tourism has been zero. At the same time, it will be an opportunity for marketing those destinations where the products come from. Throughout the process of product development, communities will also get a chance to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to meet the needs of the end-customer. So far, CHN has been able to help communities develop 8 different types of local products ranging from clarified butter to green tea.
Besides helping communities diversify their income, Royal Mountain Travel and Community Homestay Network with support from Planeterra have also been providing COVID-19 safety training to different community homestays so that they can be better prepared to host travelers again when tourism resumes.
For more information on Community Homestays:https://www.communityhomestay.com/