The year was 2020 and, as I would, thinking that the pandemic would be a storm in a tea cup, 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. I was intrigued and agreed wholeheartedly. Nepal, as does India, falls prey to most tourists visiting a small region when, particularly in the case of Nepal, you have a small country with extraordinary diversity, mountains, wildlife, adventure tourism, trekking and an outstanding and unique culture, it really packs a punch!
Tourism to Nepal very much focuses on either it’s mainstream destinations, The Kathmandu Valley, Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini or 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 is on a mission to ‘be the change’ and I was honoured (and I am now again), that he had/has invited me to be a part of this by assisting with Community Homestays Nepal. Established in 2012, CHN works with the rural communities, assisting them in setting up homestays throughout Nepal, adjacent to mainstream destinations or in previously barely visited areas. These sustainable travel experiences are starting to gain momentum once more and Community Homestay Programs are leading the way in fostering a positive impact not just in hospitality but by being catalysts for economic growth, women’s empowerment, cultural preservation, and culinary excellence.
To restart this project now in 2023 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 is helping the rural communities throughout Nepal to emerge from the pandemic, and be the positive change not just in tourism but in the rural economies of this fascinating country.
- Where do you think that Tourism to 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.
2. 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:
3. 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 neighbouring 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.
4. 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 hit everyone incredibly hard, how have you adapted to help them through this crisis?
Faced with this challenging situation, Community Homestay Network developed a project to support local communities develop and sell unique local products that would 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 engaged 10 communities spread across Nepal in its network and help them develop and package their local products for distribution and sale. Many communities already had the technical knowledge and resources to develop products (example homemade pickles or handicrafts). The sale of these products supported communities financially, at a time when their revenue from tourism was zero. At the same time, we saw it as an opportunity for marketing those destinations where the products come from. CHN was able to help communities develop 8 different types of local products ranging from clarified butter to green tea.
As a result of continuous effort towards promoting community-based tourism that benefits locals and women directly. Community Homestay Network was awarded one of the winners for UNWTO SDGs Global Startup Competition for SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth. Similarly, the jury of World Travel Market, Travel Forward and World Tourism Forum Lucerne awarded us as the winner of Front Runners 2021 in the category of Experience Revolution.
The project Koseli also received recognition from the World Travel Market 2021 Responsible Tourism Awards as Ones to Watch and Dr. Andreas Schild Memorial Mountain Prize 2021 from ICIMOD. It is a great honor to be awarded and recognized in the global forums and platforms, we do not take the trust and support bestowed to us lightly and continue giving our all to our mission of empowering communities through travel. Along with the awards, we were also able to emphasize the immense possibilities of experiencing Nepal beyond the traditional way by contributing a case study focusing on community-based initiation at Narchyang Community homestay on joint publication by FAO and World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) representing the Nepalese context. We also supported national television in designing and supporting the group of influencers to discover Nepal in an unique way through a show called Imagine Nepal.
- How are you now continuing to develop CHN experiences and homestays in the post pandemic era?
We are always looking to develop new products and experiences in the responsible travel space and place continuous efforts to focus on developing and promoting responsible travel and tourism products and experiences, aimed at making Nepal stand out with its unique offerings. To that end in 2022, we proudly launched the Red Panda Trail, adding to our portfolio of distinctive tourism products.
We have been working directly with communities to build cultural experiences for the immersive travel experiences. Through close consultation with community members, we, facilitated a collaborative planning process that promotes cultural heritage and language preservation. The workshop centers around Ranjana Lipi, providing guests to immerse themselves in the ancient script of Nepal Bhasa, yielding significant social benefits for the local community. This collaborative initiative has created a platform for social interaction and understanding, fostering a sense of unity and pride among community members. In addition, making the Kirtipur Community Homestay a destination that not only offers a warm and welcoming stay but also a unique opportunity to engage with and support the rich cultural fabric of Nepal.
Be it engaging in ancient script writing or dressing with locals, cooking with them, celebrating the festivals and engaging in traditional art forms like Paubha or Mithila art, these immersive experiences promote intercultural encounters and organic exchange between hosts and guests.
- How can people discover more about CHN and book these experiences?
We are always happy to discuss any collaboration opportunities with tour operators who are looking for authentic half day or full day experiences for their clients. We work together with their DMC’s in Nepal to help incorporate these into more luxurious client itineraries. We are also happy to create circuits which either include some of our community stays or is made up of many of them. I will also be attending WTM this year if any tour operators in the UK would like to meet me in person to discuss opportunities.
To find out more or make an appointment with Shiva at WTM 2023 contact Philippa@indianexperiences.com
For more information on Community Homestays and day experiences: https://www.communityhomestay.com/