“Homestay available for lease. Please contact 9XXXXXX”. A recent Facebook post by a fellow Sikkimese shared by another user from Kolkata on a popular travel group, raised eyebrows of many tourism stakeholders as well as the first author immediately. This was not the first instance of such posts on a social network. In 2018, two such posts have been made to delete after sharp reactions by a scholar. Although previous posts could not reach many, the latest one had already fetched quite a few responses from interested parties before it was made to delete. Officials from the Department of Tourism & Civil Aviation, Sikkim, also criticized the post.
This phenomenon is extremely worrisome for the sustainability of homestays in Sikkim. The scholarly world defines homestay as “an alternative accommodation arrangement in which visitors stay with a local family either in the exchange of money or kind”. The word ‘local’ and ‘family’ are of utmost importance in this definition which clearly explains why there is no scope for leasing it out to a third party. The concept, thus defined is widely accepted and practised throughout the world. No house can be a home without a family residing and taking care of it.
In India, the central government along with all participating states’ homestay regulations mandate the host to be staying in the same premises to qualify for running a homestay accommodation. Sikkim is also a participating state and its regulations maintain the same. The rule is in place for one simple reason, the sustainability of the home stays in any given place.
Homestay : How, what and for whom?
To understand how the concept of homestay in the above definition helps in sustainability, we must understand the history and basic idea that governs the concept and its consumers, the visitors.
Although scholars have explained the roots of a homestay as early as 1200-500 BC, the concept in its modern form started around 1940s. Some people volunteered to offer their homes to visitors for free through a volunteer-run international organization affiliated to the United Nations whose main mission was to promote peace after World War II. The idea behind the concept was to provide opportunities for cultural exchange through the gift economy. This helped people of different nations to understand each other in a better way. ‘Couch surfing’ is the most modern form of the gift economy.
During the 1960s, homestay accommodation for international students started gaining popularity in Australia. This also evolved from the fact that international students staying in mixed groups in various hostels gave very little scope for understanding Australian culture. Students would stay for as much as 5 years and yet have very little or no idea about what Australian culture is all about. Homestay, in this context became popular accommodation for two reasons. First, it gave an opportunity for international students to immerse themselves in Australian culture and facilitate cultural exchange. Second, elders in the family played the role of foster parents.
Today, student exchange programs are organized by various western educational institutions in eastern countries including India and Nepal. The most sought accommodation for these programs is a homestay, since these programs are designed to facilitate cultural exchange. Many universities have included this as a part of their curriculum. As per the study conducted by a tourism scholar, Elizabeth Agyeiwah, majority of volunteer groups working in Africa choose homestay as their accommodation, so that they can immerse themselves in the local culture, which will help them understand their requirements better. In Asia, countries such as India, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Bhutan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, China etc., are some popular destinations for tourist homestays, wherein tourists/visitors stay with a local family in exchange of money. The common idea that runs behind all these forms of homestays is ‘cultural immersion/ exchange’ which will never happen unless visitors get to stay with a local family.
The most popular form of homestay in Sikkim and other parts of India as stated earlier is ‘homestay for special interest tourists’. Special interest tourism here refers to the interest of visitors to get firsthand experience of the daily life of locals in the destination they are visiting. Homestay is the most promising alternative which provides them with what they look for. The tourists/visitors show interest in local daily routine, cuisine, culture, traditions, heritage and arts. The richness of the experiences depends on how authentically they are provided to visitors and as the matter of fact; it is only possible when the homestay is hosted by a local family residing in the same premises. In Rajasthan, visitors show interest in staying in mud huts of the locals residing in deserts. The demand is high for the most authentic experience. People even agree to pay a premium price to stay in those mud huts during peak season. If we scroll through the reviews, most popular ones are those who treated tourists as their own family members and kept them engaged in their daily chores. There is nothing very hi-fi; mud homes, clean beds and toilets. What satisfies the visitors most is how well they could experience the local life during their stay.
Homestays in Sikkim
In Sikkim, rural homestays account for about 90% of the total home stays in the state. Government of Sikkim provided financial assistance to rural residents to construct 736 homestays through 13th Finance Commission. Capacity building training, as well as exposure trips, has been conducted for the hosts. Regulations are in place and continuous monitoring by tourism officers is being done. Registration of home stays has also been made compulsory. To encourage and inspire the hosts for the betterment of their accommodation, the option of categorizing their homes through Tourism Department into gold, silver and bronze homes are in place. Government has been quite supportive in conducting cultural events in homestay villages. ‘Daain Festival in Bermiok, South Sikkim is one such example. Village Level Committees for development and promotion of home stays has also been made. Government of Sikkim in its tourism policy maintains that it will constantly work for development, promotion and sustainability of homestay tourism. Since the majority of them is located in rural areas, the government is hopeful that it will strengthen the rural economy in future. Homestay tourism has shown good results over the past decade in the villages where the concept was implemented by some residents serious about the business. Yakteen, Tokal Bermiok, Darap, Pastanga, Dzongu, Maniram, Kewzing, Pelling and few other villages have shown very good progress in homestay tourism. Some have gained remarkable popularity.
Leasing and renting: A ‘purano bimari’ & its consequences
Leasing and subletting have been an age-old practice in Sikkim. A considerable number of hotels and other such properties have been running on lease. Despite efforts by government and concerned stakeholders, opportunities and scope for growth and development; some homeowners in Sikkim sadly are looking forward to leasing out their homestays too. This, if not stopped, will result in serious consequences in future. Primarily the practice violates Rule 3(1), 3(2) and 3(6) of the ‘Sikkim Registration of Home Stay Establishment Rule, 2013’ which clearly states that these homes should be owned by person running the homestay, the family should be staying in the same premises and the property used for the same should not be leased or rented out to any party. The violations call for serious actions by authorities such as suspension of registration and license or could even be blacklisted. Since homestay tourism is in its initial growth phase, there is no evidence of serious legal actions by authorities so far. However, time and again the department has been reminding people about the legal consequences of malpractices. Apart from legal consequences, the more serious effect will be on sustainability. As evident from the past; if these homes are given on lease, it will most likely be taken by a business outside Sikkim. Homestay concept’s central idea is based on cultural experiences which a business or a person other than the local can never be able to provide. Next, the primary interest of any lessee would be to recover the investment and make a profit out of it. The combination of a person from a different community running one’s homestay and his primary focus on earning profits; nothing else can be more disastrous than this. The homes will then become just a mere village lodge or a serviced villa. History is evident that if a property is on lease by business outside the state, most of the manpower is also conveniently brought from their native. The malpractice might disturb the favourable environment of the entire village to provide rich cultural experiences to the tourists since homestay is a part of community-based tourism. All residents of the village have equal contribution in their own way towards the environment. When visitors realize about the practice, it will be nothing but a big disappointment to them. Words spread like wildfire in this era of social media and various other such platforms. Few negative reviews on the property, the reputation, thus damaged will be very difficult to recover. Even if someone thinks of changing the name of their property, pictures won’t lie. Someone will find out again and spread the word. The effect will be long term and recurring. In a similar manner, it can also affect the reputation of the entire village. When some people feel that their trip is spoiled, they will write irresponsible reviews and comments to vent out their anger. Some will even go ahead and brand entire village into something that will damage the image and goodwill. Consequently, it might hamper the businesses of fellow villagers in business when tourists start doubting the authenticity of experiences provided in the village.
An instance of the ill effects of malpractices in homestays can be taken from what happened in Kerala. Several illegal ones in the state had sprouted when the concept started gaining popularity. A 2016 report at Manorama online said there were about 1200 unauthorized homestays in Kerala. A good number of illegal constructions were made and youngsters were running these without any formalities. Many constructions came up in outskirts of some towns or in the vicinity of some villages which were otherwise vacant places. Many of these properties were taken on lease by different groups of youths. They lured travellers by offering very low rates than the authorized homestays who would charge higher to keep up with all prescribed formalities by the government. Many illegal practices such as rave parties, sex businesses etc., were reported by tourists from several unauthorized homestays. Even instances of rapes were reported. The consequences were really damaging. First, the genuine authorized ones who were serious in their business lost a considerable amount of revenues. Next, since the entire area was repeatedly reviewed negatively by tourists, they saw a sharp decline in homestay visitors. As a third consequence, this malpractice became a burden to the government. Government of Kerala is still working on curbing home stay malpractices. A 2018 report in New Indian Express says that the local administration has formed special squads to check all illegal practices in homestays. Government has started a special drive on closing down all such illegal establishments. Official website of Kerala Tourism hosts an article which says “even though Kerala needs more homestay accommodation, and the government is obliged to promote its growth, there will be no compromise on illegal establishments. They will be taken down”. This shows how seriously home stay malpractices has affected tourism in the state. Another similar recent instance can be taken from Malaysia. As stated in a report by ‘New Straits Times’, when government project of affordable housing was completed at the beginning of 2019 in Cameron Highlands, at least 60 out of 100 units were found operating as illegal homestays. This resulted in a sharp decline in revenue to the tune of 40% among genuine homestay owners. Most of the owners and associations cry foul and are afraid that illegal ones might also spoil the image of their locality among tourists. Realizing the ill effects of illegal homestay establishments, the city of Penang had already started clamping down illegal homestays two years ago. Summonses were issued to the illegal operators and were asked to cease down their business immediately. Malaysia has a provision of fine of RM2200 (Rs 37000 approx) or 1 year in jail or both for such violations, says a report in ‘The Star’.
Sikkim being a small state and a manageable population engaging in homestay tourism business, malpractices may be easy to curb. Since, the regulations are already in place, strict enforcement will send a strong message to those looking for an easy way out. Homestay is a promising tourism concept and is bound to make progress in Sikkim considering its rich culture, hospitable people, varieties of cuisines, natural beauty, and pleasant weather conditions and not to forget, we are the first organic state in the world.
There are several ways to run a homestay. One can learn from few promising operators such as Gyatso Lepcha in Dzongu, Amrit Sharma in Tokal Bermiok, Ganesh Chettri in Hee Bermiok, Ruby Subba in Pelling and several other youngsters who are doing extremely well. Most that run well in Sikkim is because of the fact that the owners work 24×7 to give rich experiences to tourists. They have been doing extremely well and receive tourists throughout the year. They are well networked through online and offline travel agents. The operators /hosts also coordinate among each other and send tourists from one destination to another. The ones which have been operating for 5 years receive majority of tourists through word of mouth or reference. Hard work has no substitute. Hence, without hard work and involvement, it is impossible to sustain in a hospitality business like homestays.
Homestay tourism is a proven tourism concept that has worked well in improving the socio-economic condition of several villages in Sikkim. It also helps us in preserving our culture and traditions. Many youths have quit their jobs and have started running homestays in their village homes successfully. Since the demand for them in Sikkim is increasing and has a great scope for further growth, we should grab this opportunity and invest our energy for its sustainability and our future.
By Bimal Thapa, Doctoral Research Scholar and Dr D.H. Malini, Assistant Professor, Department of Management, Pondicherry University, Karaikal, Puducherry