• Responsible Tourism
  • 15 June, 2024

Community Tourism: Building New Destinations and Enhancing Travel Experiences in Nepal

Community Tourism: Building New Destinations and Enhancing Travel Experiences in Nepal
Travelers trying out local culture dress and Tharu wall painting at Barauli Community Homestay.

“Responsible travel is not only better for our world, it’s also more interesting and memorable. Responsible tourism is the future of travel” – Simon Reeve

Tourism, a growing industry with economic benefits and a substantial workforce, is a double-edged sword. Often, the economic gains become concentrated among a few, undermining the overall advantages of travel. The unequal distribution of economic benefits within the communities of tourism destinations is a pressing issue. When marketing a tourism destination, a comprehensive understanding of its socio-cultural and environmental aspects is crucial. 

The perpetuation of unchecked tourism development and its potential long-term consequences on emerging destinations is heightened by surficial examinations that lack meaningful local involvement and critical assessment. In response to this challenge, community tourism emphasizes active local participation in both destination development and management. The primary decision-makers and beneficiaries should be the local communities, as there is no better way to assess the costs attached to their destination.

This approach ensures meaningful participation and ownership, addressing the challenges posed by mass tourism and paving the way for a more sustainable and authentic travel experience. By placing the responsibility in the hands of the local communities, it establishes a framework where their involvement becomes integral to the process, fostering a more inclusive and genuine approach to tourism development.

Tapari Making at Nagarkot Community Homestay.

Easing the Burden on Crowded Destinations

If we look into the various well-marketed destinations in Nepal, particularly destinations like Chitwan National Park in Nepal, the impact of mass tourism presents profound challenges. Once renowned for its serene landscapes and abundant wildlife, parts of the park now grapple with overcrowding and strained resources due to ineffective tourist flow management. The rapid proliferation of hotels and resorts, while promising economic growth, raises critical questions about who truly benefits. Are local indigenous communities genuine beneficiaries, or are they relegated to roles in staged cultural performances that offer minimal rewards and superficial glimpses into their heritage?

The need for a paradigm shift from a volume-driven growth model to one of optimization is increasingly apparent. Optimization involves maximizing benefits from existing tourism systems while addressing economic leakage. Research by Stefan Gössling on Climate Accounting, Decarbonization, and Adaptation for Tourism Destinations highlights a compelling opportunity within existing frameworks. Studies, such as the one in Barbados where tourists expressed a willingness to extend their stays and increase spending, highlights the potential to redesign destinations for sustainability and economic vitality without compromising authenticity.

As advocates of community tourism, we at Community Homestay Network understand the weight of our responsibility. Our focus on promoting off-beat paths and emerging destinations is grounded in a commitment to preserving cultural integrity and enhancing local economies. Examples like those in Chitwan National Park offer insights into the complexities of community tourism. They remind us to approach destination promotion with care, ensuring that our efforts not only enrich local communities but also safeguard the natural beauty and heritage that have endured for generations.

Crucially, we must continually evaluate who bears the costs and who reaps the benefits of tourism development. Will our initiatives to promote community tourism contribute to the conservation of local culture and environment, or do they risk diluting these invaluable assets? These questions need to be the guiding light for our mission to promote responsible practices that uphold the essence of every destination we champion.

Tharu Dance at Bhada Community Homestay.

Embracing Authenticity – The Case of Bhada

Bhada, a previously undiscovered destination in far-western Nepal is gradually gaining recognition as a promising travel spot with a strong emphasis on meaningful community engagement. In the tranquil Terai region, Bhada is an ideal stopover between Bardiya National Park and Shuklaphanta National Park. This captivating village beautifully captures the essence of authentic rural life, with most of its residents actively involved in farming.

Travelers visiting Bhada are presented with a unique opportunity to not only witness but actively participate in local farming activities. The village extends a warm invitation to explore nearby attractions, take strolls through the community, and appreciate local architecture and the traditional tools utilized in daily work. Along with that, when the homestay hosts of Bhada community unified and formally registered as a community homestay with the local government, they successfully secured a grant. Wisely invested, this grant was used to construct attached toilets and bathrooms. Previously, similar to many rural parts of Nepal, separate toilet and bathroom facilities were in place, posing inconvenience and potential safety concerns for travelers, especially at night.

By improving their infrastructure, Bhada not only elevated the travel experience but also eased the daily lives of community/family members. Such investments not only boosted the overall well-being of the communities but also aligned with their efforts to preserve and promote their culture. This stands as a testament to how responsible tourism can leave a lasting and positive impact on local communities, showcasing a sustainable approach that fosters enduring benefits.

Empowering Local Communities through Community Tourism

Community tourism holds immense potential for empowering local economies, especially in regions where women and youths often face limited economic opportunities. By engaging in various roles within the industry, such as becoming travel guides, artisans, or entrepreneurs, community members can achieve economic empowerment and self-reliance. Our organization has been collaborating with local communities to establish sustainable tourism initiatives in rural areas that have historically lacked tourism activity. Through our impact-driven approach, we aim to address environmental and social concerns associated with mass tourism while promoting sustainable practices.

We offer travelers the chance to explore lesser-known places from the southern plains to the Himalayas. But it’s hard to let people know about these places, especially if they’ve never been there. Even more tough to sell trips if you haven’t experienced them yourself.  But it’s hard to let travelers know about these places, especially if the wider tourism industry professionals have never been there before. Even more tough to sell trips if you haven’t experienced them yourself.

To tackle this problem, we organized an exposure visit trip (Community Connect) in May 2024  for the wider travel industry so that journalists, travel writers, photographers, travel agents, and content creators can see these places for themselves. We put a lot of thought into designing these trips. From the busy streets of Kathmandu to the quiet villages in the Terai region, each trip showed the rich culture and history of Nepal. Participants lived with local families, took part in traditional rituals, and met skilled artisans and storytellers. Our team worked closely with different communities to create four unique trips for the Community Connect program. Through these trips, they truly got to experience real community tourism and learned about the local culture.

Guests from Community Connect enjoy Ranjana Lipi writing experience at Kirtipur Community Homestay.

Transformative Impact of Community Homestays in Bhada and Narchyang

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2019, Narchyang became a part of the Community Homestay Network. The main idea behind encouraging the locals of Narchyang to establish Narchyang Community Homestay was to minimize the over tourism of a nearby destination. Traditional tourism in Nepal had a tendency to focus on well-known destinations like Tatopani on the Annapurna Circuit Trail, often neglecting hidden gems. By developing these alternative destinations, the goal was to alleviate the environmental and social pressures placed on overcrowded tourism hotspots while offering travelers enriching community-based experiences.

Janaki Chaudary, a community homestay host from Bhada Community Homestay, shared her perspective on the transformative impact of community homestays. She highlighted how the operation of community homestays has brought about significant positive changes in the Bhada community. These homestays have provided independence and self-employment opportunities for women, opening avenues for personal growth and cultural enrichment. The experience has not only enhanced their understanding of different people, cultures, and languages but has also inspired them to explore and learn from other community homestays. These initiatives have played a crucial role in transforming the traditional mindset of the older generation and have brought about positive changes within the community. Similarly, Laxmi Narayan Chaudhary, the chairperson of Bhada Community Homestay, expressed the multifaceted significance of community homestays in Bhada. Over the past few years, he has observed how these initiatives have provided employment opportunities for community members, enabling them to generate income from the comfort of their own homes. In addition to the economic benefits, community homestays have contributed to the conservation of the local language, culture, and traditions. Furthermore, community members have received various opportunities to learn and enhance their capacities through training and peer-to-peer learning exposure trips to other communities. In the past, the Tharus of Bhada primarily relied on fishing to support their families. Now the income source has been diversified with women operating community homestays. They have become powerful role models, inspiring others in the community to start their homestays and other enterprises. This newfound confidence has not only opened doors for income generation but has also improved the quality of life for many families in Bhada. 

After the pandemic, both Bhada and Narchyang-the far away destinations have already hosted 98 travelers in Narchyang and 51 travelers in Bhada via the Community Homestay Network platform and the locals are managing their destinations collectively. These efforts have brought about several positive outcomes, including benefiting host families, stimulating the local economy, creating jobs, and promoting sustainable practices.

Welcome to Travelers at Narchyang Community Homestay.

Nurturing Sustainable Tourism and Cultural Preservation

Travelers seeking authentic experiences are more likely to engage with and appreciate local culture, resulting in a more respectful and sustainable form of tourism. Together with ICIMOD, we are working to develop climate and water-responsible tourism in Dhankuta in a way that is Gender Equality, Disability and Social Inclusion (GEDSI) responsive. 

Dhankuta is one of the districts in the eastern region of Nepal. For the Community Homestay Network, this poses a great opportunity and responsibility to build a destination responsibly and inclusively. We are partnering with a local NGO and the local government to strengthen the capabilities of the Aathpahariya Rais, an indigenous community found solely within Dhankuta. From beautiful landscapes, and charming old streets to indigenous culture, Dhankuta has a great potential to be established as a tourism destination. Several rounds of community visits, discussions and meetings with all the relevant partners and stakeholders, consultation and coordination with communities, and thorough onsite research are done to develop, brand and promote experiential and responsible community-based travel in Dhankuta. This looks like a tedious and slow process, however, the process is a prerequisite to gathering area-specific information and insights to inform, co-design, and co-develop products and packages along with communities and partners to promote, communicate, and package the responsible travel offerings to the world outside. 

Tea Tasting at Dhankuta

Enhancing Social Integration and Cross-Cultural Understanding

Exploring new places is not just an adventure but also a chance to understand different cultures. When travelers visit lesser-known spots, they get to connect with locals, learn about their way of life, and build friendships. This kind of exchange breaks down stereotypes and brings people together. To make this work, it’s essential to respect and understand the local way of doing things.

In Dhankuta, Nepal, Komal Aathpahariya, an aspiring community tourism entrepreneur, sees tourism as more than just a way to make money. For the Athpahariyas, it’s about sharing their unique lifestyle with visitors and promoting responsible tourism in their community. Athpahariya is an indigenous community that is unique to Dhankuta. 

While Dhankuta faces challenges like water scarcity, local governments and organizations like ICIMOD, HUSADEC and Smart Paani are working on solutions like rainwater harvesting, and springshed management among others. Komal encourages travelers to be aware of these environmental issues and support local initiatives during their visit.

He also wants travelers to be mindful of cultural boundaries, especially regarding entering their kitchens. Kitchens are considered sacred, connected to their ancestors and ancestor worship. Travelers are kindly asked not to enter these spaces to avoid disrupting traditions that are challenging to fix. Both Komal and Sacheta hope that visitors understand, acknowledge and respect these cultural differences, even if they seem strange in the modern world.

To make everyone feel welcome, the community plans to set up a common kitchen area without restrictions. This step shows their commitment to balancing their traditions with the expectations of modern visitors, creating an atmosphere of respect and understanding in their journey toward responsible tourism.

Travelers enjoying local Athpahariya cuisine at Sipting Community Homestay.

Tips for Implementing Community Tourism Strategies Effectively

Two shining examples of successful community tourism initiatives that we are closely working on are Bhada and Narchyang Community Homestay. Taking these examples we collaborated closely with ICIMOD to launch the Red Panda Trail. Drawing from our extensive experience in community tourism and recognizing the significance of promoting tourism that directly benefits local communities, especially women, ICIMOD and CHN have forged close partnerships with these communities. Collaborating with multiple stakeholders and partners such as the Red Panda Network (RPN), Shree Mabu Dobato Community Homestay, and the Maipokhari Deurali Community Homestay Management Committee has played a pivotal role in cultivating resilient communities, fostering the development of homestays, and establishing tourism circuits in eastern Nepal. This Red Panda Trail was recently launched in 2022. This collaborative effort aims to bridge the gap and empower these communities to fully tap into their cultural and natural riches. With the past experiences and recent learnings from Red Panda Trail, we are working closely to develop climate and water-responsible tourism in Dhankuta in a way that is Gender Equality, Disability and Social Inclusion (GEDSI) responsive. 

From our experience, we know developing tourism activities in geographically far areas has been challenging due to the significant problem of accessibility from the capital and major cities. With this challenging situation, CHN has been actively working to develop and market community homestay circuits that work as a multi-day itinerary connecting different individual destinations and homestays to create a region-specific itinerary. This not only allows individual homestays clustered in the region to provide a joint product but also allows travelers to choose a dedicated multi-day itinerary that provides a full regional experience.

Along with the marketing and promotion campaigns, effective community tourism strategies involve community engagement, stakeholder collaboration, and capacity-building programs. Building resilient communities and developing sustainable tourism circuits in geographically remote areas are essential steps in ensuring the success of community tourism initiatives.

Community Tourism for a More Inclusive and Sustainable Future

Community tourism places a strong emphasis on preserving and showcasing local culture and traditions, safeguarding them from being diluted by mass tourism.

As we strive to develop climate and water-responsible and GEDSI-inclusive tourism in places like Dhankuta, we recognize the need for responsible destination-building. We are partnering with ICIMOD, Smart Paani, local NGOs, and governments to strengthen the capabilities of indigenous communities, as exemplified by the Aathpahariya Rais in Dhankuta.

Embracing community tourism is more than just a journey; it’s a commitment to a more sustainable and inclusive future for the travel industry. By cultivating new tourism destinations in lesser-known corners of Nepal, community tourism offers a harmonious blend of traveler experiences, economic upliftment, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. So, as you plan your next adventure through the Himalayas, consider the hidden treasures of community tourism. By embracing this responsible path to travel, you’ll not only create unforgettable memories but also contribute to the sustainable development of local communities here in Nepal.

Thaili making at Panauti Community Homestay.

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