Though community homestays have existed for many years, staying at them is becoming increasingly popular as a sustainable way to travel, and a better way for guests to get a true insight to the places and people they are visiting. Guests stay in the homes of local families and can gain a much better experience of their hosts’ culture and day-to-day life. They can get involved in activities like joining their host families in the fields, learning to cook local dishes or by volunteering to teach in a school.
Guests usually feel they are having a more ‘authentic’ experience, plus there’s the added benefit of this being a more sustainable way to travel. The host families benefit from the exchange. Community homestays help engender community spirit as families and communities work together in organizing themselves and managing their programs. They also receive benefits from tourism directly, and they take pride in their traditions, which are valued as something to show off to their visitors.
The local people also gain from the exchange of ideas and get a better understanding of the outside world, and learn differences and similarities between people and places. Guests and hosts often make friendships that endure over time, with visitors sometimes coming back time and time again.
However, for community homestays to work well, both guests and hosts need to follow a few principles. The tourist needs to learn how to be a good guest. As it is all about sustainability, this means being responsible and ethical. Increasingly, tourists want to feel they are helping to make a difference, and that they are minimizing negative aspects of tourism. Homestay tourism can be a way of doing this, as it can provide benefits that go directly back to local people.
It is important to remember that a homestay is not at all the same as a hotel. There is a fine balance between staying in the home of a friend or relative, and staying somewhere with a commercial aspect. The appeal of homestays is that they provide something different, something more intimate and personal, and where there can be genuine social interactions with hosts.
Where community homestays are most successful is where there is good community leadership, and the benefits are distributed fairly to the community. One of the greatest threats to community homestays is the loss of rural or cultural authenticity. Visitors are usually attracted by a nostalgic vision of an idyllic past, which often infers a feeling that authentic rural communities have to be primitive and remote, or untouched by civilization. However, this is not true in the majority of places, as modernization is essential to everyone.
This modernity, though, is a constant threat to indigenous cultures, and many foreign tourists are driven to try to discover traditional ways of life before they disappear forever. Domestic visitors are not always motivated by this, and they might be more interested to participate in rural homestay tourism merely because of affordability. So the big dilemma facing successful homestay communities can be how financial success that results from any effective promotion of an idyllic and authentic rural setting can then lead to changes that will eventually threaten homestay tourism by undermining that very authenticity!
Another problem is that the more successful the homestay, the more outsiders will visit. Often foreign tourists consider “authenticity” to mean that there are no other tourists. So while homestay owners may be keen to maximize the number of their guests, this can mean more tourists traipsing through the village, which diminishes the perceived authenticity of the place and eventually makes it less attractive to visit. This might mean that that there should be a limit in the number of homestays and rooms offered, even if residents would like to increase the number.
The success of homestays has led to some residents’ ability to buy modern appliances like ﬂat-screen televisions and smart phones, again conflicting with the notion of a simple lifestyle. Village people cannot be expected to stay “primitive and poor”, even if to some extent they might be dependent on their rustic image. In addition, by having increasingly frequent contact with outsiders, this can encourage hosts to make tourist-friendly modiﬁcations that erode the authenticity of the experience, like replacing squat toilets with western toilets, which are again less “authentic”.
Homestay programs set out to work with fairness, equity, and social harmony in mind. This is possible with widespread community involvement in the planning and running of the homestays, such as measures requiring everyone to take turns hosting guests. In particular, by women working together in this process there can also be huge benefits. As well as putting money into the pockets of women who then spend this to educate their children and look after the family, it helps increase their self-esteem and position in society.
Guests should come well-prepared and under no illusions that they are going to step into an idyllic past. However, by understanding the pressures and reality of rural and traditional life in places like Panuati or Patelkhet, Chitwan or Bardia, they can in fact come away with a far better understanding about the communities they’ve stayed with. Guests will get the maximum out of the experience by being open to new ideas and having a flexible approach. They need to come prepared and be given information about the people they will meet and their culture so that once they arrive, they can see their hosts’ ways of doing things, and not be confronted by any big surprises.