West Bengal is blessed with a plethora of natural bounty - with the glistening Himalayas in the north to the captivating Bay of Bengal in the south. Tourism can be a major revenue earner for West Bengal. The state has some established tourism locations like Darjeeling and Digha which attract thousands of domestic and international tourists each year. Additionally, a host of new destinations and trends are looking to change the face of tourism in West Bengal. Among the emerging trends, homestay tourism should receive a special mention because of its recent traction and its ability to ensure community development and economic well-being.
North Bengal has seen a positive explosion of homestay tourism – with locals hosting tourists at their residences. The trend has found popularity as many tourists are shunning their age-old preference for more formal accommodations to opt for the informal homestays, looking to experience local culture.
Homestay tourism – policy
The West Bengal government published its “West Bengal Homestay Tourism Policy – 2022” last year to consolidate and promote the homestay segment. Globally, homestay tourism can be defined as the form of tourism where tourists can stay with the member of a local family wherein social and cultural interactions take place along with exploring various tourist destinations.
The policy defines homestays as a property where the owner of the property or his/her family is physically residing and let out a minimum of one and a maximum of six rooms (12 beds) with toilet facilities exclusively for tourists.
The policy acknowledges that promotion of homestay tourism can be an important driver for equitable growth and prosperity offering an alternative source of livelihood, promote development and growth in remote locations, preserve local skills, ensure enterprise development, and ensure inclusive development.
Though it is appreciable the West Bengal government has a policy in place to promote homestay tourism, there remains a plethora of challenges. It must be first taken into account that homestay tourism as a trend has seen popularity only in the northern parts of the state – that too only in the districts of Kalimpong and Darjeeling. The main tourist attractions in these two districts have traditionally been the towns of Kalimpong and Darjeeling, which host some of the finest hotels of the state, which continue to do brisk business till date. It is only since the last decade or so that offbeat places – rural hamlets, forest villages, trekking destinations – have emerged as homestay destinations based on the natural beauty and similar contributing factors.
Accessibility to these destinations remains a severe challenge, with approach roads severely compromised in many places. Destinations like Chatakpur near Darjeeling can only be accessed by jeeps that are operated by locals at a very high premium, making it difficult for tourists to reach and also making it unaffordable for many. Two other picturesque locations near Kalimpong, Rishop and Icchegoan, face the same challenge. Secondly, most of the homestay owners remain oblivious to the government incentives or provisions that have been mentioned in the policy. According to Yang Sherpa, owner of the Yang the Sherpa Homestay in Majhidhura near Darjeeling, “There are a lot of provisions for homestay owners. However, we remain mostly unaware of those provisions. More emphasis on that area is needed.”
Another peculiar problem faced by homestay owners is that of cultural divergence and that of lack orientation. The homestay owners are mostly indigenous people whereas their guests are mostly Bengalis and Assamese. Lack of knowledge of their cultural and culinary preferences can be challenging for homestay owners. This problem could easily be tided over through regular orientation programmes – which remain largely absent. According to Sherpa, “Better knowledge of the cultural background of our guests would allow us to host them better and be conscious of their preferences. What we are doing is learning from our mistakes or from the feedback provided by our guests. An orientation programme could be of great help.”
Lastly, market linkage remains difficult for homestay owners. Though there are provisions for promotion of homestays by governmental channels, that remains largely underplayed and homestay owners remain dependent on travel agents for business – losing on margins to these agencies that take commissions for their share of the work.
The neighbouring state of Sikkim has done a wonderful job of promoting homestays – with their state government promoting it as the prime mover for their tourism industry. Though West Bengal has a policy in place, ensuring the necessary infrastructure for development of homestay tourism remains a far-cry. More invested involvement and hand-holding is necessary to ensure the growth of homestay tourism in West Bengal.