Community Ecotourism: Homestay Experiences in Sikkim, India
Learning about Sikkimese culture at home (Photo by KarmaQuest)
Community Tourism in Sikkim
Sikkim is a Himalayan state in northern India known for its rugged mountains, deep valleys and dense forests. It is also the only state in India with a Nepali majority as well as a Lepcha and Bhutia population. As a result of its unique location and culture, Sikkim is an ideal place to benefit from ecotourism. Community-based ecotourism is a major draw to this area, and many such tourism experiences include homestays.
One of the organizations visitors to this area can rely on to arrange a homestay is KarmaQuest, an adventure travel company with a strong focus on outdoor learning and conservation in this region.
KarmaQuest works with Kangchendzonga Conservation Committee in Sikkim, a community-based organization comprised of energetic and dedicated members who help to educate and train communities in sustainable tourism, and to manage the impacts of tourism on the natural environment and cultural sites of Sikkim. KCC greets all KarmaQuest trips to Yuksom, the trailhead to Khangchendzonga National Park, showing guests their work in the community and helping to promote homestay accommodations.
Benefits of Homestays
Homestays are a valuable aspect of ecotourism for many reasons. First, homestays enable close interaction among visitors and local people that is normally absent in a hotel or guest house situation; offering the chance to see how host families live, what they eat, and to learn about customs and cultural beliefs through first-hand experiences.
Second, responsible travelers want their travels to contribute to the benefit of local people. Payment for homestay services goes directly to the family and tangible results are easily visible. A portion of income may also go to a community fund which might be used to pay for trail improvements, better schools or monasteries, etc., sharing the benefits of tourism more widely.
For the community, on the other hand, homestays may offer the opportunity to share culture with guests, giving greater value to traditions. Homestay income generates significant supplemental income as well, requires minimal investment and allows family members to remain living and working at home. Also, women homestay operators gain new skills and confidence through their interactions with guests and through the appreciation guests show for their home-making skills. The income women earn can elevate their socio-economic status among their own family and community members.
Ecotourism as a Tool for Conservation & Sustainable Development
A recent University of Puget Sound study of village homestays in Sikkim found that since the introduction of the homestay program ten years ago, many cultural activities have resurged, including knowledge and practice of traditional songs, dance, language, dress, and cooking, all of which hold high cultural importance to the community.
Furthermore, homestays are often cited as a highlight of visitors’ time in Sikkim, reflected in their testimonials: “It was a unique experience to be with people who feel rich because they have food, shelter, and warm clothing; there are no homeless in Rumbak,” and, “The homestay was the highlight of the trip. We were treated like royalty.”
Homestay tourism provides good incentives for cultural conservation, but further consultation on product development and marketing are needed. Homestay operators have expressed frustration that tourists do not take an interest in other aspects of the culture that they value and wish to share, notably Sikkimese New Year (Lossong Festival) and use of Bhutia language. Visitors enjoy milking the family cow, and would like to help with other every day household tasks but homestay family members’ poor English speaking skills and their awkwardness at seeing such chores as ecotourism products serve as barriers.
About Wendy Brewer Lama
Wendy Brewer Lama, Co-Owner of KarmaQuest Ecotourism and Adventure Travel, conducts an University of Puget Sound undergraduate course titled “Ecotourism as a Tool for Conservation and Sustainable Development”, which features field-based learning of the principles and practices of ecotourism as an enabling mechanism for conservation within a protected area and community setting in Sikkim, India. During the month-long course, students undertake an evaluation of a village homestay program (Himalayan Homestays) in Kuzing and conduct an assessment of tourism impact management in Kangchendzonga National Park.
KarmaQuest trips visit sites where Wendy and Karma and their conservation and community-service partners have helped nurture ecotourism development, allowing travelers to learn first-hand about the host culture and lifestyle. Such visits break down cross-cultural barriers and enable both hosts and guests to make new international friendships. Local home-stay operators, village nature guides, tour operators and conservation groups benefit from KarmaQuest visits from direct payment for services and from KarmaQuest and client donations, supporting local conservation initiatives and social service outreach programs with much needed revenue. Lectures and field studies with local experts and professionals enhance the learning experiences.
KarmaQuest has twice received recognition from major industry media including Outside Magazine’s Trip of the Year Asia, and Trip of a Lifetime for its innovate trips and commitment to responsible travel ethics. KarmaQuest presently operates custom-designed FIT and scheduled group trips to Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand. Trips feature ecotourism and educational-oriented travel that contributes to community conservation initiatives; trekking, mountaineering, and adventure travel; and specialty, nature and cultural trips suited to specific client interests.