Sikkim relies heavily on tourism and has over 600 homestays spread across its villages and towns. Can these community-run homestays survive the wide-ranging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Sosing homestay, Kewzing, South Sikkim.
Sikkim, a small Himalayan state in the northeast region of India, with hardly 6.5 lakh population (compare this to Lucknow city’s population of over 28 lakh), relies heavily on tourism. Tourism contribution to the state GDP (Gross Domestic Product) stood at 7.68% (DESME, 2016-17) with around 12,000-15,000 people directly dependent on tourism as stake holders, as noted in the Sikkim Tourism Policy, 2018.
But this figure jumps three to four times when all the people engaged in tourism related allied activities, such as handicrafts made by self-help groups, restaurants and wayside facilities, local taxis, or even the vegetable markets, are considered.
And, the very first industry to get impacted by the COVID-19 lockdown was tourism and, in all likelihood, it will be the last one to revive once the pandemic subsides.
Tourism in Sikkim is synonymous with homestay, a concept that developed almost organically in the state. The first set of community-based ecotourism models were set up in four villages of the state way back in 2007 by Ecotourism and Conversation Society of Sikkim (ECOSS), a local non-profit, and the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).
A couple of years later, people saw this as an opportunity that required limited investment and expenses. They started converting their small village homes into homestays for tourists to visit and unwind. Soon the concept of homestay got recognised as an alternate model of income generation.
Today, there are almost 600 homestays, big and small, spread across the state. These homestays thrive on their own without any formal certification or categorisation. Many of them are on social media. The success of homestays is more of a personal effort by the homestay owners. Many big travel agencies are still not sure of marketing these homestays as their categorisation has not been done. It’s only the small travel agencies that have been marketing these homestays, or portals like Airbnb.
The COVID-19 lockdown has severely impacted the homestays as there are no tourists visiting the state and no source of income for the homestay owners. Jigme Bhutia runs a small six-room Sosing Homestay in Kewzing village near Ravangla in South Sikkim. He had invested heavily in revamping his village home to convert it into a homestay. He also constructed a large prayer room on the top floor of his house.
“I spent a lot of money on this traditional ornate prayer room just to ensure that it has a traditional appearance of a monastery. My guests always came into this room for meditation and loved this space. But it’s been bad year. Perhaps, the Gods are not happy with us,” he told me as he gazed at the large expanse of Mt. Khangchendzonga.
Dewaker Basnet, a resident of Namcheybong village near Gangtok, had started a unique model of incorporating the homestay concept as part of educational tour for students from various parts of the country. “Invacation, the name of my company, is my dream to get students to experience the rural Sikkimese life,” he told me.
Last winter Basnet spent two months travelling to schools and colleges across India and inviting them to Sikkim. There were several queries followed by bookings from Assam, Kerala and Maharashtra for this summer. But COVID-19 came in the way and everything fell apart.
Manisha and Nitisha, two sisters run a beautiful homestay — Muma’s Homestay — about 14 km from the state capital. Being close to Gangtok, they always had guests throughout the year. But this year has been disastrous.
Nitisha gave up her flourishing career to come back to her home state to revamp the ancestral property and start the homestay with her sister. “Everything was running very well with steady growth but the pandemic has sabotaged it all. Last winter we spent a lot of money to build the new wooden log house and beautifying our place. We have incurred heavy losses this season,” she complained.
Tourism and transport go hand in hand. And the pandemic has hit both badly. Rewaj Chhetri, CEO of NETaxi, the largest taxi aggregator platform in Sikkim, is also worried. He and his team have used the lockdown period to start an e-marketplace for promoting products of the entire northeast region by the name of NEOrigins, and another by the name of NEHolidays. Latter would be a homestay aggregator. “Post pandemic, travel is going to change drastically. I am thinking of ways to make it resilient and sustainable. Travel is not going to be the same anymore, but I feel better days will come for the homestays,” he assured.
To deal with the lockdown losses, homestay owners are trying other sources of income. During the lockdown, Basnet has started another initiative — Namcheybong Fresh — whereby he is supplying farm fresh vegetables and poultry products (some homegrown, others sourced from the surrounding villages) to the state capital.
“Our Gods cannot be perennially unhappy. I am a strong believer of Lord Buddha who said we have to fight through some bad days to earn our best days,” he smiled as he offered me hot tea and khabzey (traditional biscuits).
Satyadeep Chhetri is associate professor with Sikkim Government College. He is an avid quizzer and a science communicator. He is also the governing body member of two non-profits — ECOSS and SAATHI-Sikkim.