The sky-high village homestays empowering Nepal’s communities
By Elliana Saltalamacchia
Every day, the locals of Tangting village in central Nepal are treated to pristine views of the Annapurna Ranges.
These are views that leave would leave most visitors – foreign and Nepalese alike – absolutely speechless.
But despite their geographical privilege, like any remote mountain village in Nepal, Tangting faces economic challenges.
But village leaders across Nepal have discovered a new way for their people to make a living.
Tourist homestays have become an emerging source of income and a pathway to community development for many Nepalese villages. According to the Nepal Government’s Tourism Employment Survey, homestays generated 2700 jobs in 2014.
Tangting villagers are welcoming tourists into their homes to experience village life and all its wonderful highs, hand-in-hand with the community’s ongoing daily challenges.
Tangting is located in the Kaski district of Nepal, a three-hour Jeep ride along a windy and very bumpy track from Pokhara – Nepal’s second largest city.
The village is situated in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas, the region home to one peak over 8000m above sea level, and 13 over 7000m. For comparison, Mount Everest – located about 300km away – dwells 8848m above sea level.
Tangting lies just below the Annapurna IV and Lanjung Himal base camps at an elevation of 1650m. It is a traditional Gurung village, its members renowned for being tough mountain people, all with the surname Gurung.
Economic opportunity is scarce with many villagers moving to major cities or abroad for work. Villagers estimate 2200 people were living in Tangting 15 years ago. Today, the village has only 700 inhabitants.
Homestays however, have created an economic, sustainable and empowering employment opportunity for Tangting villagers – and this is their story.
“I realised that I had to do this for the village”
In 2001, Tangting villager Duja Gurung was selected by the local tourism board to travel to Sirubari in Syangja district – the first village to implement the homestay concept in Nepal.
Duja saw Sirubari had similar Gurung people and culture, and could see Tangting had the potential for the same success with homestays. She realised this could be a way to pull herself and her fellow villagers out of poverty.
“I realised that I had to do this for the village. Otherwise, I would not be a responsible lady,” Duja said.
She called all the mothers in the village to discuss what would create employment and be a tool for the development of Tangting. But the other women doubted their ability to run homestays and did not share Duja’s enthusiasm.
“At the start it was quite hard because nobody wanted to believe, nobody wanted to start it,” Duja said.
“I thought I could start by myself but I realised no – I have to teach the other people, I have to help the other people, and working together would be easier.”
In 2011, coincidently falling in Nepal Tourism Year, Tangting homestays were launched under Duja’s direction. Today, ten Tangting households welcome guests from far and wide into their homes.
“It is a natural way for them to make money”
Tourism has continually been an important generator of employment in Nepal, and it is no different in Tangting; after agriculture, tourism is the main source of income.
Karnu Gurung is the Tangting homestay coordinator, as well as the village health worker. She said the introduction of homestays has lifted the financial situations of families.
“Before, the economic standard was very poor, but after five years of homestay, their economic standard has improved,” Karnu said.
“It is a natural way for them to make money. They don’t have to invest much.”
The cost for guests is not fixed, with visitors giving according to their wishes. Of the homestay earnings, 99 per cent goes to the family, and one per cent to the homestay committee.
However, according to the Tourism Employment Survey, 91 per cent of homestay employees in Nepal earned less than Rs 10,000 (about $100AUD) per month in 2014 – the highest percentage of any tourism industry – and none received more than Rs 20,000 per month.
But Karnu said homestays are often supplemented by another income, with most families selling their crops or receiving money from family abroad.
She said homestays also provide the opportunity for hosts and villagers to sell local products to guests. Many sell their produce, or handmade items such as weaved blankets, which enhances their money supply.
“There are a lot of opportunities when there are homestays,” Karnu said.
“Nowadays I don’t keep quiet; I speak”
As well as economic empowerment, homestays have opened the door for community development in rural villages in Nepal.
Karnu emphasised in particular the improved sanitation and hygiene of villagers.
“Nowadays they feel they need to have a clean kitchen and clean clothes. When they hear the guests are coming they come home, they take showers and they change their dress and they look so good,” Karnu said.
“Before if you told them they need to clean the bathroom for example, they were not interested. But now, once they have started to get money, they have changed.”
Homestays are also providing less physically demanding work than what villagers, particularly women, were doing before – working in the forest and the field.
Homestays have been particularly empowering for women, creating an employment opportunity for every Tangting woman.
But they have also been a platform for women to find their voice.
Duja said when she was starting the homestays, men didn’t like women speaking in meetings and did not want their opinions to be considered.
But today, Duja proudly refuses to let this hold her back.
“Nowadays I don’t keep quiet; I speak. If we don’t speak, nobody speaks and then we never get change,” Duja said.
“Homestays are going very good here and see that ladies were the main people [to start them].”
“We like it very spicy and salty, but not for you”
Debi Gurung has lived in Tangting for all her 58 years. She has five children, three of which have moved to Brunei and Hong Kong for employment.
Debi opened the doors of her home to guests when the homestay program began.
The ten homestays work on rotation, allowing each to host 30-40 visitors a year. All homestay mothers, called Aama – mother – are provided with training in cooking, cleaning and English language lessons before starting work.
As a homestay, Debi offers visitors a bed, just as her family sleeps in, and bathroom facilities, just as the family uses.
Guests eat just as the family does – with their hands, barefoot and cross-legged on the floor – minus a few differences.
“We like it very spicy and salty, but not for you,” Debi said.
Unlike for herself, Debi boils the water before guests drink it. She will also boil some so her visitors can have a warm bucket shower rather than a villager-style ice-cold one.
If guests are interested in the traditional lifestyle and culture, Debi will help them experience it. She also acts as a guide around the village.
Debi said the best part of homestays is the income and the opportunity to sell her local products, but she also loves meeting her guests.
“I am very happy to see other people,” she said.
“Even if I don’t understand the language, I can enjoy with my smile.”
“I have the courage to learn”
Debi is not alone in her difficulty with the language barrier.
Most of the Aamas speak no English and there are no translators in the homes. Some families may have someone who speaks English, or English-speaking neighbours and friends will always come to the rescue.
Alternatively, guests are able to come with guides through homestay and trekking companies, who will then act as translators.
But the Aamas do have a solution: sign language, and a lot of smiling.
Duja however, is determined to learn English to communicate with her guests.
“I want to learn [English] to make the homestays better,” she said.
“I am still not even 50. I have more time to learn and I have the courage to learn.”
But learning English isn’t the only thing on Duja’s to do list to improve the program.
Many houses in Tangting don’t have windows or lights leaving rooms extremely dark, even in daylight hours.
Traditional open-fire stoves also fill homes with thick smoke causing eyes to sting and making breathing difficult, especially for guests who aren’t used to these conditions.
But the smoke causes more than just discomfort for guests: it is a silent killer.
Nearly three-quarters of rural households in Nepal use firewood as a source of cooking fuel, polluting homes with high levels of smoke containing harmful, health-damaging pollutants.
Acute respiratory conditions, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer are rampant health risks arising from smoke exposure, with women and children most at risk as they spend most of their time at home.
Duja wants to decrease the amount of smoke so guests can have a more comfortable stay, while simultaneously improving the health of her family and her villagers.
“What I am doing is already very good. Only thing I need to improve is the smoke – that is not good.”
“I am also ready for the light,” Duja said.
“The view should stay the same,” she added, smiling.
“We have lots of marigolds – these are for the guests”
To write this report, I stayed five nights in one of Tangting’s homestays, surrounded by the colourful culture, the warm hospitality and the picturesque mountain views that come with living in a rural Nepalese village.
But the benefits for me are unparalleled to the impact of the homestay program on Tangting families.
The injection of our money into these local economies when travelling is pivotal if we want to see the world’s most vulnerable communities progress.
“We want to bring more tourists because we want to change our lives,” Duja said.
“We want to make it an easier life. If we have better financial support, we will have a better life.”
2016 saw Tangting host more guests than ever before, something Karnu said the village has been waiting for.
“We have lots of marigolds – these are for the guests. When we saw a lot of flowers but guests were not here, we were disappointed.”
“But now, guests are here and there are lots of flowers, so we are very happy,” Karnu said.
“I am so happy and proud that guests are coming here,” Duja said.
And I am happy for them.
Dhanyabaad Tangting and pheri betaulaa. Thank-you Tangting and see you again.
[Interviews with Duja Gurung, Debi Gurung and Karnu Gurung conducted via Nepali/English translator. Feature photo by Elliana Saltalamacchia.]