Rural holiday

Tourists are treated as guests in a small Sikkimese village

By Nidhi Jamwal
Published: Friday 15 October 2004

Rural holiday

Welcome home: Jigme Womchuk of (Credit: Nidhi Jamwal / CSE)To commune with the rugged beauty of a hilly terrain with a touch of the pristine about it, from the snug comfort of rustic dwellings -- a tourist's dream, one could say. Kewzing village in Ravangla sub-division of south Sikkim brings this image to life with its Village Home Stay programme.

Under the programme, launched in 2003, foreign tourists can stay with a village family as guests. The villagers have set up an elected, registered body - the Kewzing Tourism Development Committee (ktdc) -- that charges us $60 per foreign tourist per day and later pays the host families.

The ktdc regulates tourism, ensuring the profits are evenly distributed among the 20 families participating in the programme. The ktdc has set strict tourism rules. No hotel or resort is allowed in the village, nor can a family allot more than two rooms to tourists. Charges are fixed for various tourist activities and giving tips to host families is not allowed.

Says ktdc general secretary Jigme Womchuk, " ktdc makes all travel bookings. All tourists have to come through ktdc, which ensures financial regularity. We want the whole village to develop and flourish as part of our programme, hence the thrust is on community participation." In the first year of the programme, Kewzing attracted about 90 foreign tourist families, which raised the annual income of each participating family by Rs 6,300.

What sets Kewzing apart from other villages trying similar experiments is that its villagers have not divorced their earlier lifestyle to promote tourism. The tribal Bhutia community village continues to grow organic vegetables, which are supplied to nearby states; and also grows organic cardamom that is exported to the Middle East. "Tourism is seen just as a means of supplementing the village income," says Womchuk, who is also a primary school teacher. The programme is run through the year, though the best time to visit the village is from October to June.
Rural thrust The idea of integrating tourism into the rural economy of Kewzing came from Sikkim Development Foundation (sdf), a Gangtok-based non-governmental organisation. "As tourism was gaining ground in Sikkim, we felt that rural areas were not benefiting from it. All the money remained in the hands of urban people. Also we wanted tourists to understand that Sikkim is more than just Gangtok and Peling," says sdf executive director Karma P Takapa.

But developing this model of tourism was not easy. In 2001, 3-4 villages were identified for simultaneously launching the Home Stay programme. The idea was that villagers will not go for new construction, but will utilise an extra room in their house for the programme. Unfortunately, all the villages identified were found unsuitable on closer inspection -- either they had insufficient infrastructure or were difficult to access. The sdf then contacted an expert in Nepal who has done similar work in Sirubari village near Pokhara in the Himalayan kingdom. He helped sdf identify Kewzing and conduct capacity building exercises in the village. "Kewzing is located on the main road and has basic infrastructure. All we did was to organise local people and guide them to keep their area clean and well-sanitised. The idea of this programme is to treat tourists like family guests. Serve them nicely without becoming artificial," says Takapa.

The programme is also helping revive interest in the local culture. Every evening, the villagers organise a cultural programme for the guests. "Earlier we could not even sing a Bhutia song, but now we sing, dance and practice regularly," says Womchuk.

The programme has been a boon for the village youth. Take the case of Chong, an avid bird watcher, who is now the official guide of the village and earns Rs 1,500 a month. ktdc is sending Chong to Gwalior to study for a Bachelor's degree in tourism. Other unemployed people have also been roped in. ktdc has also tied up with travel agents in Gangtok, who send tourists to this Bhutia village. "Sikkim government is promoting tourism but it should look at our model. Haphazard construction will spoil the original beauty of our state," says Womchuk.

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