With the outbreak of COVID-19 taking a toll on the hospitality industry, the homestay business across the country has been severely hit. What makes the homestay experience special for tourists is their interaction with the hosts and other guests. At at time when we are constantly being reminded about maintaining physical distancing, homestays are trying to create a model that would allow tourists to enjoy the quintessential homestay experience, while also ensuring the safety of both guests and hosts.
Chhotaram Prajapat, who runs a homestay in Jodhpur’s Salawas village, says that he has created a separate entrance for his guests. In the pre-COVID world, Prajapat’s guests would find the way to their rooms through his house. The aim, says Prajapat, was to make them feel at home. It’s been over a fortnight since Prajapat re-opened his homestay. The decision was lead by the fact that his village was untouched by the coronavirus. “Our advantage is that not even a single case has been recorded within 10km radius of our homestay,” he says.
Prajapat is of course not willing to compromise the safety of his guests. “Though our region is unaffected by the disease, we are obviously following all set norms as per government guidelines,” he says. Guests at Prajapat’s stay in mud houses where every room will have facemasks. Both staff and visitors will be put through thermal screening.
There have been a few changes in the way Prajapat’s homestay functions. For instance, earlier his guests could participate in cooking the authentic Rajasthani meals, but that will change now. They were also encouraged to self-serve in order to give them the 'home away from home' feeling. Now, Prajapat’s kitchen staff will do the needful.
Discussing his current promotion strategy, Prajapat says that he is seeking the help of patrons. “We are requesting them to promote rural tourism and they are supporting us. They are sending their friends over and some of our regular clients will also be coming to stay here in the coming days,” he says.
Prajapat has already hosted a few guests since his place reopened. His regular international clients have also been in touch. “Around 90 percent of our guests are foreigners,” says Prajapat who has played host to guests from all over the world in the last 11 years. And they have been calling him, saying they are waiting for international borders to re-open.
Prajapat belongs to a family of traditional weavers and aims to preserve the dying art of interlock weaving through his homestay. “We make beautiful durries and our guests love to participate in the weaving process and learn about our art." He also organises village walks, wildlife safaris and sunset treks for guests.
Doors GHNP is an initiative that enables community based travel in rural areas of Himachal Pradesh. The organisation supports four families of handloom weavers in villages of the Sainj valley in Kullu district. Ashish Sharma, who helms the initiative, has been receiving calls from clients who are looking to spend a couple of months working from a homestay. “Now that our clients from metros have the option to work from home, they are contemplating moving to the hills for a few months. We are trying to get a decent internet connection and make our homestays suitable for their needs,” says Sharma.
His organisation has also sent a proposal to the National Health Mission to set up emergency health services in the region, so that guests would feel comfortable coming to the remote valley. The Himachal Pradesh government has yet to open its state borders, and this has been the biggest hurdle for Sharma to get homestay owners back in business.
The weaving community, who earns its livelihood by weaving the famous shawls of Kullu, has been badly hit. They largely depend on exhibitions across the country to sell their products. Many of the exhibitions they were supposed to attend were cancelled due to the pandemic.
Handloom classes are a huge draw among tourists, who also make sure to shop at the handloom centre in the valley. “Last year, we hosted 300 guests and most of them had come to learn about the traditional weaving process,” says Sharma.
While Prajapat and Sharma are all set to host guests, there are homestays that don’t think that reopening would be a wise decision right now, given the unpredictable nature of the virus. Ishita Khanna, Director and Co-Founder of Spiti Ecosphere, says that homestays in Spiti are not going to reopen any time soon because it’s a remote area lacking a solid health infrastructure.
Romi Samele, who manages the community-based Orchha Homestays, is also not planning to host guests right now because doing so could compromise the safety of the host families.
Then there are the homestays which are willing to make exceptions for their regular clientele and for guests who plan to stay for months. Mallika Virdi from Himalayan Ark, Munsiari, says that homestays under her organisation will be accommodating long-term guests from July. “We’ll be giving them a kitchenette and encouraging them to cook for themselves,” says Virdi.
Her organisation is also trying to handle the immediate cash crisis by paying homestay owners from their reserves and giving them easy interest-free loans. “Homestays are not our only source of income. We also do farming, wool work, and we take people on treks and expeditions. So we have worked on our core competencies and that is helping us sustain right now,” says Virdi. Her organisation is also spreading awareness among homestay owners in other parts of Uttarakhand. “We are making short videos and trying to explain the guidelines in a simpler way,” she says.