In Himachal Pradesh, regular hotels face a new challenge. Ever since the state opened its borders a couple of weeks ago, tourists—excluding those rushing to check out the newly opened Atal (Rohtang) tunnel and the Lahaul Valley-- are flocking to quaint villages and homestays, far from the madding crowds. Hotels in the capital Shimla are losing out to niche rural destinations and single occupancy hill resorts.
The reasons, apart from the COVID pandemic which has made most people instinctively avoid crowded places, are clear. Drive to Fagu, a fascinating village settlement barely 38 minutes from Shimla, or even beyond that to Theog, Kotkhai, Matiyana, and Narkanda: the air is just pure, free from smog and dust. And the views are spectacular.
While Mashobra, a famed tourist destination near Shimla already had few pioneering home-stays and nature resorts located amidst green forest valleys, the tourists--from urban centres like Mumbai, Delhi, Noida, Gurugram, and Pune-- are looking for peace and quiet in the upper-Shimla areas.
“I can safely tell you my resort is beating some of the top hotel chains,” Chetan Bragta, who owns Daafi, a newly opened hill resort with three family cottages near Theog, told Outlook. “These hotels have either three to four rooms booked or have only weekend occupancy. But I am running almost packed. The COVID-induced lockdown had hit me hard. But post lockdown I am quite comfortable. My resort caters only to niche clients, yet has now picked up very well,” he says.
Barely a few kilometres away, Doc Hardy’s Cottage (Kotkhai), which has tied up with the leading hospitality chain Vista Rooms, promises to deliver an authentic homestay experience in its apple orchard facing the Mahasu forests. “I have upgraded the standard rooms at my farm cottage and got it registered with the state's tourism department for running it as a homestay,” says Ankur Chauhan, an orchardist. “Lot of people from the metropolitan areas want to skip the cities (hotels) and stay in a homely and clean environment with locals. People like me, who own cottages in the orchards are rolling out their places to such tourists,” he says.
The apple season has just gotten over, giving host families time to spend time with their guests, though some are worried over the delays in the rain and the dry spell. Most homestays that have come-up along Fagu-Mashobra-Narkanda - (Kotgarh) belt are playing very safe in the COVID environment. The promoters have employed local staff, or are themselves hosting the guests, cooking and serving food, and taking them for long strolls or treks, adding further value to the experience.
“The homestay scheme, which the Himachal Pradesh government had introduced some years back, is in itself a unique experiment in the dispersal of the tourism to interiors,” says Rakesh Kanwar, Secretary to Governor, who also holds additional charge of Director (Tourism). “We are working out plans to impart proper training to the promoters and their staff about COVID safety norms, and also how to serve their guests.”
The tourism department’s record shows there are around 200 homestays in Shimla district alone, but the actual number is likely to be higher. In fact, there are two parallel schemes –one promoted by the state government under which anyone owning a property in the orchard setting or elsewhere can get registered provided the rooms (up to four) meet standard norms. The Government of India’s Bed & Breakfast scheme has also become popular, encouraging locals to operate homestays or guesthouses.
How do Shimla hoteliers feel about tourists preferring to stay away from the town? “Well, if the tourists are comfortable with the new concept, and return satisfied, there is no problem,” says Sanjay Sood, President of the Shimla Hotels and Restaurants Association. “The only thing that the government should keep in mind is all such ventures be registered, follow regulatory mechanisms and maintain the record of those checking in such places in the rural settings,” he says.
Sonia Sharma from Noida, who got married during the lockdown in June 2020, bypassed Shimla to in favour of a newly set-up home-stay at Kotkhai. “When my husband told me about a plan to lodge at an orchard cottage, I just said please go ahead. We stayed with the family, the owner couple, had a bonfire in the evening, good home-cooked food and excellent hospitality. The experience is just terrific,” she says.
What about costs? This has never really been an issue for those looking for such off-town places. Some of the premium locations charge as much as star hotels (Rs 8000-10,000) for two-room cottages. But you can also get accommodation ranging from Rs 1500 to 2500 per room, depending on the location and view. Shimla's orchard belt of Kotgarh and Thanedar are in high demand and have some really premium properties. 'I’m getting customers who want to stay for longer stays, say about a month or 20 days. For them I have an option to lower the tariff,” says Daafi owner Bragta.
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