Posted on 29 June 2011
While visiting Bhutan, one is sure to discover the pleasure of taking one’s tea salty rather than sweet. The richness of butter tea can warm the coldest of hands and sooth the hungriest of souls.
As with Bhutanese tea, so is the warmth of a homestay. A homestay feels like home away from home, offering travellers – foreign, regional or national – an opportunity to experience daily life on a farm in Bhutan’s countryside.
The concept is catching on. Visitors can opt to stay with villagers in private homes when travelling to attend a festival, work on a project, or take part in a cultural trek.
Those choosing a homestay in Nasiphel, Bumthang will be warmly welcomed into a large but cozy farmhouse made of stone, clay, and wood, and invited to relax in a private room carved out of blue pine. Butter tea and biscuits will undoubtedly be served, devoured with delight on the floor beside a crackling wood burning stove.
The village of Nasiphel is about 22km from the town of Chamkhar in the central district of Bumthang. Already one of the Bhutan’s most popular travel destinations, Bumthang is undergoing a massive transformation in preparation for an influx of guests once a new airport is built to service the area.
A new farm road was recently built to Nasiphel, which significantly improved communication and transportation in the Chokhor valley. Electricity followed shortly thereafter. Plans are also underway to construct a Gross National Happiness (GNH) Centre in Nasiphel. In addition, the road winds over a bridge signifying entry into Wangchuck Centennial Park (WCP).
The residents of Nasiphel encounter unique benefits and challenges as a result of living within WCP, the biggest and newest of ten protected areas in Bhutan. WCP and WWF Bhutan have been working collaboratively to co-manage and implement several conservation and livelihood development initiatives within and around the park. However, residents are now asked to adhere to park rules designed to conserve forests and wildlife while at the same time balancing livelihoods.
Challenges are further rooted in the nature of dense forest lying next to agricultural land in the valley. Human-wildlife conflict has become a serious concern resulting in major losses to agriculture and livestock. Numerous tactics are being used and tested to minimize the damage, including sound and light warnings, wood fencing, along with the traditional “scarecrow” approach, albeit sometimes with Bhutanese dress, a “scare-gho” so to speak. But villages have found the most effective strategy is a watchful farmer’s eye, particularly during the dark hours of the night.
During the growing season, family members in Nasiphel are called to sleep outside in a guard shed to prevent crops and livestock from being damaged. The biggest culprit is said to be wild boar, but barking deer, sambar, wild dog, and even the occasional tiger have been known to cause havoc in the region.
With eco-tourism developments planned for Bumthang, combined with financial losses resulting from human-wildlife conflicts and the inability to retaliate within a protected area, the time was right to develop a homestay program in WCP. Several communities have been selected to pilot the program, including Nasiphel, as well as Zhabjethang, Simthang, Tashiling, Zangling and Ngalakha villages. Many more have expressed interest and are currently being considered.
Households selected for the homestay program have been provided with support from WWF Bhutan, WCP, and other supporters including the Tourism Council of Bhutan, Helvetas, and Elysium Foundation. Funding has paid for materials to update infrastructure including modern toilets, showers and wood shingles, and local community members provided the labour. Twenty homes have received support to date, with 15 now open for business, ready to accommodate guests.
In addition, as part of the homestay program, 12 young women from the region received hospitality training to learn about housekeeping and cooking for guests, and general homestay management. Each received a certificate from the Minister of Agriculture and Forests, Lyonpo Dr. Pema Gyamtsho, and returned home to share knowledge with other family members.
In addition to new infrastructure and training, communities are working to create and capitalize on an “alpine organic” feel in the region. New wood shingles highlight the traditional alpine look. Visitors can opt to enjoy outdoor cultural dances or take a dip in a hot bath drawn in an outdoor wooden tub. The ultimate intent is to provide meals made with organic produce, including milk, butter, cheese, flour, and vegetables, direct from the village. To achieve this goal, greenhouse facilities and organic seeds have been provided to promote organic farming and reduce the need for imported vegetables throughout the year.
The homestay program is designed to offer an alternative source of livelihood for farmers to minimize urban migration and distribute tourism-related income more equitably between urban and rural areas. At the same time, the initiative aims to reduce dependence on local forest products and help offset losses resulting from wildlife damage.
The flow of tourists will depend on successfully promoting the program and developing additional tourism activities like treks, short walking trails, bird watching, cultural tours, etc. There also is a great deal of competition from local resorts and hotels. It is hoped that travel agents will help promote the homestay as one option in a traveller’s itinerary.
To help deal with these challenges, Nasiphel has plans to form a tshogpa (community group) to market, book guests, and create program rules. Finding balance is key. As with any farm, there are not always enough hands. Planting, harvesting and trading goods, cultural ceremonies and participation in community activities, as well as income generation from the homestay, Cordyceps collection and other work, must all be balanced within each household. However, if the pilots are found to be successful, the homestay program could be replicated in other parks and regions cross Bhutan.
A homestay offers a unique tourism opportunity to stay in an eco-friendly farmhouse and experience life in a rural village. While travelling in Bhutan, WWF Bhutan encourages travellers to consider homestays as part of one’s travel plans. A hot cup of butter tea is waiting for you.