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Though the last decade has seen the emergence of a large number of homestays across the country, it is a segment that has had a chequered existence in the Indian hospitality industry. States like Kerala and Goa continue to lead in the homestay sector in India, with the many heritage homes in Rajasthan offering unique hospitality options. A few offbeat locations that are making a difference include some of the homestay initiatives in north east India and Ladakh. The Commonwealth Games in Delhi gave a fillip to the sector with active help from the state government who saw homestays as the best alternative to tackle the shortage of rooms in hotels and meeting the demands of tourist inflow. For the new age traveller who is constantly on the look out for extraordinary experiences, there is a wide range of homestay options in India – from the backwaters in Kerala to Himalayan homes in Sikkim to the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. All offering unique experiences in terms of cultural insights, local cuisine and traditional lifestyle in the heart of an Indian home.

For every homestay that has survived there are many that have shut down – not surprisingly since it is a sector that is almost completely depended on word-of-mouth publicity and social media ratings, ensuring that only a few that have consistent high reputation are able to do business. To ensure the success of Indian homestays it has been necessary for the owners to set high standards in hospitality. Only a few have managed to carve a niche for themselves in their efforts to cater to a discerning clientele.

Among all the states Kerala has had a focused strategy for this segment for quite sometime now. D Soman, president, Kerala Home Stay & Tourism Society (HATS) Trivandrum, says, “There are about 350 approved homestays in Kerala. But not all of them are actually working. This is because marketing is a big problem for homestays. Creating awareness among tourists and travel agents is a challenge.” Kerala HATS which now has 150 members was set up as a consortium of homestay providers and tourism promoters to serve as a nodal association for the segment and to provide proper guidance and help in marketing homestays. According to Soman, “The state government has started the three tier classification system for homestays: Gold, Silver and Diamond. Every two years the license has to be renewed and fees have to be paid. The fees vary according to the classification. Hygiene is a very important criteria for approval. Kerala HATS helps homestay owners to spread awareness about their homestays through our website, travel agents and by word-of-mouth.” Munnar and Thekkady have the maximum number of homestays in Kerala. “Nowadays we see a trend that visitors prefer home stays which offer them many benefits over hotels: homestays offer security and privacy, homely atmosphere, local food and helps guests imbibe the local culture and that too at economical rates. We also arrange cultural programmes and local arts for the guests. Corporate homestays are not really homestays in the true sense. They are more like resorts,” he adds.

Kerala HATS recently made a petition to the government to help homestay owners acquire power at domestic rates which was granted. The association is now requesting the government to include a homestay representative on the approval committee which grants the licences and the classification. The committee already has representation by airlines, hotel associations, travel agents and the government. “But ironically the homestay segment itself is not represented,” points out Soman. Suman Billa, secretary, Kerala Tourism avers that while there is a classification system for homestays, of late there has been a profileration of homestays. “But we don’t see any grave need to pull them up as this is a source of livelihood for many homes. We prefer it to remain more of a voluntary classification system. Homestay owners know that they can attract tourists only if they meet the standards. So the pull should work more than the push,” mentions Billa.

When Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC) had initiated its homestay programme two decades ago, Chandrashekhar Singh of Jodhpur was among the first to apply. While many homestays closed down in the subsequent years, Singh persisted and was were able to get business through the local excursion agents who transferred their groups/FITs to the homestays during the peak tourist periods. Word of mouth publicity and Tripadvisor ratings all attributed to the success of the venture. Singh also does not regret that unlike many of his ilk he did not convert his homestay into a guest house where impersonal service is provided to guests like that in a hotel. In the last 20 years Singh has hosted countless guests from all over the world, the most frequent being visitors from the UK, Germany and Switzerland. He has been lending his expertise in helping other homestays in Rajasthan promote themselves through his initiative Rajputana Discovery.

Untapped potential

It is interesting that while in some pocket areas, homestays are quite well known as an option for travellers, in other states there is a complete lack of understanding of what the segment means. A largely disorganised sector, there has been some maturity in this space in recent times. “We have seen a huge growth in the last few years in not only the number of independent stays but also in the number of people interested in travelling this way. This is the sustainable way to travel for both existing as well as new travel destinations. It also helps to sensitise travellers to the local area, its people and culture. Needless to say, the potential is immense,” says Rekha Goyal, co-founder, namastay.in. Namastay.in’s homestay initiatives was started in 2007 to make it possible for customers to book online independent stays in homestays, villas, heritage bungalows, etc. The target clientele are people who are looking for experiential holidays, local and cultural experiences across all age groups and all budgets. “A significant portion of our clientele have been from the cities, families travelling with kids as well as elderly people,” mentions Goyal.

The last three years have seen significant growth in homestay segment as more and more travellers from India and overseas prefer to stay in a homestay which offers all modern comforts, amenities and a secured environment as compared to budget hotels. “Another big advantage of homestays is they offer a big opportunity to experience the Indian culture and way of life which the overseas guests look forward to while staying with the hosts,” says Sanjeev Khurana of Indianhomestays.org, whose target clientele for selling homestays across India are travellers from the US, Canada, Europe, South Africa and Australia. His marketing strategy mainly comprises of online selling using e-marketing tools like Google pay-per-click campaigns, classified ads, e-mailers to relevant databases and search engine optimisation for improving website rankings and presence on major search engines.

Rajagopal of Glenora Home Stay in Wayanad district of Kerala believes the growth will continue marked by emergence of new trends. “The government and travel/tourism industry are already doing a great job in promoting the homestay segment. With a large number of homestays coming up, they conduct travel marts, road shows and many such programmes and I think that itself is enough for the promotion of the sector,” he states with optimism.

Multifarious challenges

Homestays as a category is already well known in certain pockets in the south of India. Other parts of the country champion other kinds of independent accommodations like B&Bs, guest houses, etc. To make India a homestay destination, there is a need to generate an understanding and awareness of what a homestay is. Singh avers that initially he faced a lot of hurdles like marketing the product and inducing guests to stay with his family, “We are not professionals and also very small and so we had no funds to market ourselves. The government (read RTDC) did try its best to promote us but their efforts were limited although their intentions were very noble. We should also be exempted from paying commercial rates for water and electricity. The various trade organisations should also take notice of us and send us guests – they still suspect us to be inefficient although their attitude is slowly changing for the better. But they do not go out of their way to promote homestays and book us only as an alternate and cancel when the get confirmations elsewhere.”

Marketing and exposure to tour operators and end customers being the two key challenges for homestay owners, Sejoe Jose started the The Green Apple Experience with the objective of promoting homestays and villas. “We provide all possible help like information on taking licence from the government and important statutory obligation so they run the business legally and not get into unwanted trouble. We do training of staff, thus making use of the local community and existing infrastructure,” says Jose. The Green Apple Experience provides reservation software for the homestay owners which is user friendly and can be used from home or from their smart phone. Besides quality standards are fixed.

It is necessary for any homestay owner to be patient and not think of occupancy like a hotel. Jose reminds that it took four years for Green Apple to be recognised and the homestays listed with the company to start getting bookings more frequently. “Most of the homestay owners compare themselves with others and try and provide experiences for which they are not specialised. Tour operators some time treat homestays like a hotel which can be a very big challenge and thus losing the basic concept. It is also important to identify the right host. That is the house could be the best but the most important person is the host who makes the difference. He should enjoy being a host from his first client and give the same experience even after many years,” asserts Jose.

Emerging trends

While getaway homestays have been popular for sometime now, the emergence of city-based homestays is an interesting development. Delhi, Kolkata, Varanasi, Mumbai and Bengaluru are key locations. “With homestays becoming popular in major metros across India, one can notice an emerging trend of small boutique properties coming up in the cities and hill stations offering business or leisure accommodation tailor made to the guest’s requirements,” says Khurana.

Of late there are many interesting trends emerging. Goyal avers that now people are more open to not staying at a regular hotel on their holiday. Then, within the independent accommodation segment, there are niches emerging. The concept of shared accommodations is also gaining traction, though in India issues around safety are largely unaddressed. “The most exciting trend, though not limited to the homestay segment, is the adoption of the internet for transactions. Using a combination of social media, payment gateways and easy-to-build web sites, independent accommodations can reach out to their customers directly, obliterating the need for large travel players. So unless there is serious value that an intermediary is adding, there is no need for homestays to work with them,” points out Goyal.

Many of the homestays that Jose promotes are those which specialise in village life and culture. “We put these properties in sites and other verticals which promote village life. Thus we give a lot of importance to the experience at each homestay. We also are present at important international and national trade shows,” says Jose. His target clientele are those who enjoy and respect different cultures. The focus is not mass tourism but enabling guests to have special experiences like rural tourism / agriculture / cuisine / culture. “The new traveller is looking for these special experiences. We have noticed even those who book hotels like to add one homestay in their itinerary to understand the culture of the region they wish to travel,” he adds. For instance, under Green Apple there is a property located in Pollachi (a village in Tamil Nadu) where Jose has witnessed bookings from city families who are trying show children about rural life.

Making a difference

A significant percentage of homestay guests are those who are looking for a differentiated travel experience. For instance, many homestays have come up in the popular trekking routes of Ladakh. Travellers can stay in Ladhaki village homes, eat the local cuisine and soak in the culture, while they trek across Hemis National Park. This is also generating income for the local villagers besides reducing the environmental impact of camping.

Lt general Jimmy Singh initiated a village tourism project at Samthar. Project Awake & Shine was conceived to awaken the Samthar communities to the potential of Integrated Village Tourism. “Our homestays were set up solely with a view to provide income to locals, and to attract clients who were potential sponsors for children at the Awake & Shine School at Samthar,” says Jimmy Singh. “We need to provide the young with the ability to earn within the environments of rural society. Integrated village tourism offers a viable potential,” he asserts. Earnings from village homestays are around Rs 2000 per night from one double guest room. Average turnover of each double room is a modest Rs 30000 per year, approximately. “Even this sum is more than 10 times the income from dry land agriculture on the plot of land used for building the home-stay,” he says.Interestingly, homestays in some of the remote and off-the-beaten track destinations are not without their share of attractions for the discerning traveller, ranging from orchard tours to jungle safaris to adventure activities. What is needed is a more focused approach to showcase the myriad hues of Indian hospitality and culture through more support from the government and the travel industry.

(With inputs from Steena Joy)

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