By Sahana Ghosh
Chuikhim, (West Bengal), Jul 22 :Not long ago, the 1,200-odd inhabitants in this sleepy village of Chuikhim, nestled in the Kalimpong hills, lived a meagre existence based on subsistence farming. Villagers and guests play carom in a homestay in Chuikhim. Many residents in the hills of Sikkim and North Bengal have opened their homes to tourists and travellers, offering hospitality, home cooked meals and intimate views of the region's beauty.
Their precarious financial situation got worse because most men of the 1.06km-altitude area whittled time away with gambling and alcohol. Encouraged by social workers, the village women sat vigil to try to restrain the men from drinking, but without much success.
Then, the women began to ponder about a way out of their financial woes and hit upon a unique idea -- hosting tourists on their way to Lolegaon and Kalimpong.
Durga Gurung, 50, was one of the first to see the benefits; she started making money by renting out two rooms of her small cottage to tourists. "I can now afford to send my son to the local school," Gurung told Khabar South Asia.
Kolkata resident Kuntala Ghosh, 58, who stayed with a Chuikhim host, was elated by the experience.
"This trip was nothing like any other in the hills. The homestay did not have any of the usual tourist trappings. The facilities may not be luxurious, but one feels in unity with nature here. And the hosts treated us as family."
Chuikhim's oldest resident, 90-year-old Bindramayee Chhetri, says she has finally seen change in the village. "For a long time, nothing seemed to change since the time I came here from Nepal as a 14-year-old bride," Chhetri told Khabar. "Now, thanks to the tourists, things are looking up."
Homestays an economic engine
Exact government statistics on the number of homestays are unavailable. Help Tourism, the region's largest private tour operator, lists some 20 homestays in North Bengal and Sikkim. But in some areas, there are 10 unofficial homestays per village.
Pawan Chamling, chief minister of Sikkim, said that the state aims to have 20 homestays in every village. The government is also training five youths from each village to be self-employed in tourism through homestays, he said.
To be sure, vegetable and poultry farming is the primary livelihood of most villagers in these areas, but homestays promote community-based, low-impact tourism that provides economic opportunity. Homestays also grow the economy without endangering the environment.
The entire belt of Darjeeling-Kalimpong-Sikkim is dotted with homestays provided by Tibetan, Lepcha, Bhutia and Sherpa families. Tourists can experience the rich cultural heritage of the hill people, the serene beauty of the Himalayas and picturesque cottages covered with orchids, magnolias and rhododendrons.
Guest house in Tinchuley
Throughout the year, the Gurung Guest House in Tinchuley, near the small town of Takdah, attracts a stream of tourists from the plains. The Gurung family built the guest house next to their family home, using the logs of aged pine trees.
Led by matriarch Sanu Gurung, 60, two generations of the family welcome guests with the traditional scarf, khada, and see them off when they leave – sometimes with tears in their eyes.
"Ours is not really a hotel," Gurung, also the postmaster at the local post office, told Khabar. "We want our guests to remember us as family and return to us again and again."
The entire Gurung family looks after the guests, feeding them home-cooked organic food, taking them on short treks through the forests and entertaining them with music in the evenings. The family has its own apple orchard, vegetable patch, poultry pen and a small tea garden. They employ villagers to make apple jelly and tamarind pickle, which is served to guests at the meals.
"We hardly need to buy any of the food items that we serve," said Dipen Gurung, her brother. The Guest House also has a small store selling souvenirs like locally made cookies, candies and small sachets of tea leaves.
Kolkata resident Kajal Choudhury, 70, who stayed at Gurung Guest House in 2011, cherishes the memory. "They even gifted us locally made cookies at the end of our stay," Chowdhury said.