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As guests stay home, Nepal's homestays crumble from economic pressure.
Just a few months shy of the Visit Nepal 2020 year, the Ayodhyapuri Bufferzone Community Cultural Centre — a gathering place for eco-tourists visiting Chitwan National Park from around the world — was bedecked with fresh paint, new decorations and a sense of renewed hope for a profitable year.
But for the past three months, the hall has only been gathering dust.
In the wake of COVID-19 and the enforcement of lockdowns across the globe, the livelihood of homestay owners throughout Ayodhyapuri Bufferzone, a village that borders Chitwan National Park, has come to an abrupt halt.
Groups of greeters, who would typically line the entrance when guests arrive, have had no one to welcome. Cultural performers, who would once educate tourists about local cultures through song and dance, have lost an audience. Beds, formerly reserved at maximum capacity, have remained empty.
And homestay managers, once filled with optimism for their futures, are now starting to lose hope.
“Before the lockdown, our homestay was doing much better than I had ever imagined it would,” says Som Maya Pun, who runs ‘Homestay Number 10,’ a few 100 meters down from the Ayodhyapuri community centre. “We barely had even a second for ourselves but now we are jobless. We are just sitting here, waiting.”
With businesses shut, many households — vouching on gains from this year’s tourist season and the much-anticipated Visit Nepal 2020 campaign — have gone months without earning an income. And with documented COVID-19 cases on the rise across Nepal, especially in the Terai, homestays across the peripheries of Nepal’s protected parks are experiencing a similar fate.
In the Terai Arc Landscape alone, WWF Nepal supports a total of seventeen homestays. Experts fear that the mass withdrawal of domestic and international tourists will leave over 414 rooms and 676 beds empty — impacting over 204 households. More than 400 other livelihoods connected to these homestay businesses — such as dairy, vegetable, and meat providers — have also seen their income dwindle.
Beyond the seventeen homestays supported by WWF Nepal, community initiatives relying on nature-based tourism are experiencing an unprecedented fallout across the country, placing the livelihoods of millions in a state of limbo.
The halt in business also jeopardizes years of growing investments by communities and major gains in local development — raising the risk for further pressure on surrounding parks.
Bad News For Both People And Nature
The impact, according to Som Maya, is hard to quantify or capture in words. “What can we even say? I don’t think there are any words,” Som Maya says.
Prior to the lockdown, tourists would visit the area in droves, attracted by the opportunity to spot a diverse array of wildlife at Chitwan National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the first park in the world to receive accreditation for its tiger conservation efforts. Homestays in Ayodhyapuri were earning anywhere between Rs 20,000 to Rs 35,000 a month; 13 homestays across Ayodhyapuri alone welcomed more than 11,000 visitors in the past three years.
With the monsoon season looming, threats of locust swarms wiping agricultural progress on the horizon, and a family to feed, Som Maya is more concerned about immediate survival than future economic revival.
“There are rumours that the lockdown will only just continue. If it does, I don’t know what we will do,” she adds.
Tourism, one of the world’s biggest employers, is experiencing an unparalleled shock throughout the world, and is emerging as one of the hardest-hit economic sectors in the continued rise of COVID-19.
The projections are alarming; The World Travel and Tourism Council estimates that up to 75 million jobs face immediate risk. Similarly, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) predicts that globally, tourism numbers could fall by 60-80% as the year progresses.
In Nepal, experts say the fallout on long-haul international visitors will have far-reaching consequences, with the sector experiencing de-stabilization “for another two years even after the lockdown ends.” Given that tourism contributes to nearly 8 percent of Nepal’s GDP and supports at least one million jobs across the country, these projections are alarming.
Nepal’s tourism industry also generates 95% of park revenue, 30-50% of which is channeled back into the development of local buffer zone communities by law. This loss of income will not only further jeopardize local economic growth but will also also impact park management, especially as Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Environment experiences budget cuts in light of COVID-19.
According to Rajendra Suwal, who manages eco-tourism development as Deputy Director of Partnerships at WWF Nepal, this is bad news for both people and nature.
“Eco-tourism has played an indispensable role in reviving local economies, especially for communities living in the buffer zones of Nepal’s protected areas,” he says.
In Ayodhyapuri, for example, profits from homestays go far beyond individual families. Over the past five years, the village has seen important development milestones — from solar powered street lamps, to electricity power lines and paved gravel roads, there are many examples of growth.
This collective economic pressure may leave communities with no option but to rely on forests for energy sources (eg. firewood and timber). The financial stress on communities is already leading to rising pressure on Nepal’s protected parks, particularly those that are tiger-bearing. Since our report last month, there has been a 65% increase in documented human disturbances within the country’s major tiger-bearing parks and several new cases of poaching.
“Global and national relief packages need to factor COVID-19’s long term impacts on ecotourism. Ensuring economic stability and diverting any form of financial crisis among communities living alongside wildlife is one way to avoid an uptick in poaching, which would be disastrous for Nepal’s conservation progress.”
Suwal adds that the global fallout of ecotourism is also a wake-up call on the need to strengthen the resilient capacity of nature-based tourism throughout the world.
“By creating products, services, and experiences that are resilient to future setbacks of this kind, homestay owners can better cope with economic fallouts in the future,” he adds.
A Point Of Departure
When Nepal veered into lockdown on 24 March 2020, Dhan Maya Mahato reached for her mask and began tackling an ever-growing to-do list.
With her homestay — based in Amaltari, a village in the buffer zone area of southern Nawalparasi, which also borders Chitwan National Park — kept under lock, she’s been engaging in a variety of different community leadership positions.
“Despite our financial situation, we’ve done a lot of work,” she says, going into detail about how she has been decorating huts with indigenous Tharu art for future visitors to enjoy. “There’s still so much that can be done.”
Since the lockdown period, Dhan Maya and others across the Amaltari Homestay Community Network have worked to prevent any spread of the virus in their community.
From raising awareness about the need for social distancing to even creating a gate from locally sourced bamboo to limit movement within the village, their efforts have served as key examples of local leadership.
Beyond people, homestay leaders in Amaltari have also been thinking of and acting for nature.
“Recognizing how wildlife may be affected during this time, three community forest groups and other homestay leaders teamed up to build water sources for animals throughout the nearby Gundrahi Dhakaha Community Forest,” Dhan Maya says. “It’s a small contribution for nature.”
She adds that her experiences in homestay management has had transformative effects on her life — both visible and nonvisible.
“Before COVID-19, the homestay program was running so well, leading to the development of our village, and in turn, our lives,” she says. “It has enhanced people’s capacity to lead while also showing us the importance of conserving nature.”
Though her aspirations are temporarily sidelined, Dhan Maya adds that her mind hasn’t been fixated on this no-guest period.
“I’ve been trying to think more about when we can welcome guests again,” she says.
Her message to the guests around the world who have had to cancel their plans to Visit Nepal this year is simple: Stay safe, dream now, and visit later.
“Wherever you are, make sure you’re isolating, staying safe, and keeping your spirits high during this difficult time. When this is over, I look forward to welcoming you again so that you see our diverse wildlife and learn about our lives in this special village.”
This is Part 2 of a two-part series on how conservation efforts have been impacted in the wake of COVID-19. In Part 1, we explore the impact on protected areas of Nepal and rising pressures.
WWF Nepal acknowledges the support of the Australian Government and Intrepid Travel for its support to the Ayodhyapuri Buffer Zone Community Homestay, and the Sall Family Foundation for their support to the Amaltari Bufferzone Community Homestay. Expressing gratitude to the supporters of WWF-US, WWF-UK and WWF-Finland who have made these initiatives possible.
Footnotes Leena Dahal, Communications Officer, WWF Nepal | Cover Photo © Karine Aigner/WWF-US