Dambar Bahadur Pun, who migrated here from his home in Myagdi in the mountains, joined the Indian Army like many of his forebears. He used to return home every year for 45 days of vacation, travelling from Raxaul through Sauraha. But that trip took at least a month. Tired of spending most of his holiday travelling, he moved to Ayodhyapuri, which is just three hours from his Indian Army base.
“We didn’t know much about our culture because we had not seen much of it,” says Khil Bahadur Pun, also from Myagdi. “But after we started our homestay, everyone was interested in the Magar culture again. We reconnected with our roots, and discovered our songs, dances and festivals.”
To perform for guests, locals learnt Maruni and Soreti, traditional Magar dances. Now a ‘cultural home’ has been set up so homestay visitors can gather for performances.
Supporting homestays can be a way of helping not only local economies but also conservation. People who live near national parks like Chitwan are often poor and rely on farming and livestock. Wild animals put livelihoods at risk. But by providing income from tourism, national parks can ease the burdens on those living around them.
Through the Tarai Arc Landscape program, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) Nepal supported buffer zone communities to set up homestays, and the Madi cooperative is one of them. The 13 houses have hosted 11,000 visitors in the last three years, and the homestays are marketed by the adventure travel company Intrepid Travel.
Tul Bahadur Pun Magar, the secretary of the cooperative and operator of one of the homestays, himself used to work as a driver and a construction supervisor in Bahrain, earning Rs70,000 a month. He is happy to be back near nature, and planning for the future.
“Through the homestays, we have learned to live with wild animals. Our guests love to see them and we have realised that they are precious,” he says. With the 13 homestays fairly well-established, Pun Magar has plans to create a bird sanctuary near his village.
Many operators of Ayodhyapuri’s homestays are women, who have been empowered by the income and exposure. “We never used to deal with people from outside the household,” says homestay operator Sharmila Rai. “Now we feel confident engaging with anyone.”
While only a few of Ayodhyapuri’s households host homestays, they generate income beyond lodging fees. All vegetables needed for feeding tourists is grown organically in the village, dairy products are made locally, and the fish and poultry are also raised by the village.
The growth of economic disparities within the village is a problem faced by homestay programs, particularly in places where for reasons of caste, there is already a socio-economic gap. In Ayodhyapuri, at least, the distribution of income-generating activities as well as the limit of one homestay per operator, seems to be keeping these disparities in check.
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