Given the special significance that Devbhoomi Uttarakhand holds for millions across the country and the world, it offers immense opportunities to put together a sustainable pilgrimage and tourism model that can be a template for other regions to follow. Uttarakhand has a unique geographical diversity with mountains, temples, glaciers, national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, rivers, forests, valleys, hillside villages, hill stations, towns and bustling cities in the plains. Its economic character and social fabric with pilgrimage, tourism, spirituality, education, environmentalism and nationalism makes it a state like none other.
The pilgrimage and tourism sector in the Himalayan region of Uttarakhand is the catalyst around which the state can weave its economic, social and spiritual future. It is this sector that has largely defined the identity of Uttarakhand on the national and global canvas. The famed Char Dhams, with majestic mountain ranges and swirling, gushing rivers leave the pilgrim and the visitor mesmerized.
Credits: Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board (https://uttarakhandtourism.gov.in)
The well known hill stations of Mussoorie and Nainital are all time favourites for millions rushing for clean air, warm sunshine and some tranquil moments. Other favourites include the spiritual towns of Rishikesh and Haridwar while the Jim Corbett National Park attracts wildlife enthusiasts. Over the years, many other forms of tourism have developed on the back of robust infrastructure, economic empowerment and improved facilities in the state and across the country.
Given its vast promises and potential, it is important to holistically evaluate the economic development possibilities in Uttarakhand from the lens of its majestic mountains and plains. One such sub-sector within the tourism umbrella that holds the most promise is the homestay sector. The last few years have witnessed spurts of action, both from entrepreneurs and young people returning to their roots and setting up homestay operations as well as from tourists who want a first hand glimpse of the landscape in real, home-like environments.
Several social and societal changes have spurred the growth of the homestay sector. As is well known, in the aftermath of the pandemic many have returned home, a reverse migration of sorts and have decided to build their lives and careers around their rural and mountain roots. They have found the homestay sector as an attractive proposition, buoyed by the large numbers of tourists who are shying away from larger, crowded properties. This augurs well for the relatively low cost and decentralized nature of the homestay business.
The homestays of Uttarakhand have the innate ability to offer a unique mix of the state’s परंपरा (traditions), प्रवृत्ति (trend/propensity), प्रकृति (environment), परिवेश (milieu), संस्कृति (culture), शुद्धता (cleanliness) और आबोहवा (climate). With a plethora of activities like nature walks, bird watching or simply relaxing in home environs; homestays are a powerful medium for income generation in rural landscapes.
Irrespective of its immense potential to develop decentralized homestay units that can create clusters of economic growth; there are several handicaps that plague the sector. Prime amongst these is the red tape that prevents homestay entrepreneurs access to funds in terms of soft loans. Lack of training and support (for instance; there is no reliable website even today listing all homestays in Uttarakhand in a systematic manner) mars their digital presence. In the absence of adequate funds, certification and marketing; homestays are unable to adequately promote themselves.
The way ahead for the homestays of Uttarakhand stems out from the above challenges. Handholding, training, certification, access to funds and government support are critical to develop a mass of homestays across the 95 blocks and 13 districts in Uttarakhand. Uttarakhand as a state has the people honed in the hospitality sector and also the potential to become the homestay capital of India.
The need of the hour is policies that are specific to Uttarakhand and take into account the challenges faced by the homestay sector. With the right intentions and right methods like baseline studies, inception meetings, stakeholder mapping, focus group discussions and regular capacity building sessions; Uttarakhand can aspire to have a minimum of 10,000 listed homestays within the next 3-5 years. This will be a major contribution and go a long way in fulfilling the self employment dreams and economic aspirations of thousands in Uttarakhand.
(Author is the Founder of SDC Foundation)