Innovation and innovative ideas aren’t always welcomed because they change the status quo. The homestay program in Dalla, which was established in 2010, is an example of such an innovation which was actually rejected in its initial phases before being fully accepted by the community.

Homestay is a form of tourism which allows the visitor to live with a local family in their own household to get better acquainted with the local lifestyle, culture and environment.

“My first reaction to a homestay being built in Dalla was a straight no! I thought a homestay would involve a lot of construction and that I would have to sell my land in order for a homestay to be built here,” was what Mangal Tharu, a member of the Dalla community felt initially. “Another fear that I had was that a foreign culture would corrupt the women of my community. The last thing I wanted was for them to adopt a culture that wasn’t even ours,” continued Tharu.

This was Tharu’s attitude and that of several others in Dalla back in 2009. But all of this was soon to change.

Before continuing with the story, it would be worthwhile to jump back 12 years and begin in the year 2001.

Dalla is located in Khata Corridor, a narrow strip of forest in Nepal’s Terai Arc Landscape and the only connection for wildlife between Nepal and India. WWF Nepal started work in Khata corridor in 2001. Deforestation and forest degradation were at an all-time high then considering a number of socio-economic factors in the area. The majority of the population in Khata is indigenous people called Tharus. They were very poor with average annual incomes of less than USD 100. The forests were their primary source of livelihood on which they were heavily dependent for food, fodder and firewood. Free and uncontrolled use of forest resources had led to severe degradation problems. And then there were cattle – another primary livelihood source. Free grazing of cattle in the forests had added to the degradation problems.

Using the arm of community forestry, the local people of Khata were soon empowered to take charge of their own forests and restore and manage the same in a sustainable manner. In Dalla, the local people, besides restoring forests, also started restoring wildlife habitat by restoring grasslands and building water holes. Eight such water holes were in fact constructed solely through local effort and resources.

A vibrant forest and an inviting habitat soon led wildlife into the community forests around Dalla. Rhinos now became a regular sight and many villagers also claimed to have spotted tigers while in the forest. And over the years, the local people now learned to coexist through a harmonious relationship with nature and wildlife.

This was what sparked the idea of a homestay.

Several meetings and deliberations, many of which were facilitated by WWF Nepal, were soon held amongst the local people. An observational tour was also organized by WWF for the villagers in a homestay program in Kailali district in far-west Nepal. All of these efforts finally paid off and the local people got to see the bigger picture and understand the benefits that could actually come to the village through the homestay program.

The homestay program came with a reward – tourism revenues brought about by better protected forests and presence of wildlife – and also worked as an incentive to sustain community protection measures in their forests. It, in fact, also brought about several societal changes in Dalla.

“The biggest improvement since the introduction of homestay in Dalla has been the rise in cleanliness in and around the village. Earlier, the streets used to be covered with plastic and waste. Now, the village is a lot cleaner. Community members have constructed several bins around the neighborhood, and people have started throwing their garbage in the bins,” says Tharu.

Earlier, in Dalla, men were seen in a better regard than women since they were the prime breadwinners for the family. However, since the Homestay, things have started changing in terms of gender equality.

“Before homestay and ecotourism, the major task for women was to take care of the farm animals, their children and the house. With the homestay program, their role is slowly changing. They are now directly involved in income generation and enterprise development. They take care of the guests by making sure they are comfortable and by cooking food for them. They have also started gardening and planting shrubs and flowers to increase the aesthetic value of their homes. Overall, women are getting more empowered in our village,” confirms Tharu.

There are now 20 households in Dalla offering homestay facilities for tourists. Nearly 2,000 tourists have already visited the homestay which brought in revenues of about USD 7,000 in the first six months of operation.

For an outsider, Dalla might just be another favorite in the list of tourism hot-spots. For the local people, Dalla represents change and the power of human action to make it happen…for their own sake…for nature’s sake.

Story by: Mreedu Gyawali