Development of Homestays -A life changer for people of Gnathang Valley, East Sikkim’ – Sanchari Sengupta

Since childhood, I have mostly travelled in mountains. My father being a passionate trekker always ensured we visit places as ‘travelers’ and not ‘tourists’. We have always preferred to choose offbeat places for traveling and mostly stayed in homestays. This not only helped us to explore the local culture but also helps to enjoy nature at its best. This write-up is collected from one such travel diary and focuses on development of homestay tourism in Gnathang Valley which have flourished there over the years. The owner of the homestay that we stayed in is a family friend now and all the detailed information have been received from her.
Gnathang is a small province located in the Indo-China Border of the smallest Indian State of Sikkim. The village has a very strategic location in terms of political and socio-economic view point. Located in an army restricted zone, the place is inhabited by the community which is recognized worldwide for its immense physical strength- The Sherpas. The name of Gnathang valley came into limelight with its development as a popular tourist spot, a remote Himalayan village, gradually transformed into a noted holiday destination. Development of homestays is a modern trend in the tourism industry. Home Stay seeks to draw tourists away from posh and crowded urban areas to the rural locality full of splendid natural surroundings by providing them with clean, comfortable and budget-friendly accommodation and food. This in turn also helps the locals earn their livelihoods through tourism activities. Many offbeat tourist spots in India have emerged in the bosom of nature in recent past, to name a few, Tabo in Himachal Pradesh, Lepcha-Jagat and Sandakphu in West Bengal, Zuluk in Sikkim etc

Situated in the cold desert landscape of eastern province of Sikkim (Indo-China Border), Gnathang Valley is the homeland to a small group of Sherpa population. The rugged terrain, harsh climate and remote location of the village have always been a hindrance to its development. The area is connected with rest of the state by a metalled road from 2 kilometers ahead of Lachmi Chauk. Poor unmetalled road prevails throughout the village. The village gets its electric supply from Rongli hydel power plant and water supply from the local natural water bodies. Most of the villagers are mainly subsistence cultivators growing potato, spinach, cabbage, mushrooms etc. on local lands. Few villagers possessing authentic trade license are involved in exchange of Indian and Chinese goods. They are mainly wholesalers who are permitted to enter Tibetan province (19 kms ahead of Nathula, at Sherothang), where they exchange goods and sell them at Kupup Market on week days. 2G network connection provided by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited is the only communication network in the region. The Sherpa kids go to boarding schools at Gangtok or Padamchen. Gangtok offers banking and financial assistance to this Sherpa locality. The Army Health units are the emergency healthcare unit, while serious cases are shifted to Gangtok for better treatments.
In the year 2011, on advice of Mr. Gopal Pradhan (with the help of Chief Minister Mr. Pawan Chamling) Karma Sherpa established the first rest house in the region- Gnathang Valley Homestay in collaboration with Government of Sikkim. Government of Sikkim provided 8 lakhs INR for 10 homestays in 2011. After his demise, his elder daughter Pema Sherpa has taken up the charge. At present there are 16 private homestays in the area. There is only one Government owned homestay in Gnathang- ‘Daftar Bungalow’ which is maintained by Pema Sherpa. The villagers mostly earn from tourism. The maintenance cost of these homestays vary around 2000 INR (once/twice a month). This cost is borne by the homestay owner itself, depending on the needs and tourist demands. Earnings in the peak season is approximately 40000 INR/homestay/month (in the popular ones) while that in the off season is 15000/homestay/month (approx.) Electric supply to these homestays is obtained from hydel power plant upon river Rongli at Rongli village. Water is supplied from local natural reservoirs to different homestays via pipelines in separate small tanks. Ration is fetched from Gangtok and Rongli.
Tourism activity has been popularized at Gnathang since 2011 owing to the establishment of the homestays. Before that it used to receive mostly flying tourists, travelling between Gangtok and Silk Route. At present it receives mainly three kinds of travelers- Travelers flocking in search of Flower and Snow during March and April, Bird Watchers visiting during May- July and Tourists during Dushhera, Diwali and often in Christmas to enjoy the scenic beauty of snow-covered mountains. Popular tourist attractions in the region are 360-degree valley view, snow, flowers, birds, Buddhist Monastery, short hiking to War Memorial, Ruins of British residences and armed forces, Lord Krishna temple and Lungthung view point (few kilometers away from the village) which gives a spectacular view of sunrise over mighty Kanchenjunga.

A number of allied occupations have developed for the local inhabitants centering homestay tourism. Few villagers are employed as Road constructional workers under Border Road Organization. A number of women are employed in local police services. Multiple shops selling snacks, woolen garments, liquors etc. have come into existence. Many are employed as local drivers and tourist guides.
But there are few underlying problems in the area as well. There is availability of ample land for development of homestays and different recreational activities like ice sports. But despite the consent of Sikkim Government, Government of India does not permit these because Gnathang valley is an army restricted zone at the Indo-China frontier. There is lack of continuous running water supply because water freezes at night due to rapid temperature fall and increased pressure of frozen water in pipelines and geysers often damages the pipeline system. Government of Sikkim made provisions for implementation of solar plant for water supply in 2011-2012, but it did not turn out ultimately due to shortage of running water.
Homestay Tourism is a new trend in the contemporary tourism world. There is wide scope for improvement in the domestic tourism scenario in India. Considering it, Central Government has moved ahead and proposed to promote homestay tourism in various tourist destinations of the country. Gnathang valley sets vivid example in the tourism industry that how a local rural unit can be converted into a tourist destination through development of homestay tourism. Overcoming its physical barriers, Gnathang valley has transformed into a potential tourist spot. The villagers’ lives have seemed to transform both financially as well as socially due to development of homestays. If the Central as well as State Government join hands to collaborate with different homestay projects, various other Indian villages and towns situated at the heart of nature have prospects to develop into potential tourist hubs.
Since a decade Gnathang has been attracting people from all corners of the world. Before concluding I must mention that Gnathang valley is a place worth visiting if you want to relieve yourself from the cacophony of vehicles. The fresh valley air that you will inhale for a few days, will keep you going till many days. And the spectacular view that your eyes will capture will reside in your memories forever.

Author: Sanchari Sengupta from Kolkata is a senior school Geography teacher by profession and a dreamer by passion. She has deep interest in reading, travelling and photography.

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