Kenneth Lewis, regional director of consultancy firm FYMC, has travelled the world. But there’s one destination, barely five hours’ drive from Mumbai, where he lives, he is particularly enthusiastic about — Purushwadi, a little village in the Western Ghats. Lewis went there first in 2006, and liked it so much that he’s gone back now fives times.
There aren’t any magnificent palaces or monuments to see or fancy hotels to stay in; Purushwadi is rustic with no electricity and only the very basic amenities in sanitation and comfort; even the food is the humble fare from the local host family. But none of that mattered to Lewis. “It was a great experience of rural life. I ploughed the fields, harvested the crop, separated the grain from the chaff, chopped wood — everything. The views in the monsoon, they can rival Switzerland any day.”
Lewis’s enthusiasm may be a bit over-the-top, but he is by no means the only Indian tourist choosing a rustic homestay over the conventional, mass holiday. In the past three years that Grassroutes (the company which developed the rural homestays in Purushwadi and Kohane, a village close to Ahmednagar), has been around, it has catered to over 1,500 visitors, 95 per cent of them Indians, says Inir Pinheiro, one of the founders. At the 139 sites of the Union tourism ministry and UNDP managed rural tourism programme, anywhere between 15-25 per cent of Indian visitors chose homestays, says Sudhir Sahi, a consultant on the project.
Homestays is not a new concept, even in India, but it’s mostly foreigners who opted for these. Clearly that’s changing now.
According to Thomas C Thottathil, head, corporate communications, Cox & Kings India. “Homestays give visitors the opportunity to gain firsthand experience of a place, culture, traditions and people. One gets to interact with the host family as one is staying in their house. Furthermore, it is far more economical, exciting and personal than staying in hotels.”
Not that they are always cheap (Grassroutes is, at around Rs 1,000 a night). According to George Skaria, director of Kerala Voyages, which organizes various specialised trips, including homestays, in south India, “It is usually the very top end of the market, the segment that has been all over the world and now wants to connect with its roots.”
Homestays, of course, don’t have to be rustic and hardy always. In Kerala and Goa, the two states where the travel concept is most developed, there are quaint heritage homes or farms which offer to take in visitors. For example, Ayesha Manzil in Tellicherry, a colonial bungalow built in 1862 or Haritha Farms, a rubber and coconut plantation.
Incidentally, both are hot destinations for a ‘cooking holidays’ — another travel concept big that, like homestays, is just beginning to take off in India. At Ayesha Manzil you can learn the Mopillah, Kerala Muslim cuisine, while the latter specialises in vegetarian dishes.