Bhutan is considered to be part of South Asia and is surrounded by the Himalayas. A quiet, small country, Bhutan is sandwiched between India and Tibet, just east of Nepal and north of Bangladesh. Rather isolated, the country could do with some support from world organizations as well as other countries to grow its economy.
Now, this is where World Wide Fund (WWF) came into the picture more than a decade ago to give a helping hand. Many may not have heard of Wangchuck Centennial National Park (WCP) in northern Bhutan, which is the country’s largest conservation area and a huge draw for tourists. But, many of the region’s residents struggle to make a living.
WWF, under a new livelihood development programme, and the Royal Government of Bhutan have developed an ecotourism project, ‘the homestay programme’, designed to stem the region’s rural-urban migration, and distribute tourist-related funds amongst the rural population.
Farming in the National Park
When the Park was established more than a decade ago, a new set of challenges cropped up for the region’s residents. Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood in the region, human-wildlife conflicts were common. Farming was a constant battle against wildlife; pigs and deer eat crops and tigers and wolves ate livestock. Now, given the region’s designation as a National Park, the farmers have to adhere to a new set of rules where farmers are not allowed to kill boars or wolves. This added challenge of sustainable agriculture, combined with the growing population of the region, means that many of the young men have left the rural villages to look for work elsewhere.
It is said that most travel companies and tourists go to WCP with their guides, their tents, their food and stoves, totally ignoring the villages they pass by. So, the ‘homestay programme’ offers the tourists the chance to stay in a traditional Bhutanese home; and provides the homeowners with an opportunity to benefit from the growing tourism industry.
Many homes situated within WCP, Bhutan’s largest National Park covering almost 5000km, have opened their doors for tourists to stay with them during their trip.
Many of WCP’s remote villages have girls and women with no jobs and limited educations. Recognizing this, WCP (co-managed by WWF-Bhutan and the Royal Government of Bhutan), developed ‘the homestay programme’.
The ecotourism project offers a lot more than just economic benefits though. By creating an incentive to preserve the integrity of the park, in the form of its attraction to visitors, the WCP Rangers hope that the villagers will become WCP’s primary custodians; not only promoting a more sustainable lifestyle in themselves, but also encouraging them to deter outside threats such as poaching.
This combination of reduced rural-urban migration and a new motivation to maintain traditions should also ensure the survival of village culture. So far WWF’s involvement had been largely financial – supporting the homestay’s with some of the required improvements, such as restroom facilities, as well as paying for hospitality training and linking them with the Tourist Council of Bhutan.
The Park is a vital addition to the Eastern Himalayan conservation complex, harbouring some of the region’s most iconic species, including the snow leopard, takin and Himalayan wolf, as well as the source waters of some of Bhutan’s largest rivers, including the Manas.
However, now that the basics are in place the girls are keen to develop the program themselves. They have decided to form our homestay committee, and look out for their guests. It is no longer the park’s responsibility but their own. Interestingly, the project has turned many of the young girls into small entrepreneurs, who are now capable of turning this program into something truly sustainable.
The ‘Climate Summit for a Living Himalayas’ also encouraged livelihood development projects, such as ‘the homestay programme’, ensuring the residents that conservation spaces are provided with sustainable livelihood alternatives. This minimized rural-urban migration as well.
Ecotourism in the form of ‘homestays’, could, therefore, play a key role in the sustainable development of the Eastern Himalayas, where rural households can open their doors to tourists; and in turn, improve their standard of living.