STANDING AT 9,400 feet, surrounded by a ripple of tall mountains that disappear into the clouds, the hamlet of Zuluk has a population of 326 persons living in 80 households. Close to the Doklam area where India and China are locked in a border standoff, and home to spectacular views of the Kanchenjunga, Zuluk has over the years become a major tourist destination in eastern Sikkim. But this was not always the case.
Till about 10 years ago, the residents of Zuluk earned their living mainly as construction workers for the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) or the Army, earning around Rs 300 for every day of work at the time. Then, in 2008, a taxi driver from Zuluk started the first homestay in the area.
There are 32 homestays in Zuluk today, which have changed its economy. And, that taxi driver, Gopal Pradhan, is arguably the most recognised face in Zuluk as well as its neighbouring villages.“Everyone in the village used to mock me when I first started. There weren’t many tourists who would come to Zuluk. My neighbours would ask me, why should people come?” says the 51-year-old.To Zuluk’s residents, says Pradhan, the Kanchenjunga, its hills covered with deep violet irises and fiery red
To Zuluk’s residents, says Pradhan, the Kanchenjunga, its hills covered with deep violet irises and fiery red rhodendrons, the thick carpet of clouds overhead, was not unusual. “They couldn’t fathom why people from other parts of the country would want to come and see these things. But I knew there was great potential. I always knew,’’ he says, sitting in the dining hall of his Dil Maya Homestay, which now makes close to Rs 2 lakh every season, from March to July.
Dil Maya’s walls are covered with mounted photographs that his guests have taken, and Pradhan has eight rooms now, which he lets out at Rs 800 a night. Meals are made of fresh vegetables he grows on his property. He has recently started breeding trout to serve to his guests and sell in other states. “Till 2008, I was a taxi driver and would bring tourists up from Gangtok. But they would have to go back the same day. That’s when I realised they needed a place to stay. My wife and I would do everything ourselves. Ferrying the guests to the homestay, taking them on tour, cooking, cleaning,’’ says Pradhan, whose wife is a former village sarpanch.
Dil Maya now has a staff of eight people and Pradhan’s 24-year-old son, Suraj, helps with the business. “Earlier, we would do everything for the BRO and Army, including building bunkers and other structures. Then they started using pre-fab and would bring structures and assemble them here. During the winter months, when the area would be snowed in, the entire village used to be employed in removing the snow. Now, they have machines,’’ says Pradhan.
Officials in Sikkim say Zuluk’s homestays have tied in well with the government’s thrust on tourism over the last couple of years. They estimate that during the season, the number of tourists visiting the state now outstrips the local population (see box).
Seeing success stories like Pradhan’s, the state government started providing incentives for homestays in 2011-12, which are mostly located in rural areas. Says C Zangpo Bhutia, tourism secretary, Sikkim, “Homestay is not a standalone concept, but is tied in with community-based tourism. There has been a marked development in rural areas and improvement in the lifestyle of people. Villagers have also become more self-reliant. We provide training, orientation and awareness programmes, and any other assistance required.”
For instance, a popular homestay in south Sikkim is run by 32-year-old Amrit Sharma, who started as an insurance seller. When the state government started its homestay scheme, Sharma quickly jumped on board. He began the Chalamthang Homestay in his village in 2014. In the first year, over a period of eight months from December to July, he made Rs 4 lakh.“Many others in Chalamthang started after me. In 2015, we got 1,200 tourists, in 2016 as many as 2,000. While most tourists are domestic, there are foreigners who come, mostly from France and Germany. They are interested in eco-tourism,’’ he says.
Sharma now takes his guests to the nearby Temi tea garden to “learn about tea processing”. “Most tourists usually buy organic produce, including vegetables, when they leave. This has given an additional income to the villagers,’’ he says.