A few days ago, I took part in a discussion on tourism at the Alliance Francaise de Trivandrum. It was a small, eclectic group, and almost everyone who turned up ended up participating in the discussion.
Much was discussed, but what struck me most was a comment by Josette Rey, a Frenchwoman who lives in Fort Kochi and dabbles in tourism. The homestays that are sprouting across Kerala, she said, end up disappointing many French tourists. The French tourist tends to opt for homestays believing that they offer an immersive experience in the local culture. The tourist, she explained, believes that a homestay will offer them a slice of daily life in Kerala; an opportunity to be part of the family, to eat with the family and learn from the family. Instead the tourist most often ends up getting the equivalent of a hotel room without the amenities that normally come with a room in a hotel, she added.
Josette has a point. Over the past few years, both Kerala Tourism and India Tourism have been gung-ho about homestays — India Tourism also calls them bed and breakfasts (b&bs) which is kind of misleading as a b&b can be rather different from a homestay. Both tourism boards have even crafted elaborate systems to classify homestays based on the facilities they offer.
What none of these classification schemes has been able to certify though is the emotional ambience of the homestay. By emotional ambience, I mean things like how involved the hosts are in the operation of the homestay, how much time and effort they put into interactions with their guests and so on. Little things at first glance, but actually vital ingredients of the homestay mix.
For running a good homestay involves striking a very fine balance between giving guests a taste of local life and giving them the space and privacy they want. A balance that needs to be reworked for each set of guests.
There is, I guess, no standard formula for this and it is arguably more of an art than a science. But there are homestays in Kerala that seem to have perfected the art of personalised inn-keeping — Philipkutty’s Farm, Tranquil, Gramam and others.
In the long term though, market forces will work on homestays as much as they do on any other sector. The good ones — that meet the needs of tourists — will thrive, while the others will either limp along or disappear altogether. Meanwhile, Kerala’s homestays could perhaps pick up a lesson or two from their more successful brethren, especially on how to bring more of the ‘home’ into the ‘stay’.