New way to gain money, independence: Indian rural women open homes to travelers

Using film cameras allows travelers to be more considered in the way they shoot and focuses them on their surroundings. Source: CRS Photo/Shutterstock

SUSTAINABLE tourism can be a great driver for development and progress across the world. And with the influx of tech in travel, the positive influence of the industry is able to reach further than ever before.

Mobile apps are helping women in the Indian countryside and tiny villages in Japan to open their homes to visitors, generating independent income, revitalizing remote communities and helping to curb migration to cities.

Short-term home rental service Airbnb has been commandeered by a woman’s organisation in the western Indian state of Gujarat to train rural women to be hosts and list their homes on its site. And the initiative is booming.

In the year since they started, the number of women earning from home sharing has doubled, according to the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), which has about two million members, mostly in villages.

“At first, we weren’t sure how the women would fare and if people would respond to homestays in these areas,” said Reema Nanavaty, a director at SEWA.

“But once they began getting guests, the women invested in upgrading their homes and started using Google Translate to communicate with guests. It has become a significant source of income for them,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It’s a win-win strategy as tourists to the area also reap the rewards of staying in one of India’s most remote regions.

India’s westernmost state is littered with sacred sites and natural beauty that many tourists miss as they rush between Mumbai and Rajasthan. While the capital, Ahmedabad, can draw you in with its remarkable architecture and world-renowned dining scene, the countryside where the women’s initiative takes hold, is home to most of this state’s many treasures.

As well as the colorful tribal embroidery and textiles, for which Gujarat is famous, the state also has sacred pilgrimage sites, striking mountains and diverse wildlife.

Guests to the colorful traditional homes are treated to homecooked Gujarati food, and can participate in kite-flying and garba dancing with sticks in traditional costume.

The partnership with Airbnb will extend to 14 more states, aiming to boost incomes of women in rural areas and help boost tourism in otherwise neglected areas, Reema said.

Cheap smartphones are also aiding those looking for work, with job matching sites helping even illiterate job seekers from rural Cambodia to India find employers without middlemen who may dupe them.

Understanding the positive effects their platform can have in rural areas, Airbnb also has partnerships in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan for rural tourism.

In response to shrinking rural populations in Japan, the local community in Yoshino set up the Cedar House, a short-term rental aimed at rejuvenating the village.

The house is run by a cooperative of about two dozen community members who take turns at being the host. Most of the proceeds remain in the community, with a percentage of profits reinvested in local projects.

The project was inspired by a host whose listing helped rejuvenate her village, said Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia.

Hundreds of villages and towns “will disappear in the next decade if we do not find ways to create regenerative and adaptive systems,” he said via e-mail.

“If we can get community-driven empowerment right in Japan, we can find ways of adapting this to other countries.”

In India, the 50 rural homes listed on Airbnb are drawing guests from the United States and Europe, according to Reema.

“Some of the villages were not even on Google Maps. For the women, it is a new way to make money, be independent,” she said.

Additional reporting from Reuters