Bangalore: At Green Hills Estate, a mansion dating from 1898 that is set in a 100-acre coffee and cardamom plantation in Coorg, nothing is left to chance.
Built to a design by a group of Swiss missionaries from the Basel Missionary, it has been with the Chengapa family for six generations now. The memorabilia of those six generations are all over the carefully preserved planter’s bungalow, and it is hard not to stop and stare at some of the artefacts.
For the Chengapas, the quiet yet luxurious existence has been a way of life. And it will soon be the same for anyone who can afford it.
The Green Hills Estate in Coorg.
“Though it has been our home, we are now going to let it out, as we feel the experience it offers is remarkable,” said Dalia Chengapa, co-owner, Green Hills Estate.
Green Hills isn’t the only estate taking this route. Scores of such properties dot the Brahmagiri and Pushpagiri ranges that cocoon Coorg, a hill station in the Western Ghats in Karnataka that grows around 30% of India’s coffee.
Kicked off as an experiment by a motley few in the mid to late 1990s, when coffee prices began to fall, homestays at these estates have fast become a way to supplement earnings and help maintain the picturesque mansions and acres of plantations.
“The price of coffee saw a decline from Rs3,200 per bag in 1994 to Rs400 per bag in 1998-99. This could not match the cost of production and bank loans could not be paid. Under this scenario, enterprising growers tried other businesses such as floriculture,” said Micky Kalappa, vice-president, Coorg Tourism Promotion Association, who also owns a homestay, Sand Banks.
However, the high investments needed for floriculture deterred many growers from turning to flower cultivation. Instead, homestays with their low investment took root.
Homestay operators estimate that last year, around 70,000 guests booked into such retreats across Coorg. With the Indian economy expanding by more than 8% a year, pushing up pay packets and aspiration levels, it’s wanderlust for middle-class India. And that’s created a booming business in travel accommodation.
According to a special report published in the Indus View Publication, hotel room rents in Bangalore are the third highest in the world due to a shortage of rooms. India as a whole needs another 125,000 hotel rooms by 2010 to meet the surging demand.
Plugging that shortage of rooms are guest houses, smaller hotels, bed-and-breakfast accommodation and, in places such as Coorg, planters’ bungalows that offer not just rooms but a butler service, local delicacies and, some say, quite a bit more.
“Being in a homestay with the people of the soil is itself unique. A homestay gives guests privacy and allows children to play around,” said Kannan Subramanian, a 45-year-old corporate executive who recently chose homestay accommodation in Coorg along with his extendedfamily. “Staying in a hotel with children is a difficult proposition. It conditions a guest andafter a while, ordering breakfast and lunch becomes mechanical,” he added.
The popularity of homestays has made the government sit up and take notice.
“Homestays were conceptualized on the lines of the bed-and-breakfast venues in the West. It was extended to include dinner and adapted for Indian tourists. There are more than 500 homestays in Coorg, whose rooms are categorized as silver and gold,depending on the price and accommodation,” said I.M. Vittal Murthy, secretary, Kannada and culture, information and tourism.
This year, the Karnataka government brought out a homestay policy and extended the concept to other parts of the state such as Chikmagalur, Shimoga and Mysore. Apart from helping estate owners, it also helps maintain the serene atmosphere by encouraging homestay facilities rather than constructing large hotels.
The state government has also given rankings to these facilities. An estate with up to five rooms with two beds each can be classified as a homestay. While it is seen as a non-commercial venture, estate owners pay a classification fee, based on the type of rooms and facilities provided. The premium Class A classification, for example, has a fee of Rs3,000, while it is Rs2,000 for the Class B category.
All this is good news for estate owners, who were struggling not just with fallingprices but a host of other factors. “Coffee, like all agricultural crops, is subject to the vagaries of climate and price,” said Kalappa.
“A coffee estate also brings along other problems like severe shortage of labour and (high) material costs. The prices of agricultural products are not necessarily in proportion with material costs, which may often skyrocket.”
It’s not just the family-owned estates that are turning to homestays. The largest coffee plantation company in Asia, Tata Coffee Ltd—a subsidiary of Tata Tea Ltd—is a major player in Coorg and it, too, has converted a few of the bungalows in its vast holdings into hospitality ventures.
“It is packaged as an eco-tourism venture. Each building has its own cook and butler,’’ said Christine Jamal, vice-president, corporate, Tata Coffee. “Besides that, we’ve also tied up with the Coorg Adventure Club for white water rafting activities. We are planning to replicate the concept in Chikmagalur and Sakleshpur in Karnataka and Annamalai in Tamil Nadu, where our coffee estates are located.” So far, the occupancy rate has been 60% and has generated grassroots level employment.
The success of the homestays has also created some unusual converts. K.M. Karumbaiah, a 45-year-old homestay operator, actually shut down his business to take up his current vocation.
“I owned a restaurant and a tourist information centre. The data on tourist arrivals indicated a dearth in homestay places. I closed my restaurant and became a homestay operator. It is better than being a restaurateur as I don’t have to make major investments except for refurbishing the existing property,” added Karumbaiah, a first-generation entrepreneur who runs Coorg Trails.
The advantage of a homestay is that there is a budget to suit almost any traveller. The tariffs range from Rs750 to Rs2,500 for a couple, which includes breakfast.
“There is a dividing line between a homestay and a hotel. Homestays give planters a chance to meet people and hence connect with the world. But a homestay is never a main source of income unless it’s commercialized. And if it becomes a commercial venture, it ceases to be a homestay,” said 48-year-old Dilip Chengapa, owner of homestay Kabbe Holidays.
That hasn’t deterred some coffee growers from experimenting and giving it a professional touch. In the case of Green Hills Estate, the owners have entered into a lease and licence management contract with Neemrana Hotels, which runs several other heritage properties across the country.
“It is beyond a homestay, as it is being run professionally,” said Dalia Chengapa.