How about a Homestay Instead, When You Balik Kampung?

By Lim Sok Swan

May 2022 FEATURE
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International students from Universiti Sains Malaysia dropping by for a visit.
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RURAL FOLKS WHO have moved to the city for job opportunities have always looked forward to the festival seasons to balik kampung and celebrate with their families. But with rapid urbanisation, many villages are no longer the rural idylls of the past. How then, are these people nowadays to recharge from city life and experience the warm, tranquil ambiance of a kampung?

There is another exciting option now available: Homestays.

What Makes a Homestay?

When people think of homestays, they typically think of a private room with a business permit that tourists may use after paying. In Malaysia, however, the term "homestay" has been more narrowly defined by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture (MoTAC).

“It’s not just about ‘staying’ at a homestay. It’s about getting a taste of orang kampung living. In homestays, tourists stay with the villagers in the kampung rather than alone. Some countries call this concept farm stay,” explains Rohaizat bin Othman, Chairman of the Penang State Homestay Association.

Malaysia's homestay programme, which began in Pahang in 1995, has grown in popularity, especially with government backing. To be considered legal, a homestay must be registered with MoTAC. A homestay, according to MoTAC, is not just a lodging facility, but instead offers the experience of a rural lifestyle, while at the same time promoting local culture and economic activities.[1] This is why, requiring time to plan their rooms and activities, homestay operators do not accept last-minute bookings.

Running a homestay is therefore more complicated than running a hotel. Homestay services are typically presented in the form of a package supported by multiple families, which differs significantly from the autonomous business model that we are accustomed to seeing in other forms of paid accommodation. According to the criteria, the homestay programme has to be a form of community-based tourism – with a group of 10 operators for each cluster in Peninsular Malaysia, and five in Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan.[2]

Most homestay communities in Peninsular Malaysia are Malay, while the states of Sabah and Sarawak offer more diversity, with the participation of various groups of indigenous people. They are encouraged to operate their homestay using the cooperative business model (koperasi); the homestay that Rohaizat manages uses this model as well. Other businesses such as running a grocery shop also enhances such a model.

This is good because it is unlikely for them to receive tourists every day, so homestays, according to Rohaizat, can only be a side business. There are, of course, strategies homestay participants can employ to boost their income, such as obtaining contracts with travel companies to ensure that guests come on a regular basis and handle the majority of their marketing.

Homestays in Penang

Despite the fact that tourism is the largest source of income for Penang's services sector, there are only 11 homestays listed in government statistics. This is due to the complicated and unique business model involved. On the mainland, the following can be found: In Seberang Perai Tengah, you have Homestay Mengkuang Titi and Homestay Sungai Semilang; in Seberang Perai Utara, you have the Homestays Kota Aur and Lahar Yooi; and in Seberang Perai Selatan, the Homestays Sungai Duri, Sungai Setar Besar, Sungai Chenaam and Pulau Aman.

Visitors sampling the gastronomic delights of Homestay Mengkuang Titi.

On the Island, only Homestay Teluk Bahang and Homestay Pulau Betong can be found. There used to be another in Balik Pulau called Jalan Bharu, but this closed down in 2019 when the younger generation of participants decided to discontinue the business.

“The problem (of the following generation refusing to inherit) occurs in practically all homestays in Malaysia. All we can do is strive to solve the problem by passing on our knowledge to the next generation in the hope of getting them excited," says Rohaizat.

Homestay operations showcase and share local community life with their guests. When done well, it often enhances neighbouring ecotourism and promotes demand for agricultural commodities from orchards and farms in the community. Some homestays are quite innovative in their attempts to stand out, providing container stays and setting up campsites to attract guests who are seeking unique experiences.

According to Rohaizat, different homestays have distinct characteristics based on local culture, food, economic activity and geographical location. Homestay Mengkuang Titi, for example, offers a wide range of community activities such as traditional dancing and games, as well as local economic activities like rubber tapping and coconut tree-climbing.

“All events are handled by our people. For performances, we have our own traditional performance group called ‘Kumpulan Tarian Suditari Homestay Mengkuang Titi’. We also have a food caterer and a committee in charge of the daily programme.”

Another homestay, Pulau Aman, is located on Penang's outlying islands and is known for its seafood, especially its mee udang. Pulau Betong in Balik Pulau is not only a destination for leisure and sightseeing by bicycle, but the durian season is also a major draw for visitors. People also go to Kota Aur to enjoy the lovely scenery and to Teluk Bahang for its surrounding national park.

Rubber tapping is one of the activities offered by Homestay Mengkuang Titi.

Cuti-cuti Malaysia in Local Homestays

The benefits of the homestay programme are not just in promoting the rural cultures; women make up almost 70% of all homestay operators in Penang, with the majority of them falling into the B40 category.[3] In 2012, Malaysia’s homestay programme received the United Nations World Tourism Organisation's Ulysses Award for Innovation in Public Policy and Governance for bringing in tourists, while also providing an essential source of income for local communities, particularly in rural areas.[4]

Homestays had become very attractive to foreign tourists interested in experiencing the “real” Malaysia, so much so that foreign tourist numbers surpassed that of local tourists. But when the country’s borders closed and bookings were cancelled during the pandemic, these businesses suffered badly. According to Rohaizat, the most recent visitors to his homestay were a group of German tourists in February 2020.

Last year, the Malaysia Kampungstay and Homestay Association (MKHA) collaborated with Tourism Malaysia, an organisation under MoTAC, to launch Jom Homestay to encourage more Malaysians to spend their vacations at homestays. It is hoped that this will spur more domestic tourism and reduce the reliance on foreign tourists.

Is it too late to suggest that you spend your Raya holidays at a homestay? Imagine waking up to crisp country air, trekking through rainforests or sharing delicious food painstakingly prepared by locals. Maybe, instead of staying in yet another run-of-the-mill hotel, we should opt to experience how Malaysians in rural parts of the country live.

Footnotes:

[1] Malaysian Homestay Programme. https://www.motac.gov.my/en/faqs/malaysian-homestay-programme

[2] Garis Panduan Program Pengalaman Homestay Malaysia. https://www.motac.gov.my/images/ebook/garis-panduan-homestay.pdf

[3] M. Sivanantha Sharma, 10 Oct 2020. Bright Future for Homestay Programme. The Star. https://www.thestar.com.my/metro/metro-news/2020/10/22/bright-future-for-homestay-programme

[4] UNWTO Unveils Winners of the 2012 Ulysses Awards. 15 Nov 2012. https://www.unwto.org/archive/global/press-release/2012-11-15/unwto-unveils-winners-2012-ulysses-awards

Lim Sok Swan

is currently focusing on heritage studies. She believes that more understanding among different groups and cultures can make Malaysia a better home for all.


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