Homestays in Sri Lanka – Why are they popular?

By Bernadine Rodrigo

Apps such as Airbnb have become increasingly popular around the world especially with more and more tourists looking for more authentic experiences in the countries they visit. Sri Lanka too is not alienate to this concept, especially with the boom of tourists who have been visiting our country during our time of peace, where everyone was able to discover the hidden treasures of Sri Lanka’s scenes and beauty.

In fact, in Sri Lanka, homestays have become so popular in Sri Lanka and there are some niche places which are known exclusively for homestays, the most popular one being of course the world-famous Ella. Besides Ella, according to Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) President Mahen Kariyawasam, homestays have also become very popular in places such as Sigiriya, Kandy, and beach areas such as Mirissa, Negombo, and Galle.

Ella, however, holds the ultimate monopoly of homestays in Sri Lanka with around 650 defined locations where homeowners giving out rooms for homestays. According to an official from the Ella Hotel Association, which is an organisation that involves itself in regulating and monitoring the homestay locations in and around Ella, there are possibly more places which offer the facility of homestays but just haven’t been quite identified due to the informality of the whole process.

Homestays vs. hostels

Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, Karen Robertson, one of the pioneer homestay owners in Sri Lanka, told us about why she thinks homestays have become so popular and also shared a few experiences from her long career of owning such an informal establishment. Her homestay in Ella is called Waterfalls Homestay and although she and her family moved this “business to Ella” some years ago, they first started out in different locations of the country which were not being affected by the war.

Yes, their homestay began in a time where Sri Lanka was greatly troubled by the wrath of war. This was about thirteen years ago and the Robertsons, at the time, refused to accept that the war was affecting the beauty and tourist appeal of Sri Lanka. They strongly believed that homestays would be an important component in the tourist industry of the country, mostly because it gives such a different experience when compared to a hotel. Karen says that it is the touch of personal interaction which makes tourists like homestays – the ability to speak to families, sometimes even be part of that family for a little while and just simply feel the warmth of humanity.

When asked if it were just backpackers who come to stay at homestays, Karen and a few other homestay owners disagreed with the official from the Ella Homestay Association, who said so. Karen recalled many professional individuals such as lawyers and doctors coming to these homestays and not wanting to leave while some owners mentioned that small families and couples too, loved the concept. Most tourists, they said, are Europeans from countries such as Germany – in fact Germany was the most popularly mentioned country by these homestay owners while other countries such as Sweden, France, and Italy too were mentioned along with the US.

Former hostel owner Salome de Silva said hostels are more what caters to backpackers and she says that the entire experience is not all that pleasant. She said that most foreign tourists that come to stay in hostels are usually those who don’t like to spend a lot of money and greatly appreciate – even over appreciate – free items. The problem that arose with Salome is that everything that she offered free of charge was exploited to such an extent that she had to begin charging for them.

Further, as the official form the Ella Hotel Association mentioned, while most homestays have visitors who stay for about two to four days, hostels even get visitors who stay for as long as six months. Those who board at hostels don’t mind staying for so long especially since they get to interact with many of the tourists and as they are most often individuals who do not have jobs in their own country, they stay here and find jobs through the networking they do with other visitors in the hostels. Salome also mentioned that it is quite easy for someone with an international passport to get a job here in Sri Lanka, so they linger on for a really long time, living off the free tea and soap and the very cheap bed. Those at homestays, as Karen mentioned, are those who are actually willing to spend a little bit more and are actually looking for more from the experience of the destination rather than just surviving while also having some kind of adventure; hence they stay for shorter but experience more.

When asked about the rates of tourists coming in throughout the years, the best person who could answer the question, Karen, who has been in the sector for thirteen years, admitted that in the beginning it was very scarce. However, she said that some time around 2010, it started to pick up rapidly and in the last five years it just flourished. A sad fact is that contradicting the boom of the last five years, was a decrease last year after the Easter Sunday attacks which caused panic amongst some tourists, and although it started to pick up a little, as a result of the coronavirus panic, it has gone awfully down again. While Karen said that they have had no inquiries at all for the last fortnight, the official said that the rate of tourists coming into homestays in Ella has gone down by at least 50%.

Popularity vs. non-regulation

Mahen Kariyawasam believes that homestays are so popular because the prices are so low. However, the official spoke about this saying that the reason this is so is because they are not regulated. Kariyawasm argued that the reason they are not regulated is the reason why tourists like it. “They don’t charge tax at homestays, unlike hotels. So, it is cheaper and easier for people to come and stay at these,” said Kariyawasam.

Normally, hotels are required to give 1% of their income to the Sri Lanka Tourist Board in taxes which they charge off the tourists. However, without this constraint, owners of homestays are able to charge whatever amount they wish, which as the official said: “Depends on their facilities. If the owner wishes to charge Rs. 25 or Rs. 50,000, it is completely up to them.” The Mount Lavinia Homestay mentioned that the average amount they charge per night is Rs. 2,500 which somewhat validates Karen’s statement that people who stay in homestays do like to spend a little bit, and when speaking to Salome she said that the hostel charged much less.

On the one hand, what those of the Ella Hotel Association ask for is some legislation which can provide some standard rules which homestays can abide. On the other hand however, Kariyawasm and the homestay owners are not so fond of having these rules. Owners believe that there would be constraints to the experience which they can offer while Kariyawasm believes that there is no need to try and solve a problem which does not exist. He further noted that homestays are beneficial to the small business sector of Sri Lanka and with the increasing number of eager tourists, it would really increase the amount of foreign exchange coming into the country. He also said that there is no great adverse effect to the large hotel industry, because homestays are only popular in niche areas.

Kariyawasm assured us that the government authorities take care of these small homestays by conducting mobile workshops on how they can provide the best service and whatnot. Above all, the current issue that dominates all is the decrease in the number of tourists visiting the country because of the troublesome state the world is in today. It is hoped, ardently, by those involved in the tourist industry and others alike that this would all just come to a quick end and Sri Lanka will once again be the tourist paradise it was just a few months ago.