Every morning when the sun rises, Radhika Dubey along with her family takes a short stroll through the forest. On her way, she thinks about the treasures of paradise far from the madding crowd.
Here in Craignano, 16 km from the Himachal Pradesh capital at 7,700 feet above the sea level, she finds resplendent bouquets of flowers, birds typical of the Himalayas, multi-hued butterflies and sometimes langurs hanging from the trees.
Craignano's pine and cedar forests, with the ground area too covered by a variety of grass species, ringed around her four-room private home-stay cottage - with wooden frames and shingled exteriors and a sloping tiled roof - offer her a place of rest, of happiness.
"Preferring a countryside home-stay over a high-end hotel at popular holiday destinations is always our first choice owing to homely comfort while holidaying," Radhika, a regular traveller, said.
"You know a sizeable floating urban population of tourists in prominent destinations like Shimla and Manali besides the load of its permanent residents, and you know there is no hope for a breather there," she explained.
Himachal's rural home-stay concept, which started in 2008, has virtually gone viral.
Members of the hospitality industry say amidst the scare of a possible COVID-19 third wave, tourists coming to the hill state are preferring a home away from home by booking into home-stays.
The state government on July 15, 2008, notified a scheme named the Himachal Pradesh Home Stay Scheme 2008.
At present, 1,657 home-stay units have been registered in the state. Out of these, Shimla district has 335 units. The Kullu-Manali region has 327, followed by Kangra 268, Lahaul-Spiti 258 while Chamba district has 106.
Under the scheme, the locals have converted their houses or cottages into a home-stay unit and are making available part of the residential accommodation, up to three rooms, for the stay of a tourist as a guest.
Hospitality industry experts admit that an upsurge in the popularity of home-stays has provided newer economic opportunities to remote communities, who previously banked only on growing crops and fruits, besides rearing livestock.
With increasing vaccination and easing of restrictions in many states, travel is picking up.
The state is witnessing a steady rise in bookings over the past two weeks for the July to September quarter, say experts.
However, travellers have become more cautious and prefer far-off Himachali houses with open spaces that allow insights into the life, culture, and traditions of the mountains.
Among the visiting celebrities, Chennai Super Kings skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni hogged much limelight while holidaying along with his wife Sakshi, daughter Ziva and some friends in the interiors of Shimla district last week.
In videos that have gone viral, Dhoni, donning a Himachali cap, can be seen moving near apple orchards.
During his sojourn of three days, Dhoni and his family and friends spent a day in the apple hub of Ratnari in Kotkhai, where they enjoyed home-cooked food.
Away from Shimla town, tourists prefer to spend their holidays in secluded apple orchards home-stay spots like in Thanedar, Kotgarh, Narkanda and Fagu.
"We are getting tourists when our apple crop is about to harvest," said Ramesh Thakur, who runs a home-stay unit in his orchard in Thanedar.
“With the onset of monsoon, the entire area turns lush green, giving a splendid view of the hail-net covered apple-laden trees," he said.
"We also offer a chance to pluck apples and milk cows amidst a rural setting that makes city slickers gung-ho," he said, adding, "The farmers can make additional money in case the apple season fails."
The picturesque Sangla Valley in Kinnaur district is known for its rich tribal culture and traditions.
There is a local tradition to welcome the guests at homes with a garland of dry fruits and a round Kinnauri cap with a green flap. It's also known for legally brewing two popular drinks, 'angoori' and 'ghanti'.
While the former is made from distinctively flavoured black grapes grown in high altitudes, the latter is made from locally grown apples and apricots.
"With blobs of clouds passing by, it is really a spellbinding experience amid the crackling sound of crickets and birds while staying in a wooden cottage located in the middle of an apple orchard," remarked Abhey Singh, a tourist from Chandigarh, who stayed in a home-stay unit in the picturesque Sangla Valley, some 275 km from Shimla.
He said during the stay they were also offered an opportunity to learn traditional cuisines laced with an assortment of herbs and spices.
The main course was the 'chaa ghosht' or lamb cooked in yoghurt gravy and 'murgh anardana' or chicken stewed in pomegranate paste.
"These cuisines were not only offered in traditional style but cooked in traditional ways too. The food is cooked in copper vessels that impart a special flavour to the dishes," he added.
Home-stays, still an unstructured segment in the state, are making a dent in the tourism market.
A room at a home-stay is available for between Rs 1,800 and Rs 2,500 a night, while a room in a luxury resort costs between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000 a night.
Officials of the Tourism Department say that the rural home-stays are definitely attracting a class of tourists who want to stay away from five-star culture to which they are accustomed to at home.
"This is not only giving a boost to eco-tourism but also helps decongest the popular tourist destinations. Of course, the home-stay initiative is providing employment opportunities to the local people, thus strengthening the rural economy," he said.
Tourism, which plays an important role in revenue generation and livelihood, was hit the worst due to the lockdown. It saw a contraction of 81.33 per cent in 2020.