JANUARY 8, 2017

On weekends and holidays,almost every home transforms into a ‘cottage’,the local version of Airbnb. “We now have some 300 such lodges and homestays in the village, and they are almost always full,” says Vrunda Patil of Versoli, who runs a homestay and also heads the Bhavani Mahila Mandal,a self-help group which has helped many women create their own successful homestay enterprise.

“Everyone has benefited–not just the home owner, but the rikshaw-wallah, the vegetable vendor,the milk seller, the boatman, and so many women who are suddenly in demand to help with cooking and cleaning for the guests,” says Milind Kawale, the village sarpanch or headman.“As a result, the income levels of the villagers have gone up by at least 50% in the last few years.”

Recently, the hospitality manager of a local five-star hotel was invited to come and talk about hygiene, accounting and other relevant practices.More than 60 village women attended the session and asked questions ranging from how to fold towels to how to deflect unpleasant guests.“We wanted to give them (locals) anedge over other villages, where tourism has developed in a random manner,” says Nayan Kawale, a Versoli resident who heads the Lion’s Club of Alibaug.

Families routinely give out their extra rooms and throw in home-cooked meals for Rs 1,500 to Rs 4,000 per night, with rates climbing up during peak seasons such as New Year’s Eve. “The population of Nagaon isless than 10,000, but on any given weekend or during holidays, the floating population is about 50,000. Sometimes,tourist buses have no place to even park,” says Shekhar Karpe,who runs a resort in Nagaon.

Versoli was not on the tourism map until its far-sighted sarpanch Kawalerealised the need to take proactive steps to prevent people from leaving the village to look for better options. He cleaned up the beach, added night lighting to make it safe for women, and invited water sports operators to bring their banana boats and jet-skis. He created mobile toilets on the beach using cargo containers which get around coastal building restrictions. The results were almost instant. Tourists started flocking and the entire village rose to the occasion. “We provided the infrastructure to make it even more tourism-accessible. Besides lights, a watch-tower and a small garden, we have provided them with water connections and made the roads motor able. Our next step is to figure out a good waste management plan,” he says.

“Today, the economy of the entire village is dependent on tourism,”says Patil. “Even the poorest villager has created a homestay and gives rooms at Rs 500, and there are always takers,” she says. Most homestays are approved and licensed by the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) which conducts regular inspections. The cooperation between villagers is evident.When one person is not able to handle a particular situation, just one call is made, and members of the women’s self-help group show up to pitch in.

Holiday-seekers, desperate for a whiff of seaside air and fresh fish curry, now routinely emerge from the neighbouring urban sprawls –not just Mumbai, Panvel and Pune,but also the many nondescript dusty townships that lie in between. Many are regulars and have their favourite home-stays. Not surprisingly, in the last year, five youngsters from Versoli have decided to get diplomas in hotel management to take the next steps forward, for they must now navigate a world that has moved beyond paddy and pomfret.

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