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Digital platforms help to save traditional Nepalese homes

Refurbishment boom sustains local culture but sometimes threatens authenticity

Jo Rankine, an Australian photographer, has visited Newa Chen -- a 300-year-old-home-turned-bread and breakfast in Nepal's Kathmandu Valley -- twice since coming across it on a digital platform. (Photo by Sunil Pradhan)

KATHMANDU -- Nepalese architect Prabal Thapa watched with sadness 10 years ago as developers tore down traditional Newari homes near Kathmandu's historic Patan Durbar Square to build high-rises. The houses, which boasted intricately carved latticed windows and courtyards, were associated with the indigenous Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley.

Appalled by the destruction of this slice of Nepal's cultural heritage, Thapa took matters into his own hands, forming a company called Traditional Homes with three partners to make better use of historic properties. The company spent 1 million Nepalese rupees ($8,700) on its first project: the restoration of an 80-year-old Newari house for use as tourist accommodation.

Thapa's five-story Swotha Boutique Bed and Breakfast was reborn after an 18-month renovation. The company built new bathrooms, replacing the former communal taps and toilets, removed the concrete roof and rewired the entire building.

The rooms are simply but tastefully designed, using wood and exposed bricks. Some have wraparound balconies, and there is a restaurant on-site. "We had to keep two things in mind while renovating it," Thapa said. "We had to retain the authenticity and make sure that it's equipped with modern amenities."

Swotha was so popular that the company recouped its investment within a year, Thapa said, crediting its success to a marketing campaign on digital platforms such as TripAdvisor and Booking.com. "The response was amazing," he added. "Early on, we struggled to accommodate our guests during the peak tourist seasons." Tourist arrivals in Nepal peak between April and May and October to November.

Top: Prabal Thapa, an architect and the driving force behind the renovation of the Swotha Boutique Bed and Breakfast in Patan, in Nepal's Kathmandu Valley. Bottom: A bedroom at the B&B. (Photos by Sunil Pradhan)

The refurbishment worked so well that 50 such establishments are now offering bed and breakfast in Kathmandu.

Camille Hanesse, the French manager of Cosy Nepal, which markets 10 similar properties in the Patan area, said visitors were tired of mass-market tourism and drawn to more down-to-earth establishments. "People want to feel unique. They are also looking for an experience and comfort," she said. "They want to live in a very unique place in a very special way."

Most of Cosy Nepal's guests come from Switzerland, the U.S. and France, and tend to stay for between two weeks and several months. Increasingly, though, Nepalese city dwellers are also spending their weekends at these houses, Hanesse said.

Top: The rooftop of Yata Chhen, a B&B run by consulting and rental company Cosy Nepal. Bottom: A view of the interior. (Courtesy of Cosy Nepal)

She added that Cosy Nepal promotes its properties on Facebook and Instagram, with most bookings made through Booking.com or the company's own website. A single room at Yata Chhen, a 400-year-old building whose Newari language name means "In the West," costs $35 per day, with double rooms costing $55. Promotional offers include a free week for customers who book for a month, and seven days for the price of six.

Some property owners are also offering cultural classes to enhance their visitors' holidays. Prakash Dhakhwa's family-run Dhakhwa House was featured last year in the American adventure magazine "Outside" as one of the coolest Airbnb accommodations. It runs classes on how to make momo (Nepalese dumplings).

Prakash Dhakhwa and his sister Koili Shakya at Dhakhwa House, their family-run B&B in Patan. (Photo by Sunil Pradhan)

While most refurbished accommodations tend to be fairly small operations, Devendra Shrestha's 300-year-old home is run by a team of 10 staff. Renovated over five years at a cost of 6 million Nepalese rupees -- half funded by UNESCO and a German aid agency -- Newa Chen only turned a profit after seven years.

In its early days, Shrestha relied on word of mouth to market his business. In the last year, however, he has used travel websites such as TripAdvisor and Expedia Group, which both take a 15% commission, to sell the rooms.

Jo Rankine, an Australian photographer based in Shanghai, found Newa Chen on TripAdvisor and liked it so much that when an American company hired her to organize a group tour of Bhutan and Nepal for its clients, she chose the pioneering establishment.

"What I like about this place is it has life to it. If you go to an international hotel, it doesn't have life. I'm always seeking a human connection," she said. "You are also contributing to preserving a heritage that's being ignored and disappearing. It's also important to keep the money with the local people."

Top: Devendra Shrestha and his wife Shobha Shrestha outside Newa Chen, their three-century-old Newari house. Bottom: Newa Chen was turned into a B&B in 2006 after undergoing a five-year renovation. (Photos by Sunil Pradhan) 

Entrepreneurs in areas surrounding two other palace squares in the Kathmandu Valley have also embraced the idea. But there are concerns that some are focusing too much on turning a profit and too little on maintaining their heritage properties. Some have installed brick cladding over concrete instead of using traditional bricks, and inauthentic windows rather than traditional wooden ones, according to Shrestha.

"The concept has spread over to other neighborhoods in the last few years, but it has also reached a saturation point," Hanesse said. "It has been copied and applied in a wrong manner."

Thapa agreed. "To ensure sustainability, we need to put a supply chain in place that caters to our clients. We need high-quality handicraft shops and other tourism businesses," he said.

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