By Mithun Dasgupta
Darjeeling, (IANS) It has been a decent summer so far for north Bengal’s tourism industry, one of the mainstays of the hill district’s economy along with tea.
Tour operators are hopeful of a good peak season that starts next month but there also lurks a worry in view of the tense atmosphere following the Gorkha Janmkuti Morcha (GJM) reviving its movement for a separate Gorkhaland state.
The tourism industry is keeping its fingers crossed, while hoping for a large number of footfalls of domestic as well as foreign visitors this summer. Signs are positive till now with international travel and tours company Cox & Kings experiencing a growth of over 25 percent in the number of travellers this year compared to the same period last year.
According to the company, advance booking of hotel rooms are up by 25 percent over last year.
These are, however, early days as the peak tourist season in this district in north Bengal begins in April and extends till July.
“Darjeeling (town) is a popular destination for domestic tourists. It is also popular among people from metros such as Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad,” Cox & Kings vice president Yusuf Poonawala told IANS.
Although the GJM, which has been spearheading the Gorkhaland movement in the hills, recently intensified its demand for statehood, the party did call off a 48-hour strike beginning March 14, giving relief to tourists, tour operators and hoteliers.
“All’s well that ends well,” said an official of Glenburn Tea Estate & Boutique Hotel.
Glenburn, a three-hour drive from Bagdogra airport, has two bungalows along with a plantation retreat on the laps of the Himalayas.
“Strikes do affect tourists. It is good that they called off the strike. We are hopeful that things will remain peaceful,” said the official, not wishing to be named.
She said the hotel, whose guests were mainly foreign travellers, had till now not faced any problem.
“The rooms are full. Advance bookings are also going on,” she said.
“We have survived here for 11 years. We are aware of people’s sentiments. We are with them in both tea and tourism,” she said.
Tarapada Bhowmik, president of the Conglomeration of Bengal’s Hotel Owners, was, however, not so hopeful about the prospect of the district’s tourism business this year.
Hoteliers, who mainly depend on budget travellers, were apprehensive as a “tense atmosphere” was prevailing in the hills following the deployment of paramilitary forces, Bhowmik said.
Three companies of paramilitary forces were deployed in Darjeeling after some leaders of GJM’s youth wing allegedly attacked a group of ruling Trinamool Congress leaders in nearby Kalimpong town a few days back.
“Advance bookings for rooms of budget hotels are yet to pick up. But then this is normal at this time of the year. We expect that if the situation remains normal till mid-April, things will start improving and we will see a rise in the number of tourist arrivals,” Bhowmik said.
In Darjeeling, more than 3,000 rooms in budget hotels are generally available during the season.
On the other hand, the world-famous Darjeeling tea industry is now functioning without any hiccups.
“There is nothing to worry for tea producers here. Tea plantations are going on smoothly without any disruption,” Darjeeling Tea Association secretary Kaushik Basu told IANS.
Basu said the industry might face some “inconveniences” if the GJM went ahead with a strike, but there was no fear of any major consequences.
“Tea industry is the main economic activity in Darjeeling. Even leaders of the movement know it well. So there will be no stir in which tea companies’ activities could be stopped,” he said.
“There is no possibility of any tea garden in the hills being closed down due to the movement,” he said.
India exports around six million kg of Darjeeling tea annually, mainly to Europe.