Hill tourism stares at Puja losses

The Telegraph

AVIJIT SINHA

A bird’s eye view of Darjeeling. File picture

Siliguri, July 31: Tourists who planned to spend the Durga Puja in the hills and in Sikkim have started dialling tour operators to enquire if it was safe to make the trips, given the Morcha’s plan to step up its statehood agitation.

Tour operators and hoteliers, who did brisk business between 2011 and this year after a lean period since 2007, said if the indefinite strike, which will begin on Saturday, goes on beyond next week, visitors would start cancelling bookings.

This year, north Bengal and Sikkim tour operators were expecting good business, partly because the floods in Uttarakhand would have pushed mountain-loving travellers to try eastern India.

“A large number of tourists from Bengal and other states have booked accommodations in the hills of north Bengal and Sikkim because they cannot go to Uttarakhand now. This year, Darjeeling and Sikkim would have been a hit during Durga Puja. About 65 to 70 per cent of hotel rooms, both government and private, have been booked already in north Bengal and Sikkim,” said Raj Basu, the tourism advisor to the Sikkim government.

“We have even received 10-12 per cent bookings for Christmas. But now that uncertainty looms over the hills again, we are apprehensive of losing the clients. Lakhs of people are directly or indirectly engaged in tourism and each of them, whether in the plains or the hills, would suffer. Our last and only hope is the Bengal chief minister. We want her to ensure that normalcy is maintained and tourists can come without any hassle,” he said.

Sources said north Bengal and Sikkim together have around 16,000 hotel rooms to offer tourists and almost all are occupied in the peak tourist season that will begin mid-September.

Representatives of the Eastern Himalaya Travel and Tour Operators’ Association are also worried about the ramifications of the Morcha’s movement.

Sadhan Roy, the general secretary of the association, said: “It would be tough to revive the image of our state, particularly the hills (if the tourists go away). We are helpless. We can only urge political parties to keep tourism out of the purview of bandhs,” he said.

Tranporters and hotel owners in Siliguri sounded worried.

“Many of us have bought properties and vehicles or taken hotels on lease by obtaining loans from banks and other institutions. If the tourism industry suffers, it would be tough for us to pay the instalments and run our families,” a transporter said.

“The issue is not only about us but also thousands of workers who are engaged in hotels or drive vehicles. If our earnings decline, how can we to pay them? This would take a toll on the region’s economy.”

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