Sept. 26: The Japanese Encephalitis outbreak that claimed over 200 lives in north Bengal this year has scared Puja tourists away from the Dooars so much so that hotel occupancy has fallen by almost 50 per cent.
Samrat Sanyal, the working president of the Eastern Himalaya Travel and Tour Operators’ Association, said: “In the Dooars, the occupancy is around 80 per cent during the Durga Puja holidays and that continues for around a month. It starts decreasing for another one-and-a-half months and again goes up before the winter holidays from mid-December.”
Dibyendu Deb, the secretary of Lataguri Resort Owners’ Association, said that unlike other years when the rate of occupancy is above 80 per cent starting from Durga Puja, “the average rate of occupancy this year is around 30 per cent”.
One operator said this could be the worst Puja tourism season in the Dooars in a decade.
Tour company managers and other industry stakeholders said most of the tourists who cancelled hotel bookings cited the viral outbreak as the reason to stay away.
“Although most Japanese Encephalitis deaths were reported from the blocks of Dhupguri and Mainaguri, which are not travellers’ haunts and which tourists don’t have to cross barring a village or two, those who had planned to spend the Puja in the Dooars have cancelled their bookings citing the outbreak,” Deb said today.
Tour operators suspect that those cancelling hotel bookings in the Dooars were choosing to go to the Darjeeling hills and Sikkim as train bookings have not been cancelled.
Ujjal Sil, a tour operator in Mainaguri, said: “People have not cancelled their train reservations. The railway website shows that no tickets are available during the holidays but several people are calling up and cancelling their trips to the Dooars. There would be an unprecedented rush of tourists to Darjeeling, Sikkim and even Bhutan. Those who had planned to visit the forests will visit the hills,” Sil said.
“The situation in the Dooars is grim and we apprehend that the lowest number of tourists will turn up this season in the past one decade. We are keeping our fingers crossed and we are looking forward for a better season during the winter holidays,” Sil said.
Rajib Dutta, a bank official from Calcutta’s Behala who had booked for a five-day stay in the Dooars, today said he had cancelled his trip there with his family.
Asked why, Dutta cited the Japanese Encephalitis outbreak. He said: “My wife and I are travelling with our two kids. We didn’t want to risk making the trip after reading about the viral outbreak from July onwards. Our tour operator told us that it is fine to travel to the Dooars but we would rather go to Darjeeling. We have told our tour manager to book us in a Darjeeling hotel.”
For the past one-and-a-half decade, the Dooars has emerged as an important destination in north Bengal.
Hundreds of accommodations, both government and private, have come up in Gorumara in western Dooars, Chilapata and the Buxa Tiger Reserve in the east.
“This year, accommodation is available even in some of the top government properties in the core forest areas and on the fringes. In any other season, getting accommodation here even for one night would be no less than winning a lottery. All this has happened because of the encephalitis outbreak. Whoever is cancelling the booking is mentioning that as the reason,” another tour operator based in Lataguri said.
Sudipta Chakraborty, the manager of Murti Resort run by the West Bengal Forest Development Corporation, said their only option was to appeal to tourists.
“We can only appeal to them saying the situation is perfect here and there is no reason for them to cancel trips to the Dooars,” he said.
Last summer before the forests closed on June 15, hotels in the Dooars had seen an average occupancy of 70 per cent. The Japanese Encephalitis outbreak, though it started in January, began making news in July. By then the forests had closed.
The Dooars can accommodate around 1,000 tourists daily on average.
Representatives of the Eastern Himalaya Travel and Tour Operators’ Association, the apex body of tourism stakeholders in north Bengal, are worried. Sanyal said: “Once the season ends, we will plan an extensive campaign to bring tourists here.”