Tourists have returned to this queen of the hills in West Bengal in a big way this festive season but poor infrastructure and the lack of a suitable transport system are worrying tour operators.
Tourism in Darjeeling, which accounts for substantial revenues for the state tourism industry, had been badly hit since 2008 when the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) revived a violent stir in support of forming a separate Gorkhaland state.
After the tripartite agreement between the central and state governments and the GJM July 18, the hills have returned to the good old days as far as the number of tourists is concerned.
In the Puja tourism season, which started at the end of September, all hotels and tourist destinations have been fully booked. The season will continue till October end.
‘The rates of transport services fluctuate. The cars that ply in Darjeeling charge more than the usual rates which take a heavy toll on tourists’ budget,’ Eastern Himalayas Travel and Tour Operators’ Association (EHTTOA) chairman Raj Basu told IANS.
Normally the rates of car service from New Jalpaiguri station to Darjeeling is Rs.1,400, but during the peak tourism season the rates go up to Rs.2,500-3000.
The car service rate from Darjeeling to Dooars, the foothills of north Bengal, is Rs.1,100 but again this goes up to Rs.2,500.
‘We need a government standardisation of car service rates in Darjeeling. There should be a breakup of rates during peak season and off season,’ Basu said.
There has been a 70 percent increase in the flow of tourists in the puja season over the last three years.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee during her visit to the hills last week said a master plan for tourism in Darjeeling is under way.
Basu said tourists in Darjeeling spend 60 percent of their total budget on transportation and 40 percent on lodging and food — just the opposite of budget breakup ratio of other tourist destinations.
The travellers are forced to take the service despite higher rates as there is no proper bus service or other transportation.
‘The drivers charged a lot more than usual rates. This increased our budget to a large extent. There should be a bus service,’ said Rashmi Dey, a tourist.
With tourism as the mainstay of Darjeeling, it looks up to the three main tourist seasons in a year — just 60-70 days.
The seasons are: summer season from mid-May to first week of June, Puja season from end of September to end of October and winter season from mid December to second week of January.
Another bottleneck for tourism is the lack of enough hotels to cater to a higher number of tourists during the peak season, said Dipak Sherpa, a hotel owner.
‘We want tourism to be promoted in such a way that the off season-peak season differences are erased and the whole year becomes a tourist season just like in Goa and Kochi,’ Sherpa said.
Said Australian tourist Keiran Simpson: ‘We couldn’t manage a room in Darjeeling as all the hotels were fully booked. So we are staying in a hotel in Dooars and have come to see Darjeeling via car.’
Most of hotel rooms during off season remain vacant and during the peak season they are packed to the brim. As a result many tourists even take up lodging facilities in the rural areas of Darjeeling district.
‘We couldn’t get a room in Darjeeling. So we took up a home stay facility in the Rongchong area,’ said Jordan Nash from Britain.
The absence of good roads and an inadequate water system are other handicaps.
‘There has been a tourist boom but Darjeeling lacks the necessary infrastructure. The roads are in a very pitiable condition. There is a lot of problem regarding drinking water. These matters need to be looked into,’ said GJM general secretary Roshan Giri.
‘There is no proper supply of water, including drinking water. The hotel where I am staying doesn’t even have water supply in the bathrooms at night,’ said Khaleed Mohammed from Kuwait.
In 2009, around 65,000 tourists visited Darjeeling. Before the Gorkha agitation, 300,000 to 400,000 people visited the hills every year.
(Praditpa Tapadar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)