Darjeeling is dressing up for winter tourists

Love is a risky business. Kolkatans, denied entry into Darjeeling through a sweltering summer because of a 104-day bandh that crippled the economy, are gearing up to make the most of winter -by planning a trip to the Queen of the Hills. After a disastrous holiday season leading up to the Pujas, which saw the Hills tourism clock up a loss of over `1 crore, bookings are slowly picking up again.Trekkers are trickling back, hotels have opened. Leading up to Christmas, the winter seems ready to bask in the warm glow of tourists.Model-tur ned-trekking guide Madhabilata Mitra has already planned a Sandakphu trek on November 16. “I started getting queries about a fortnight back. In between, the trek was postponed once because of the tragic death of SI Amitava Malik. We feared violence and finally decided to go there mid-November.The bookings have been made and people of Darjeeling assured us that it will be a trouble-free trek. In fact, they are looking for business after a long shutdown. Curiously, a lot of those travelling with me are women,” she said.Madhabilata also runs a homestay in Mungpoo with husband Bhupesh Gupta that has been lying vacant for the past three months. “On our way back, we will spend a day in Mungpoo,” she said. Automobile engineer Abanti Das, who is part of the trek, said was worried when she did the bookings. But she is ready to take a bit of risk for the trip she has been waiting for. “I lost my parents early on in life and was obese in my growing-up years.Then I started finding solace in the hills and treks helped me lose weight. I was waiting for the hills to get normal so that I could get back to doing what I love the most,” said the 39-year-old, who went to Dzongri-Goechala only last year.

For tourists, it’s a sad turn of events, she said. “My family is not convinced about this trek and they have their reasons. Such political turmoil is unacceptable,” added Abanti.

The fear factor is a major hurdle that tourists need to overcome. Nilesh Pradhan, owner of Hotel Pradhan in Manebhanjan, said Darjeeling is waiting to swing back into action. “Earlier, we used to have a busy Dussehra. This year was bad in terms of business.There were cancellations and I had to refund the full amount. I lost lakhs in the process. But I am hoping we will have a good yearend, between Christmas and New Year. Two-three groups of foreigners are coming for treks end of the year and January February too will be better as there are enquiries already. But right now, people are a bit scared,” he said.

Ravi Mahato of Hotel Tres, a chain of hotels operating in Kalimpong, Darjeeling and Sikkim, said though their hotel in Sikkim was open throughout, business took a beating.”For the past 10 days, the situation has been improving. But it won’t get normal before March-April. Even our business in Sikkim suffered because of a dearth of tourists. But we are getting queries for the year-end,” he said. The hotels in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, which opened on Oct 8 after three months, are ready with packages to attract tourists.

Central Heritage Resort & Spa in Darjeeling, which has bookings for two rooms currently , said they are hoping for a busy season ahead. “We opened on October 1 and tourists have been few and far between. Having said that, it might be a better winter for us,” said Mona Agarwal, an employee of the hotel.

Summing up the situation in Darjeeling, Anil Punjabi, chairman of Travel Agents Federation of India, eastern region, said there is still a lot of apprehension about visiting the Queen of the Hills. “When you are touring a place, you want to be free of tension.Even if there are domestic bookings, foreigners will take a while to plan their trips. Not all bookings were refunded against cancellations and some tourists can well be visiting Darjeeling because of that. There was a loss of around `1 crore in the Puja season and if winter goes to waste, there will be an additional loss of `70-`80 lakh. The hotels right now are giving the best rates and what’s needed is the assurance that it will be a safe trip for all. That will help improve the situation,” he told us.

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