Will Darjeeling Regain the Trust of Tourists?

Posted by Roshan Gupta at Dec 20, 2017 04:01 PM |
An agitation coupled with an internet ban that left tourists stranded, it looks like a tough time ahead for tourism in the Hills.

Darjeeling, West Bengal: The tourism industry in Darjeeling proved to be as crippled as most businesses operating from the town due to the agitation for a separate state of Gorkhaland. With the scenic beauty of the hills and the spectacular views it affords, Darjeeling has always been a major tourist attraction. A substantial part of the town’s employment is attributed to the tourism industry, which took a bloody blow with the ban on internet services that eventually lasted a hundred days.

“The bookings for Darjeeling generally commence four months prior to the annual Hindu festival Durga Puja (usually in September or October), but this time most of the enquiries were for Sikkim. The Hills usually see huge footfall during Puja, but the unrest hit tourism badly and we incurred huge losses,” says Samrat Sanyal, a tour operator.

The tourist season generally starts around April and continues till late October. That the internet shutdown came right in the middle of this period — it was first announced on June 18 and lasted till late September — did not help matters. Sanyal says that in 2016 around 85% of the tourist footfall took place around the time of Durga Puja, but in 2017 it had fallen to around 5-10%. Though things have relatively calmed down, Sanyal believes the flow of international tourists will remain low for a while. Other tour operators this reporter spoke to also echoed Sanyal’s sentiments and said that the aftermath has left tourists with little confidence in the Hills.

Sources in the tourism department say that apart from the internet shutdown, a general response to the strikes and the violence attributed to the agitation played a major role in “maginalising tourist flow”. The tourists who came to the Hills around the time the agitation intensified could not even get in touch with their families as the mobile reception was poor for days, besides no web connectivity. Many who had already arrived at Darjeeling had to cut short their vacation.

One of them was Kartik Lodha. A tourist from Rajasthan, Lodha was caught unawares by the strike that came just as he prepared to go paragliding in Delo. He had no choice but to return to his hotel midway. With no internet to assist him in looking for a way out, Lodha left Kalimpong the next morning in a state bus with police escort. "It’s the locals who suffer the most during such situations. They are the ones who will have to deal with these problems and difficulties in the long run. Barring a missed vacation, we will be fine," said Lodha.

Blaming the state for imposing the shutdown and creating “unwanted problems” in the Hills, Tapash Mitra, a tourist from Kolkata, said that "the West Bengal government is hindering its own tourism industry”. He had planned a three-day trip with his family, but had to return on the day of his arrival. "I just want the people to have  peace in the Hills."

Homestays were also badly hit and saw a spate of booking cancellations in the wake of the agitation and the subsequent network shutdown. Nimlamhu, the owner of Green-Hills homestay at Sangsay, said that more than the owners of hotels or homestays, tourists suffered as they were left stranded, unsure of what they would have to do. “Nothing works when the internet is banned. Even refunds cannot be processed.”

When asked about the arrangements that were eventually made to refund the tourists’ money, he said, "The amount was refunded because we were left with no option, and for those guests who were our regular customers, we adjusted the balance with their future bookings."

He said, however, that it was difficult to contact those who booked stays in advance but were hit with the news of the strike before they arrived there. "There was no way we could contact the guests as the internet was banned. About 50-60% of our bookings are done online and we couldn’t even refund their money through netbanking. We had to personally call them up and apologise for the unforeseen circumstance, and request hem to bear with us, not knowing that the strike would last as long as it did," said Nimlamhu.

Sweta Neriah, who is in charge of Palighar, a homestay in Ecchay, was preparing their promotions when the town was hit with the blanket-ban on internet. "For international guests we have a system where payment is done only during checkout. We did incur heavy losses this season and I’m sure we will feel the impact of this slump for some years. Incidentally, this happened just when the international tourist flow started to pick up in this part of the world."

Complaining that the internet ban cost them a year’s business, Kabir Pradhan, the owner of the homestay, said, "Internet is the only way to really promote a business these days. We need to keep updating out official pages on every social networking site to market it. Only then can we attract clients and agents."
He now looks forward to the spring season.

Meanwhile, many tour guides say they suffered huge losses with the internet ban and dip in the number of tourists. Manisha Sharma, who used to work as a tour guide, says she regrets being in the hills as the ban robbed her of three months’ income. “Had I not been here, I could have travelled to some other places with tourists, but the movement of vehicles was also restricted during the agitation, leaving me broke and with few options,” says Sharma.

Roshan Gupta is a Siliguri-based journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

Shutdown stories are the output of a collaboration between 101 Reporters and CIS with support from Facebook.