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11 Jun 2017

Tourism test for govt in Darjeeling

Tourists at Esplanade after returning from the hills on Saturday
AVIJIT SINHA, Siliguri, June 10: The challenge for the Mamata Banerjee government now is to insulate the Darjeeling brand from the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha's disruptive tactics.
The hills had been slowly returning to normal since the morning, withtourists who stayed back thronging the Mall and tour operators receiving enquiries on availability of hotel and car bookings. But in the evening, the Morcha called the indefinite agitation, creating a situation inimical to tourism, one of the mainstays of the hills.
"Although Morcha leaders have said that transport, hotels and shops will remain open, the agitations they announced might discourage tourists from visiting the hills, particularly in the aftermath of Thursday's violence and yesterday's strike. Also, banking facilities will be available only two days a week during the indefinite agitation. That is another deterrent," a tour operator in Siliguri said.
The protests have been called at a time the tourist season in the hills is coming to an end before the onset of the monsoon. The next season during and after the Pujas is three months away and because of the train booking cut-off period of four months, the waiting lists of NJP-bound trains is already very long. However, tourists are expected to wait and watch how the situation pans out before possible cancellations.
The situation in the hills has been favourable for the tourism industry in the recent years - especially since 2013 - with the Morcha refraining from calling flash strikes and long shutdowns.
Besides, regular visits by chief minister Mamata Banerjee has led to the establishment of the rule of law in the region. Mamata's attempts over the past two days to assuage the concerns of tourists and industry stakeholders had also boosted their confidence.
"The chief minister's approach had sent a positive message to national and international tourists. We received several queries today, both from other states and abroad," said Tanmoy Goswami, a tour operator in Siliguri.
The queries, and the lesser number of cancellations than in the past two days, were being seen as a positive sign, he said. The UK and the US have issued travel advisories telling their citizens touring Darjeeling to stay away from large gatherings. However, the enquiries despite the advisories had encouraged the tour operators.
A hotelier in Darjeeling said they were expecting the situation to improve soon because of the chief minister's proactive confidence-building measures.
The hotelier said the Morcha's announcement that they would not allow government offices to open except for two days a week could affect some tourist attractions.
"The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, the ropeway and some other attractions are run by government departments. If they do not operate, we doubt how many tourists will come here," he said.
This morning, tourists in Darjeeling had expressed happiness at the fact that the situation was returning to normal. Dipanjan Mullick, who works in a private firm in Calcutta, had to defer his visit to Darjeeling town by two days because of Thursday's unrest. Mullick and his family spent the two days in Kurseong before reaching Darjeeling this morning.
"Darjeeling should be kept away from political issues. It's disheartening that tourists cannot reach this beautiful place," a beaming Tania, Mullick's wife, said, adding she was happy she could make it to Darjeeling. The Morcha called the indefinite agitation within a few hours.
Representatives of the Eastern Himalaya Travel and Tour Operators' Association said they would try their best to help tourists with the support of the administration.
After the Morcha's call, tourists began making hurried arrangements for returning home, either by rail or road or air. Lines outside ATMs lengthened.
Earlier in the day, Mamata had in Siliguri expressed concern when journalists had asked her if the violence on Thursday and the strike yesterday would hurt the image of Darjeeling as a tourist destination.
"Such an undesirable situation has cropped up because of a handful of irresponsible people. We met some US nationals and people from some other countries in Darjeeling and assured them that everything was fine there. Some people here want to run a monopoly in Darjeeling but they must remember that the town is admired by the whole world. The state government will ensure that more and more people visit Darjeeling," she said.

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