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15 Jul 2017

Hill unrest hurts Puja holiday plan

SANJAY MANDAL and VIVEK CHHETRI, TT, July 14: Two popular hotels in the vicinity of the Darjeeling Mall had been sold out for last year's Puja holidays before July ended. With just over two months to go for another Puja vacation, less than 10 per cent of the 44 rooms have been booked.
Seven tea gardens that together rent out 40-odd rooms in their bungalows for tea tourism had 80 per cent confirmed bookings for Puja by this time last year. Barely 10 per cent have been taken so far this year.
Flights to Bagdogra from Calcutta have had almost 80 per cent fewer advance bookings for the holiday season than in previous years.
"As of July, there are almost no advance bookings for Bagdogra flights scheduled for the Puja period.... We are making assessments on whether to reduce capacity temporarily," Debjit Ghosh, regional sales head (east) of SpiceJet, said.
The budget airline operates two flights each from Calcutta and Delhi to Bagdogra.
Unrest in Darjeeling and Kashmir, among the top choices of Calcuttans looking to get away far from the madding Puja crowds, has not only reduced the options but also forced a change in budgets. The popular destinations among the available alternatives are Kerala, Goa, the Andamans, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand. Some are looking at "affordable" international destinations like Thailand and Sri Lanka.
The Gorkhaland agitation in Darjeeling appears to have cut off even Sikkim as an option, although the state otherwise remains tourist-friendly. Hotels there have been hit by a wave of cancellations.
In June, the total loss in terms of hotel, transport and sightseeing revenue worked out to Rs 70 crore a day in Darjeeling, Sikkim and north Bengal. A hotelier with two hotels in the mall area has 55 employees to pay salaries to. His fixed expenditure per month is around Rs 5 lakh. The hotelier said that 90 per cent of his rooms had been booked for the Puja season, but most were cancelled. The 10 per cent bookings that remain are of tourists prepared to wait and watch. Even bookings for Christmas and New Year have been affected.
Tea tourism, a niche segment that attracts those looking for something different and willing to pay more, has been affected just as much. "We do not have even 10 per cent bookings left after cancellations," said Sandeep Mukherjee, principal adviser to the Darjeeling Tea Association.
Help Tourism, which caters mainly to tourists with special interests like birding and nature photography, is scurrying to arrange trips to alternative destinations. "Some of our clients now want to go to destinations like Bhutan and Nepal," said Asit Biswas, one of the directors of the company. "But for Calcuttans on a budget, finding an alternative to Darjeeling and Sikkim is tough."

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