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23 May 2018

Sikkim hails plan to drop tourist restrictions

RAJEEV RAVIDAS, TT, May 23, 2018, Gangtok: The proposal of the Union tourism ministry to remove restrictions on foreigners who want to travel to Arunachal Pradesh and parts of Sikkim has been received with glee by the Sikkim government and tourism stakeholders of the Himalayan state.

Hailing the proposal, C.P. Dhakal, the secretary of the state tourism department, said the removal of restrictions would give a further boost to tourism in the state. "We have not received official communication on the proposal; I have come to know about this from the media, but this is a welcome development. This will help attract high-end foreign tourists and give a boost to tourism in the state," he said.

Union minister of state for tourism K. J. Alphons had said on Sunday that his ministry had proposed the plan at a meeting with senior Union home and defence ministry officers on May 17. "The ministry has proposed opening up the Northeast for tourists. In the last six months, the government has opened up many restricted areas and if the plan in the Northeast works, then many more border areas can be opened up," he had said.

The restrictions, however, can be removed only if the home and defence ministries approve the proposal.

Foreigners need to apply for travel documents such as the protected area permit (PAP) and the restricted area permit (RAP) to travel to some parts of Sikkim. These areas are considered sensitive because of their proximity to China and Bhutan.

The places popular with the Indian tourists in the state, but restricted for foreigners include the Nathu-la Pass on the border with China in East Sikkim, Gurudongmar and Thangu Tsopta Valley in North Sikkim, among others.

Echoing the tourism secretary, Barap Namgyal Bhutia, the vice-president of the Tourism Agents Association of Sikkim (TASS), said the lifting of restrictions for foreigners had been a long-standing demand of the tourism stakeholders. "We have taken up the matter with the Union government umpteen times over the years. The removal of restrictions will have a massive positive impact on tourism," he said.

Bhutia said the government should also lift the ban on the entry of tourists from China and Nepal to Sikkim and increase the number of days foreigners allowed to stay in some parts of the state. "The ban on the entry of tourists from Bangladesh was lifted recently, but since the process of acquiring permits to visit Sikkim is so cumbersome, not many are willing to take the trouble. Bangladesh can be a huge market for us," he said.

The TASS vice-president also demanded that more peaks be opened for mountain-climbing since there is a huge demand for it, especially among foreigners.

"Only five peaks were opened for mountain-climbing in 2008, but if more peaks, especially in the range of over 7,000 feet, are opened, it will give a massive boost to mountain tourism," he said. The five Alpine peaks open for mountain-climbing are below the range of 6,000 feet.

Sikkim received a record 14 lakh tourists last year. The state wants to double the figure in the next five years.

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