| A view of the Kanchenjunga range from Sikkim
Calcutta, Nov. 17: More and more Indians — and foreigners — are packing their bags for a break, short or long, but they rarely look to the country’s east.
So while travel trends warm up across most of the rest of India — and Southeast Asia, post-Sars — north Bengal, the Sunderbans, Sikkim and the Northeast await their turn in the sun. “Although people from this part of the world are holidaying elsewhere, rarely do travellers wish to venture here,” says Tarakeshwar Singh, former vice-chairman of Travel Agents Federation of India, eastern India chapter.
He minces no words on why he thinks this is so. “The infrastructure is bad, like surface transport, roads, and law and order. In Goa, women feel safe on their own, (even) on the beach. In Digha, the complaint I usually get is that incidents of eve-teasing are very high.”
According to Karun Budhraja of Amadeus, a global distribution system company, the upswing in the country’s tourism started after June.
“Air travel, powered by apex fares, was up by 11 per cent in October — with a 23 per cent growth compared to last year. Incoming tourist traffic has increased by 15 per cent so far in 2003. Predictions are of, at least, a 10 per cent growth in the industry by the year-end,” he says.
Domestic travel, for instance, is going up by leaps and bounds in the purely leisure segment that accounts for “about 30 per cent” of Indian tourism. Goa, Rajasthan, Agra and Kerala continue to draw tourists by the hordes whereas the east hardly registers a blip on the travel radar.
Singh sees in Calcutta a market waiting to be tapped. “Calcutta during Durga puja can be marketed as a culture and heritage hub. But where is the political will'”
“Darjeeling or the Sunderbans (too) can become very popular,” he adds. “The government, however, doesn’t have the determination to make it happen.”
Budhraja finds Shillong “a beautiful place” which “has a lot of potential. Yet, it is untapped”. He points out a burgeoning tourism sector that the east is losing out on — that of the weekend retreat. “It’s a fairly new trend, driven largely by the apex fares offered by airlines and special-rate packages by four- and five-star hotels.”
Budhraja says bookings in this sector “went up substantially during the two long weekends this year — August 15 and October 2”. “This is because of the disposable incomes of the rising middle-class and the arrival of the western concept of satellite-town destinations.”
But Calcutta, for instance, scarcely has a “satellite” to offer. Raichak “is beautiful, but not easy to approach, and Bagdogra doesn’t have cheap fares or frequent flights”. This is in contrast to New Delhi, which forms a golden triangle with Agra and Jaipur, and Mumbai, which has Goa and Pune. In the south, there are Bangalore and Kochi.
The country’s east is thus losing out on bookings by corporates that are increasingly swearing by e-travel. Business houses are now demanding tailor-made software with online booking procedures.
But everything is not lost to the east – at least not in religious and health tourism, which is on the rise. Gaya in Bihar, for instance, is attracting “thousands” of Buddhists from South Asia and Southeast Asia, thanks to more flights. And, bucking the trend of Bengal’s horror healthcare, patients from Bangladesh are coming to Calcutta hospitals for better treatment.
More Indians are going abroad, too. “Switzerland, Austria, Australia and New Zealand have become popular mainly because of Hindi films,” Budhraja says. “The Swiss Tourism Board figures show Indians are one of the largest tourist groups in that country.” So much so that “Shah Rukh Khan was made their brand ambassador last year”.