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Vehicle drought to hurt travel trade

Siliguri, April 12: After education it is now the turn of the tourism industry to feel the election heat.

The staggered five-phase Assembly elections had already earned itself a reputation by allegedly throwing the academic calendar haywire. Now coupled with the heavy deployment of central forces, it has posed a serious threat to the region's tourism sector.

With a large number of vehicles requisitioned for the transportation of election officials and paramilitary forces, tour operators of the region are afraid that the non-availability of transport would tell on the tourist inflow during the peak tourist season.

'All the vehicles registered with our association have been requisitioned,' a member of the Hilly Region Mini-bus Owners' Association said. 'While some of them have already been sent to the south-Bengal districts, others have been asked to report in the first week of May,' he added.

Tour operators under the banner of Eastern Himalayan Travel and Tour Operators' Association today submitted a memorandum to subdivisional officer Bidyut Bhattacharya and north Bengal deputy director for tourism Gopal Lama, asking them to spare some vehicles for tourists who have already booked their tours.

'Tourism in this region is largely seasonal in nature and as the elections are coinciding with one of the peak seasons, we are afraid that those in the travel trade will have a hard time this year,' said Samrat Sanyal, the secretary of the association.

'We have requested the authorities to spare some vehicles for tourist movement. We understand that elections are important, but the government must keep in mind that tourism is the primary source of income for people in the region,' he added.

Tour operators were hoping for a boom in the tourism industry this time.

'Going by the advance bookings, we were hoping that the business would increase manifold this time,' said Raj Basu, the working president of the association. 'All major hotels are already booked for end-April and May. If we don't have adequate vehicles for these tourists, we will have to ask them not to come,' he added.

According to estimates of the tourism department, more than 4 lakh tourists visited the region in 2005-2006, which was a marked increase from the previous year's 2.2 lakh.

'We will look into the matter and see if anything can be done about it,' said Darjeeling district magistrate Aariz Aftab. 'But the elections are a priority for us and we would like to have the cooperation of everybody in this matter,' he added.

He, however, assured that the vehicle crunch would not be for long. 'Those vehicles which have been sent to Purulia for transporting forces will come back in a few days. Others requisitioned for election duty will be withdrawn from the roads only for two-three days during the polls,' he said.

Tour operators, however, are feeling far from reassured. 'It may be a matter of a few days but for tourists, who had planned their holidays well in advance, it would mean endless harassment and most of them would cancel their trips,' one of them said.

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