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Chartered hill rail rides on rise

Siliguri, Dec. 2: The season of chartered rides is in full swing and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) is doing brisk business again.

Stakeholders say the heritage tag has been able to draw a good number of tourists to book rides despite problems like the absence of a director for the DHR and the volatile situation in the hills ahead of the fourth round of tripartite talks on the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha’s demands.

“Around 25 bookings for chartered rides till February have been confirmed. The bookings were made directly with the DHR or through travel agencies. We organised five rides for foreign groups just last week. It is a good figure but the post of the director who handles the bookings is lying vacant. Nevertheless, people are making enquiries,” said P.K. Bandhopadhyay, the Kurseong station manager and the nodal officer of the DHR.

Chartered ride, a major draw for foreign tourists, begins from mid-September and extends till April. Tourists from Europe and America fascinated by the idea of travelling in first class coaches drawn by century-old steam locomotives generally avail of the rides.

They have a choice of many routes — Siliguri-Tindharia (30km), Siliguri-Kurseong (50km), Kurseong-Darjeeling (30km), Tindharia-Siliguri (30km), Kurseong-Siliguri (50km) and Darjeeling-Kurseong (30km) — at Rs 20,000 per ride.

“We have received 30 requests from the US and the UK for chartered rides from January to April. Although the trips are yet to be confirmed, the enquiries suggest that the appeal of the DHR among foreign tourists is increasing,” said Rajen Baid, the director of Cinderella Tours and Travels and the president of the DHR India Support Group.

Some tour operators are apprehensive that the tripartite talks scheduled on December 21 in Darjeeling may disturb the ongoing season.

“We have around 10 chartered ride bookings after December 15. But the political situation in the hills is unpredictable as the tripartite talks are scheduled to take place on December 21. We cannot count on the present peace prevailing in the hills now. If a strike is called, reshuffling the dates of the rides or even refunding the payments of our clients entails a lot of problems,” said Sanjay Goswami, the director of KBS Tours and Travels, an agency that offers DHR ride packages.

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