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Nod to tea tourism without land lease

Makaibari garden in Kurseong, which has introduced tea tourism

Siliguri, Feb. 14: The government will support tea tourism based on infrastructure already existing in plantations but will not issue fresh lease for any portion of the garden land to be used for tourism.

The government fears that issuing fresh lease would lead to rampant clearing of plantations for tourism, affecting the apex industry that employs lakhs of people. A new lease for a portion of garden land would mean that the plot could be used for alternative purposes like tourism.

Industries minister Partha Chatterjee, who was here last week to attend the North Bengal Festival, told journalists that tea planters had not yet sent any proposal to utilise the available infrastructure on their estates for tourism.

“We feel the planters should take stock of the bungalows, rest houses and other infrastructure available and send us specific proposals. We are ready to endorse such proposals,” Chatterjee said.

“We, however, will not grant fresh lease for any portion of garden land that may be used for alternative purposes like tourism.”

The minister also said the new lease might lead to uprooting of tea bushes. “Tourism infrastructure might come up on the garden land for which the new lease will be acquired. Tea tourism must be developed but in a controlled manner, without affecting the apex industry that employs lakhs of people in the region,” the minister said.

The tea tourism concept was conceived by the Left Front government in 2005. So far, only a handful of planters, with gardens in idyllic surroundings, have started promoting their properties as niche product with good response from both India and overseas.

Indranil Bhowmik, representing Solutions INC, a Calcutta-based company that runs tea tourism facilities in association with four estates — Zurrantee, Selim Hill and Runglee and Serrani — said already there was a shortage of accommodation.

“As of now, there are around 50 rooms available in bungalows in north Bengal gardens. The demand increases to over 140 rooms during the peak season,” he said. “We have found out that 20 more bungalows are in a position to supplement the need.”

Zurrantee alone, Bhowmik said, had 550 room nights (one room booked for one night) in the past fiscal and the figure is expected to reach 650 by the end of this fiscal. “Of the total tourists we have handled, around 40 per cent were foreigners, hailing from countries like the UK, US and even Hong Kong,” Bhowmik said.

Stakeholders of the industry, who had interacted with the minister, said all gardens didn’t have adequate accommodation for tourists.

“On some tea estates, it is possible to part with a portion of the available infrastructure and use it for tourists’ accommodation. But on most estates, new infrastructure is required. We have been asking for fresh lease for a specific portion of the tea land, so that we can set up the tourism facilities,” said Amitangshu Chakraborty, the principal adviser to the Indian Tea Planters’ Association. “Many planters are interested in investing in tea tourism but cannot do so as the decision on lease is pending with the state. They don’t have the available infrastructure either.”