A road destroyed by landslides in Uttarakhand’s Gauchar, which leads to some of the picture-postcard trekking trails that attract travellers from Bengal by the hordes during the holiday season. (AP)
Rishikesh, Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri, Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Kalindikhal, Mayali Pass — the long list of destinations struck off the holiday list by the devastating flash floods in the Himalayas has triggered a rush for alternatives ahead of the festival season.
Tour operators who organise holidays in the northern Himalayas with Kedarnath and Badrinath as the top draws have been deluged with requests for cancellations and alternative destinations. Tourists who would usually look for places up north to visit are now asking for “safer” destinations.
Heavy rain and floods in Uttarakhand earlier this month left hundreds dead and thousands stranded in the mountains. Such has been the scale of devastation that many places might not be fit for tourism for a couple of years.
“We have cancelled two group trips to Kedar and Badri scheduled for September 22 and 25. Both these trips were fully booked with all 96 customers paying the travel costs in advance,” said Debasish Majumder of Kundu Special, which has been in the business of organising affordable holidays for decades.
“There was a long waiting list for these two trips. Post-cancellation, we have refunded the entire money.”
Kundu Special had taken a group of 36 tourists to Badrinath on June 12. While most of them have returned, a few are still waiting for their turn to be evacuated.
The average holidaymaker might yet find a few holiday options in the hills but those who prefer the adventure trail of snow, slopes and snaking rivulets won’t have access to some of the more popular trekking routes, buried under heaps of debris caused by landslides and avalanches.
“The calamity has served a telling blow to our industry,” said Biplab Dey of Ankur Tour and Travels. “Tourist trails across north India used to be the preferred Puja destinations for our guests, who love to spend time in the solitude of the hills during the holidays.”
Not just Uttarakhand, many are wary of travelling to the other mountainous regions, too. “We have been forced to cancel two scheduled trips to Leh. This is unprecedented,” Dey said.
A section of tourists eyeing September and October dates have started hunting for destinations within Bengal while others have started exploring alternatives in Kerala, Rajasthan and Bhutan.
Had the Uttarakhand tragedy not happened, this would have been the time to finalise plans for a trip. The best time to visit the Valley of Flowers at Chamoli in the Garhwal region is August.
“We normally have trips to the valley lined up around August,” a tour operator said. “We can’t tell when we will be taking tourists there next.”
The weather is generally good in the hills during Puja but this year could see a preference for the plains, irrespective of the season. “In the past week alone, demand has grown for holidays in Kerala, Goa and Rajasthan. Those who still want a holiday in the hills are looking at Sikkim and Darjeeling,” said Anil Punjabi, chairman (east) of the Travel Agents’ Federation of India.
Tanmay Paul, who has gone trekking to Uttarakhand in each of the past five years, is shattered to find his favourite destination out of the holiday radar. “Narrow paths and wooden bridges have been destroyed. Stretches of flat land where camps would be set up seem to have been damaged, too,” he rued.
Some of the more famous trekking routes start from Uttarkashi in the Garhwal region. “The diversity of the trekking options available to the adventurer is mindboggling. There are alpine routes at 20,000 feet, lush green meadows and also low-altitude treks in the Garhwal region that are hard to find anywhere else in India,” Paul said.
Everester Basanta Singha Roy said it was unlikely that trekkers would be allowed into that region till the roads were repaired and a semblance of normality returned.
“We had sent a four-member team to Uttarkashi but they had to come back. Other plans are now uncertain,” added Alok Sil, vice-president of the South Calcutta Trekkers’ Association.