It is tourism season again, and this week NOW! prowled the streets and cafes interviewing foreigners about their experience to find out where Sikkim shines as a tourism destination — and where it falls flat.
The first thing I asked was how they heard about Sikkim, this small and peaceful border state. After all, Sikkim isn’t in the national news much, and never mentioned in the international media. Despite its ambitions to make Sikkim a tourism and ecotourism hotspot in the North East, the Tourism Department doesn’t really advertise. So how did those tourists that made it here find out about Sikkim’s existence in the first place?
The most common answer was word of mouth. Travellers visiting the Darjeeling District hear about Sikkim from locals and other tourists and decide to take a few days to check it out. One group of four Brits and Swedes befriended a man from Sikkim in Darjeeling who gave them a long list of places to visit. When they got here, however, they discovered that most of their list was in the North District, which they felt was too out of the way to attempt.
There is a bit of buzz about Sikkim among hikers and mountaineers in the West, of course, and those tourists who had the most detailed schedules were the ones who came here for trekking or kayaking. Amongst these outdoor types Sikkim has a good reputation and a few devoted fans. A group of American high school students from Tennessee I spoke to in MG Marg had just completed five days of white-water rafting and were doing some shopping before moving on to Varanasi. They were there on a school programme developed and lead by their Eastern Religions teacher, an outdoor enthusiast who long ago made friends with the owner of Wisdom Tours and Travels on his own trek. Their school has been sending students to Sikkim for ten years.
The other way to find Sikkim seems to be careful study of a map. Travellers planning long trips across India look up that little nub sitting atop West Bengal and decide to swing through. I met a retired French couple sitting on a bench with a stack of simple lined maps, pouring over them. They were on their fifth visit to India, and had planned this one specifically for Darjeeling and Sikkim after a previous visit took them to Ladoc. They had seen the Himalayas from one side, and now wanted to see them from the other.
Several of the tourists I talked to found out about Sikkim through travel guidebooks like Lonely Planet, but these guidebooks were declared generally unhelpful once inside the state. This isn’t surprising. Guidebooks are usually regional or national, and even within the North East region Sikkim is small and out of the way. So though these guidebooks spoke highly of Sikkim as a beautiful place with great tourism destinations, they weren’t very specific on what these destinations were, how to visit them or the variety of lodging, dining and shopping options available in the capital or out in the districts.
This is unfortunate for Sikkim, for guidebooks play a huge role in the plans of tourists. Without detailed guidebook entries, Sikkim can attract relaxed and long-term travellers — ones willing to go to a place without much planning and just soak up the atmosphere — but may have trouble becoming a major destination for tourists prone to making detailed schedules before arrival, hoping to fit a great deal of sightseeing into one or two weeks. These tourists, however, may not have really heard of Sikkim anyways.
Sikkim has a unique feel for foreign tourists. Those only in India briefly often want the sort of busy and intense experience usually associated with Southern India or big cities like Delhi. For those travellers who spend several months touring the country, however, Sikkim is a breath of fresh air: peaceful, prosperous and off the beaten track.
“It feels easy to be a tourist here,” said Carrie Stopp of the United Kingdom. “The people are very friendly and seem honest.”
Even getting entry permits for Sikkim was, among the tourists I spoke to, universally painless and “super easy.” Several groups I talked to heatedly discussed the details of India’s relatively new rules about exit and re-entry into India on a tourism visa — stipulations that complicate plans for anyone hoping to swing over to Western India through Nepal — but whether they got their Sikkim permits at Rangpo or in their home countries, the only complaints were that some jeep drivers were unhappy to wait the couple minutes it takes foreigners to check into the state.
“I was surprised,” said Lotta Paulson, also of the UK and travelling with Ms. Stopp and two others. “I expected bureaucracy, but the guys at the permit office seemed happy to help.”
That said, none of the tourists I spoke to knew how to get an extension on their permits should they decide to stay more than two weeks. Furthermore, once in the state several groups were finding it more difficult to get around to the the other districts: jeeps to different towns, especially in the North or West districts, were harder to get, less common, and more uncomfortable than expected.
Most tourists expressed pleasant surprise at the cosmopolitan, even European feel of Gangtok — especially MG Marg — and said they were enjoying the Western-style nightlife. But these were unexpected bonuses, not the qualities that drew them to visit Sikkim in the first place. The biggest attraction was the chance to view Sikkim’s legendary Himalayan mountainscape. After several days of rain and clouds this week, however, many travellers were feeling frustrated. One group who had been considering going on a trek scuttled their plans for fear that bad weather would make hiking miserable and obscure the views from Dzongri or Goychela.
All in all, tourists in Gangtok this week seemed to like Sikkim a lot, especially as a chance to relax after weeks or months of much more harried travel further south, but few of them had come with an accurate idea of what to expect or a detailed plan of how to spend their time. Other than guided jeep tours — dismissed by one group as being “shipped around like cattle” — there aren’t very many structured ways to take in Sikkim’s sights and attractions. Many savvy travellers eschew using tour agencies, but there really is no other way to try out, say, Sikkim’s “amazing kayaking.” Helping tourists understand what the state is like beyond lush valleys and beautiful mountain views and how to take advantage of all it has to offer — especially through cultivating better entries in travel guides — would do a lot to expand Sikkim’s tourism industry and bring in a new class of traveller.
As good as that would arguably be for the state, however, it would perhaps ironically make Sikkim less appealing to many of the tourists I met this week. These people loved Sikkim in part because it was “less touristy” than many other places they had been, more out of the way and less intent on finding exotic new ways to take their money. The friendly attitude of its citizens towards foreigners is one of the best resources Sikkim has to offer. Let’s be careful not to lose that when we’re rich and famous.