“Since 1993 there has been tremendous change in the development of tourism,” Paljor Lachungpa tells me in the MG Marg office of Blue Sky Tours & Travels, where he has his day job. Mr. Lachungpa is also the president of TAAS, the Travel Agents Association of Sikkim. TAAS has over 250 members, all with businesses registered with the Tourism Department. “Things are much better planned now. Tourism stake-holders all over the hills are prospering.”
This time of year residents in Gangtok can feel the boom. We are in the middle of the peak season, when evenings in MG Marg become an obstacle course of group photos and waitresses at popular cafes are made to work 13 hour days. It is a very busy time with several thousand visitors in town on any given day. But we got to wondering: how far along is Sikkim in its tourism development? How profitable are tourism based businesses the rest of the year? And what is the road forward? So I sat down with Mr. Lachungpa and asked, just what does ‘peak season’ mean?
“Almost every hotel in Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kalimpong are booked full right now,” he says. “It can be very difficult to get a room if you do not call ahead. We are also running short on transportation due to all the demand.”
This is pretty impressive given that there almost 300 hotels in the East District, most of them in Gangtok. We’ve all seen them lining the streets, even in areas rather far removed from the center of town. This time of year even those out of the way businesses are bustling. According to statistics gathered by the Tourism Department, international tourist numbers have hovered around 17,000 to 20,000 for the past five years, peaking in October. Domestic tourism has been steadily increasing for the past five years, bringing in a whopping six lakhs visitors in 2009 — over 1,00,000 in May, the peak month, alone. And for both international and domestic tourists, the first three months of this year have been record setting.
The government, even the central government, has made increasing tourism in Sikkim a priority. For instance, the Leave Travel Concession programme promotes tourism in the North East by offering government servants special discounts (off air travel or tour packages, for instance) if they take their holidays here. Because the Sikkim Tourism Department does not run its own tour service, it has authorised 33 tour and travel agencies to issue LTC certificates. However, according to Tourist Department statistics, since October 2008 only 1,794 domestic tourists have come to Sikkim on the LTC programme — a drop in the bucket, really. The LTC programme for the North East was scheduled to end last month, but at the request of the Chief Minister has been extended another two years.
Perhaps the biggest change in the tourism industry, however, is that the ‘peak season’ is no longer necessarily the focus of tourism efforts. According to Mr. Lachungpa now nine out of twelve months of the year are promoted as the tourism season. Ten years ago only three months were considered prosperous. While may and October still bring in the most money, enough travellers pass through in the other months to be profitable. This means that most hotels and travel agencies now keep a full staff all year round, when before they might have only been able to afford to hire workers seasonally. During what remains of the ‘off-season,’ many tourism-based businesses let their employees take rotating holidays.
“We have to stop talking about ‘off season,’” Mr. Lachungpa argues. “Tourists will think there is nothing to do. Sikkim has four seasons, and each has its own charm.”
During the monsoons, for instance, Sikkim’s waterfalls are beautifully gushing, and tourists can watch the mushroom harvest. The autumn is dry with clear mountain views, perfect for trekking. In the winter there is snow in the north, and Sikkim is working hard to develop winter sports in Yumtang and Kupup. Skiing was introduced introduced in Yumtang three years ago, making Sikkim one of only three states in India to offer the snowy activity, and the only state in the North East. They hope to have the ski slopes being crafted there ready for domestic tourists next year, and plan to promote it on an international level the year after that.
Other activities are in development, including paragliding and rides in a ‘jorbin ball’ — a large sphere in which strapped-in thrill seekers can roll down the hill. Promoting tourism all year round helps avoid what Mr. Lachungpa calls “bottlenecks.” These bottlenecks all have to do with transportation and access to the state, and limit the number of tourists that can flow into the state at any given time. Bottlenecks include political crises in neighbouring states and roads damaged by natural calamities. Developing ‘off-season’ tourism makes sure that Sikkim doesn’t have all its economic eggs in one basket.
Building better transportation infrastructure is also critical. Mr. Lachungpa is excited about plans to build an airport in Sikkim and bring trains all the way up through West Bengal into the state. In the meantime, he argues that any growth at Bagdogra Airport near Siliguri is good for Sikkim. The Bhutanese royal airline Druk Air now offers flights connecting Bagdogra with Paro, Bhutan and Bangkok, Thailand. There are further plans to offer flights directly to Kathmandu. TAAS and others are lobbying to have Bagdogra declared an official SAARC airport, or even an international airport. The more easily they can access Sikkim by air, the more likely tourists are to plan visits to Sikkim.
Of course, if tourism increases much more than it has already, Sikkim is going to need more hotels and other facilities to meet demand. Several are already under construction here in Gangtok, but Mr. Lachungpa believes that the way forward isn’t in the cities. TAAS and the Tourism Department are turning their efforts to focus on the development of village tourism and home-stays. Though certainly a few travellers have been finding their way to little villages and staying with welcoming families for decades, the idea of village tourism as an industry was really only conceptualised three or four years ago. Now there are dozens of village tourism committees all over the state, all working to train rural citizens and promote their towns as widely as possible.
But village tourism is a delicate balancing act. Says Mr. Lachungpa, “We must maintain the ethnicity of the village while providing modern facilities. Bathrooms, clean living, good food: we can not ask tourists to compromise on these.”
In a way this struggle is endemic to the development of tourism in Sikkim. Mr. Lachungpa argues that tourism is good for the state: though hotels are ultimately built for tourists, “even those who fetch sand from the river for concrete” benefit from their construction. Still, there are plenty of places in Asia, such as Thailand, and elsewhere in India where excessive tourism ripped up communities, ran over cultures, and decimated ecologies. When this happens both locals and travellers lose. For this reason, TAAS and the tourism department are focusing heavily on so called ‘eco-tourism,’ developing a code of conduct for both tourists and their local guides that, if followed, will prevent damage to the environment from activities like trekking.
“Tourism is our product that we sell to the globe,” Mr. Lachungpa explains. “It is our duty to protect this product. That means protecting culture and biodiversity.”
Even more subtly, however, part of Sikkim’s appeal is its paradisiacal, and rather rugged aesthetic. As Sikkim develops, TAAS hopes it won’t lose its rough edges. Mr. Lachungpa argues that even the permits required to get into restricted areas like North Sikkim actually add value to these places in the minds of tourists, however much they might gripe about the bureaucratic hassles.
“Our clients shouldn’t feel harassed about getting into the restricted areas, but if you make it free for everyone, people will lose their curiosity,” he says.
I’m not sure how much I buy that, but I do understand the larger point: tourism in Sikkim needs to be a blend of leisure and adventure. As Mr. Lachungpa wryly argues, “If the roads are all too smooth, you won’t remember the journey.”
Having dozed through too many road trips on the gentle asphalt of Illinois, I think he might be right.