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Tea for Tourism: The Story of Darjeeling
T he British exited an independent India in 1947 but left behind personality traits and hobbies that have intermingled with the Indian culture and tradition. ‘Tea’ being one of the most liked Colonial beverages, coaxed them to search the country high and low for the best hot cup blend to combat those dreary mornings. This expedition led to the discovery of Darjeeling Tea, now revered as the “Champagne of Teas”.
In 1835, the East India Company acquired Darjeeling, which was earlier part of Sikkim and briefly Nepal; there are very few accounts of its history due to the conflict between these two regions. What we know is that prior to this acquisition, Darjeeling was under substantial stress with Gorkha invasions and clashes between Nepal and the Raja of Sikkim. As an effort to settle the dispute between the King and his neighbours, the British deployed Captain Lloyd and Mr. JW Grant. Their report of spending six days in Darjeeling led to the East India Company acquiring the city as a summer resort and sanatorium.
With the British making a base in the northeast territory, mostly governed by hostile rulers, the next four decades witnessed civil disturbances among the kingdoms and growing conquests of the East India Company. By 1866, Darjeeling district had expanded to 1,234 miles after the cession of South Sikkim and Bhutan Duars. The territory was well-established with roads, Hill Corps, hotels and vacation bungalows.
Post India’s independence, Darjeeling formed part of the state of West Bengal and all the serviceable tea estates were declared a property of the State as per the West Bengal Estates Acquisition Act 1953. It marked the beginning of commercial cultivation of ‘Darjeeling Tea’ and its unique ‘Muscatel’ flavour becoming world-renowned.
Apart from being known for its tea, the city is also frequented by avid climbers, aiming to hike the majestic Himalayas. The city’s climate helps the mountaineers adjust to the cold winds and low temperatures before they begin to ascend. Most mountaineering expeditions led from Darjeeling are to scale the Kanchenjunga peak (8,586 meters) and the iconic Mount Everest (8,848 meters). The Darjeeling Himalayan Railways (DHR), one of the earliest railway projects to be constructed in high altitudes, is also located here and fondly called the Toy Train. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, it intricately connects New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling. Thus, with climbers, historians, nature lovers and tea enthusiasts coming in from the world over to immerse themselves in the colonial vibe, the city has a cosmopolitan atmosphere that regards all cultures. These aspects make it one of the most preferred destinations in the Himalayas.
The Hospitality footprint in the city is highly reflective of the British era and unifies with the traditional philosophies of the Buddhists and other natives. The resort options vary from old heritage bungalows and quarters amidst the bustling city to tea estate bungalows surrounded by a plethora of flora and fauna. Both experiences exude their own charm and uniqueness. With leisure tourism being at the forefront, travellers prefer spending a minimum of four to five nights in the magic of Darjeeling. At present, the city’s annual occupancy trends in the early 60’s.
The West Bengal Tourism Board has been consistently involved in improving access to the city. Moreover, as an initiative to improve tea tourism, the Government of West Bengal amended the tea estate policy in 2013 by giving an allowance of up to 5 acres of land for hospitality development. This has given functional tea estates an opportunity to promote footfalls and generate tourism revenue by providing vivid experiences; tea gardens are now considered as viable MICE options as well, with small groups and strategic meetings frequenting these resorts. With the entry of branded players such as the Ramada, hoteliers in Darjeeling have started to focus on MICE and destination weddings more aggressively than in the past. The marketwide ADR is currently around US$100; however, and there is a wide difference in the ADR of city hotels and those of the tea estates owing to the location, variability in experience and the package inclusions. Most of the tea estates are positioned in an ADR bracket of US$200 and upward.
Going forward, the strict development norms in the city and the local authorities’ discretion in allotment of land parcels pose a challenge for the progression of branded supply in Darjeeling. Hotelivate forecasts an addition of approximately just 200 rooms to the existing market in the next four years, with players like IHCL (Taj) included in the list.
In conclusion, a significant growth in Domestic Leisure, a gradually evolving MICE segment, and improving accessibility to the city have propelled the rise in tourism in Darjeeling. Even after witnessing several insurgencies and protests for the creation of Gorkhaland, the city’s demand has yet bounced back, and hoteliers are maintaining a positive outlook towards resort occupancies. The State Government also launched the West Bengal Incentive Scheme, 2015, with the intent of growing tourism by providing subsidies on state capital investment, loan interests, electricity, stamp duty and unit registration fees. With political stability in the Central Government and tourism at the forefront of State’s policy, Hotelivate expects Darjeeling to eventually make its mark as one of the most premium resort destinations in the world.
- Some of the finest tea estates operating as resorts in Darjeeling are: Glenburn (Tea) Estate, Ging Tea House, Chamong Chiabari, Tumsong Tea Retreat, Sourenee and Goomtee Tea Estate.
- Ghum (2,258 meters), the highest railway station in India, is situated in Darjeeling and is part of the DHR (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway).
- Some of the popular site-seeing locations in and around the city are Tiger Hill, Rock Garden, Observatory Hill, Tibetan Market, Sandakphu and Singalila National Park.
- Darjeeling Tea became the first Indian product to obtain a Geographical Indication to ensure that the intellectual trademarks and patents can be secured. This tagging also acts as a promise of quality.
- Over 70% of the Darjeeling tea produced is exported, owing to the high demand from England, Germany and the far-east countries.
- Almost all of the Darjeeling tea exported is cultivated organically; i.e. the use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides is not permitted (only natural compounds are allowed to be used).
- In 2018, only 8.6 million kilograms of tea was produced in Darjeeling which was over 10 million kilograms over a decade ago; the output is depleting every year due to climate changes and organic methods of cultivation.