Editorial: Road to Tourism

Use the lull to take stock and plan better

The “season” appears likely to pick up this Dusshera. The cyclical aandolan for statehood in neighboring Darjeeling, which had ensured that the booming summer tourist footfalls faded when they should have peaked last year, is on pause, making it easier for holiday planners to think about Sikkim. Dasain for tourism stakeholders in Sikkim will, in all probability, be bountiful. But, even though tourist arrivals have been on the up in recent years, it has not just been the awaited Gorkhaland that soured tourism often for the already existing Sikkim; there is also the travel hiccup imposed by the disrupted rail and road connectivity to the region and beyond. Because of the monsoon battering of the strained rail-tracks in the East, expect more tourists to go west this season. It is important thus to convey tourists that Sikkim remains open for tourism despite the politics of the neighbouring state and the unreliability of connectivity. This message will be difficult to convey in the wake of tourists getting stranded on the wrong side of landslide in North Sikkim, but effort still needs to be made that Sikkim tackles even events – like aandolans and landslides - beyond its control rather well. That said, there is a lull before a storm of tourists arrive in Sikkim, and the State might as well use this pause to catch its breath, take stock and resolve to plan better. Around five years ago, at around this time, trouble in the neighbourhood had similarly hurt the tourist season. At that time as well Sikkim was dealing with the double whammy of the “situation” in Darjeeling and the still fresh memories of the 2011 earthquake which were discouraging tourists from including Sikkim in their itinerary. At that time as well, one had heard of officials resolving to explore innovative options to resuscitate tourism in Sikkim. No innovative thinking transpired at that time and tourism just kicked into gear on its own, and is unlikely that better planning, promotion and preparedness will shake out any time soon, but that should not stop one from hoping. One needs to accept that tourism requires several things to fall into place to prosper. It is also unfortunately too susceptible to external factors [trouble en route to Sikkim for instance] and since Sikkim cannot do too much about external factors beyond its control, it should work hard and well to streamline everything within the State. The creation of more homestay options and development of new tourist spots, projects already underway, will go a long way towards embellishing the bouquet of itineraries that Sikkim can offer guests, as will the suggestion that even better human resource be trained for the service sector. And providing the backbone for all these improvements will be the roads over which tourism accelerates into Sikkim. The highways are the modern world’s great rivers. Just as most ancient civilisations came up on the banks of major rivers and their tributaries, so too in the present times does every “developmental” initiative require the presence of good roads. A boom invariably follows road development initiatives. The absence or poor road-worthiness of stretches would hence automatically prove counter-productive. If this analogy be accepted, then the situation has turned worrisome for Sikkim as too many of its roads are in rather poor disrepair. Now, about tourism and roads. No matter how many man-hours are spent trying to come up with the most enticing slogans to attract tourists to Sikkim, they will come to naught if travel is not safe and reliable. Tourism depends heavily on positive word-of-mouth publicity and no traveler, who is already taking a risk visiting places based on just publicity brochures and glossy centre-spreads, will decide on a destination once he is told of the poor road conditions. Taking Sikkim’s case, it is making an earnest play to place itself on the Buddhist circuit and with the homestay thrust, trying to appeal more strongly to tourists wishing to slow down with a laidback holiday. Needless to add, all those who decide on Sikkim for either of these qualities, will expect a tranquil stay here. A bone-rattling experience on the road to the monasteries or a home-stay is not something they would have been factored in. It must also be borne in mind that when one says good roads, one does not, by any stretch of imagination, imply wide, double-lane blacktops. All that is being wished for are motorable, safe and reliable roads. Bad roads (in fact all roads) turn into nightmares during monsoons in Sikkim. West Sikkim connectivity remains poor like always at present and Tsomgo and North Sikkim, the other places that tourists wish to visit, compete for Khatron-ke Khiladi levels of unreliability. So, the road to promoting tourism in Sikkim lies literally in its roads. Improve them, maintain them and promote Sikkim well and the State has enough potential to survive even just on repeat tourists. Admittedly, this is easier said than done since roads lie beyond the Tourism Department’s control, but the other arm, that of Roads & Bridges for the State roads, also belongs to the same Government and BRO is another step away with the Centre. Some coordination, better planning and prioritization should get the roads in better health, monsoons notwithstanding. There is nothing new in what is being suggested and there must have been several attempts to improve the blacktops in the past, but maybe Sikkim should try harder and more consistently.