With pristine Darjeeling on the boil over a fresh Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) stir, leaving around 45,000 tourists stranded, travel operators on Thursday said the West Bengal government must ensure that teavellers remain a priority. “Such political disputes should be between the government and the people, and tourists should not be affected,” Anil Punjabi, Chairman (Eastern Region) of Travel Agents Federation of India (TAFI), told IANS. He said Darjeeling — due to its vantage location in the Eastern Himalayas, straddling nature reserves and Buddhist sites, as well as proximity to northeast India, Nepal and Bhutan — draws around 600 tourists per day during summer till July. “Around 250 to 300 tourists arrive each day via air, and the rest through trains, etc. This time of the year, there is a steady inflow of tourists due to school vacations. The cheap hotel fares are a huge draw,” Punjabi noted, on a day the army was called in Darjeeling after thousands of angry GJM activists demanding a separate Gorkhaland state indulged in arson and pelted stones injuring 15 police personnel. Increasing the hardship for the tourists, the GJM has called a 12-hour shutdown on Friday protesting against “indiscriminate police action” against their workers. He said many weekend travellers have postponed their travel dates till the unrest subsides, while those who are planning a trip to the hills are in a dilemma. “We have received complaints and cancellations. We would advise those who are stuck in Darjeeling to remain calm, stay indoors and wait,” Punjabi said.
Referring to the situation in the hills as “critical”, state Tourism Minister Gautam Deb told IANS that according to government estimates, nearly 45,000 tourists are stranded in Darjeeling and the adjoining areas. “We are not sure about the exact number, but according to our estimates nearly 45,000 tourists are trapped in Darjeeling and adjoining districts and sub-divisions. Nearly 15,000 tourists are trapped in Darjeeling alone. The situation is critical,” Deb said. The minister, who has reached Siliguri from Darjeeling along with most other state ministers and administrative officials, who attended the cabinet meeting in Darjeeling earlier in the day, assured that the government is doing its best to transport the panic-stricken tourists out from the hills.
“We will run 30 NBSTC (North Bengal State Transport Corporation) buses from various points of the hills, including the Tenzing Norgay Bus Terminus (in Siliguri) from tonight (Thursday night) to help tourists out of the area,” Deb explained. The minister said he is monitoring the entire situation from Siliguri under direct instruction of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and taking necessary steps to ensure secure and smooth transport of the tourists who are stranded in the hills.
“Kolkata-bound NBSTC buses will ply tomorrow (Friday) as well from 6.00 a.m to 6.00 p.m at the interval of every two hours for the tourists,” he added. GJM chief Bimal Gurung has asked tourists to leave the hills before 6.00 a.m, as “they will not be given any safe passage during the shutdown and will have to wait till 6.00 p.m when the shutdown ends”.
Amidst the fast-paced developments, Punjabi batted for a long-term solution. “The state government is launching buses, etc., but that is not the solution. The tourists should be looked after. They are our guests and they become our ambassadors when they go back. When Thailand witnesses coups, tourism doesn’t get affected. So, the state government has to ensure the same in Darjeeling,” Punjabi added.