The tourism sector of West Bengal is witnessing a new trend of people bypassing tour operators to visit sought-after destinations in the northern parts of the state amid the COVID-19 pandemic, an office-bearer of a travel research organisation said on Wednesday.
Tourists are directly contacting owners of hotels, resorts and homestays in the Himalayas and Dooars instead of going via tour operators, Raju Basu, the convenor of the Association for Conservation of Tourism, said.
This trend was witnessed after a large number of residents of Darjeeling and Kalimpong hills working in the hospitality sector in other parts of the country returned home due to the pandemic situation and started promoting village tourism by opening their own homestays, he said.
“They are uploading photographs and videos of the homestays in their villages on the social media and are getting direct bookings from visitors,” Basu said.
This has affected the business of the travel agents as they are hardly getting even 10 per cent of the pie of the tourist footfall in the region, he said.
High-end beauty parlours and food outlets have come up in off-beat destinations like Bungkulung in Darjeeling district and Chuikhim in Kalimpong, also an emerging trend, he said.
“People with experience of working in the hospitality sector in major cities are setting up these facilities. They are getting good business both from tourists as well as locals,” Basu told PTI.
The COVID-19 pandemic has helped to integrate urban and rural areas in the village tourism and service industry.
“Now, tourists from the cities will not miss their urban luxuries in the mountains or forests,” he said.
Cuisines ranging from Hyderabadi biryani to Korean dishes are now available in the hills, thanks to the returnees, he said.
Hotels and homestays, which were crippled by the coronavirus-induced lockdown beginning in March, are now fully booked till after the New Year, with tourists flocking even to remote destinations.
Kharga Singh, the owner of a homestay in Pabong village in Kalimpong, said all his five cottages are booked till the first week of January.
“We sat idle for several months and had got some business during the Durga Puja and Diwali season but now tourists are coming in good numbers in the Christmas to New Year period,” he said.
Hotels in Darjeeling town, popularly known as the Queen of the Hills, have reported 80-90 per cent occupancy rates similar to pre-COVID times.
Much to the delight of tourists, joy rides on the famed toy trains of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) have resumed from Christmas.
Travel Agents” Federation of India (TAFI) eastern region head Anil Punjabi said that the travellers are themselves booking homestays and hotels in north Bengal.
“This is fraught with risk as the tourists cannot fall back on anyone if something goes wrong,” he said.
He claimed that photos and videos of homestays may not match the real conditions in some cases and tourists will have little redress of their grievances.
If the tour is booked through a travel agent or tour operator, the traveller can lodge complaints with the agencies in such cases.