Development of Tourism in Darjeeling Town: Some Issues

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BY SOMDATTA DAS

Department of Geography, Chandernagore College, Chandernagore

ABSTRACT: Darjeeling town is an important mature tourist centre of West Bengal. Tourism dominates the economy of this town. Several factors influence Darjeeling's ability to expand and sustain tourism. These factors are related with the characteristics of the twon itself as well as the nature, activity and experience of the tourists. Thorough analysis of these factors reveals that the future of tourism in Darjeeling town is not at all satisfactory. Measures should immediately be taken to retain Darjeeling's image as an attractive tourist spot as far as possible.

Introduction

Obersvation of undersirable social and environmental impacts of tourism has led some researchers to speculate whether there exists a carrying capacity for tourists destinations. But later it is realised that carrying capacity is one of the most difficult concepts to put into practice. In fact, it is very hard to understand what the true carrying capacity is until it has been exceeded. Yet regardless of empirical validity of the notion of carrying capacity, attention must be paid by the planners to the ability of the area to absorb tourism in relation to the possibilities of environmental and social degradation. In this paper an attempt has been made to highlight some of the factors which influence Darjeeling town's ability to expand and sustain tourism.

Geographical Characteristics of the area

Physical features and processes

Darjeeling town lies in the hilly area of Darjeeling District. The district consists of a portion of ridges and deep valeys of Lower Himalayas. Five great hill ranges radiate from a central point at Ghoom, a saddle 2212 metres in elevation, situated in the north west of Senchal. Darjeeling town is situated on one of these five ranges - Darjeeling - Jalapahar range. This range extends northward from Ghoom, at first rising abruptly to a height of 2366 metres, then gradually decreasing to 2100 metres at Chowrasta of Darjeeling twon and again rising to 2149 metres at Observatory Hill.

Physical set up of Darjeeling Hill area is such that erosion and landslide are very common in this area. Darjeeling hills with high ridges and deep valleys experience extremely high erosion rate due to high relative relief and considerable slope ranging from 30 degrees to 70 degrees. Within the twon, the are above Lebong Cart Road especially between 'bazaar' and kutchary' is very steep. High altitude also to some extent is responsible for high erosion rate as water restores great potential energy at high level.

Darjeeling receives huge amount of rainfall. During rainy season (june to September) heavy rainfall of long duration (3 to 4 days) take place here. The rain water flows downhill as surface water or seeps into the soil as subsurface water. The surface runoff is responsible for accelerated erosion and undercutting of steep slope which result in landslides. Water seepage into the soil makes it viscous and in many cases the soil slides down the mountain slope.

The Darjeeling Jalapahar range possesses a synclinal structure. On both sides of this range synclinal limbs are exposed to the surface. Surface runoff, rivulets and streams cut across the dip of the synclinal beds has created a situation which is favourable for landslides. In fact occurrence of landslide is more in this zone than in the central part of synclinal trough. Landslides of this area may also be regarded as a part of normal process of slope retreat.

Occurrence of inversion of relief due to thrusting and complicated geological structure is common in Darjeeling Hills. In many places hard hard igneous rocks are found to lie above weak sedimentary beds, erosion of which leads to a situation which is favourable for landslide.

The geological structure of the are is unstable. The Himalayas have not attained their maximum elevation but are still rising. The rivers especially the Teesta (Tista), the Jaldhaka and the Balasan bear proofs of recent rejuvenation due to uplift of their watershed.

Physically the area is not at all resistant enough to bear excessive pressure exerted by human being. Uncontrolled tourism expansion in Darjeeling town has greatly accentuated the problems of this fragile environment. Tourism expansion has let to development of a large number of hotels and other tourist accommodations and market complexes. Some of them are high rise, some are situated on steep slopes. Some have developed totally ignoring the laws of municipality and in many instances they are causing blockage of natural drainage. Use of polybags is a major cause behind the choking of the existing drainage line and it is the tourists who find it more convenient to use polybags than the local people. Number of temporary shops on roadside drains increases greatly during tourist season which makes it very difficult to maintain and clear the choked - drains. Also traffic movement through the road and load on vehicle greatly increase during tourist season. All these are assisting the landslide to take place more frequently than before.

According to record books the first-ever major landslide, triggered by a cyclone, took place during 23-25 September, 1899. The next major landslide struck the district in january, 1934. The third major landslide occurred in June, 1950. In October 1968, heavy rain caused massive landslides in many parts of district. The following are the records of some recent major landslides that took place in this region during the 1993-2003:

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Economy

The region has a languishing agrarian economy with hardly any industrial base. Rugged terrain, steep gradient, cooler climate with increasing altitude, lack of cultivable land, small farm holding size, thin soil cover, higher cost of inputs are responsible for poor productivity and backward economic status of agricultural community. Inadequate fuel and power supply, insufficient transport and communication, lack of training, skill and specialization have retarded the industrial growth of the region. There are some cottage and small scale industries, but these have not prospered enough to generate surpluses for investment.

At present only three commodities are exported from this region. These are tea, orange and woolen garments. On the other hand most of the items required for living including foodgrain and cloth have to be imported from outside. As such a large portion of money earned is drained outside the region.

Previously, the economy of Darjeeling Hills was dependent on three Ts - Timber, Tea and Tourism. Because of massive deforestation "Timber" has lost its importance in the economy of the region. The total area under forest cover has fallen to around 20 per cent against the prescribed 60 per cent in case of hill regions according to National Forest Policy of India.

Both the quality and the quantity of production of Darjeeling Tea is deteriorating. Number of good indigenous tea species has become extinct. Change of physical environment including climate (i.e., decline in rainfall) is one of the main causes behind degradation of quality and decline of quantity of production. Another important factor for decline in production is the fact that about 25 per cent of the tea bushes in Darjeeling are over hundred years old. Tea bushes needed to be cleared after 60 - 65 years and new plantation should be raised. Unfortunately, no systematic replantation has taken place over the past 50 years. The management of tea gardens are trying to maintain yield by spraying excessive pesticides, herbicides and weedicides and burdening soil with inorganic fertilizers. As such Darjeeling Tea has lost most of its reputation in the international market. The number of tea gardens has declined from 140 in 1971 to 69 in 2001.

The above discussion reveals that is difficult for tea industry to develop further. There are not enough land available for expanding tea plantations based on bio-organic farming. Restoration of existing plantation will require long time. Therefore economy of Darjeeling heavily relies on tourism.

Tourism has developed at different spots of Darjeeling. The biggest centre of tourism is the Darjeeling town itself. Rapid increase in population and limited availability of job are forcing people to attach themselves in someway to tourism, so that they can be able to earn at least something from it. Massive increase in number of 'tout' and middleman in tourism sector is manifestation of this type of situation. Dependence on tourism for earnings is excessive in the town and surrounding areas.

Social Structure

In Darjeeling one finds blending of various races, social and cultural traits and religious sects. The Nepali speaking hill people of Darjeeling at present prefer to be called as the Gorkhas to differentiate their identity from the citizes of the sovereign state of Nepal. In fact, the Gorkhas consist of many sub-communities and castes having their own dialects, custom and culture. With the passage of time and due to socio-cultural assimilation, Nepali language has emerged as common lingua franca and most acceptable mother tongue of all. The Gorkhas are basically animists, having strong faith in Shamanism. However, at present, the majority of the Gorkhas are Hindus, Buddhism has the second largest followers. The form of Buddhism prevalent here is known as 'Lamanism' which may be defined as a mixture of Buddhism with mythology, mysticism and magic. A few Gorkhas follow Christianity. A small section of the Gorkhas follows Islam.

Apart from the hill people, considerable number of people from the plain area of West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Haryana and Rajasthan live in urban areas of Darjeeling Hills. They are either Hindu or Muslim by religion. In this regard it is to be mentioned that Darjeeling town itself has been, from the very inception of its development, the centre for western culture.

People of different religion and ethnic background live in Darjeeling Hills particularly in urban centres and interact with each other. Negative influence of western culture is strong in this area. In such a situation it has become very difficult to preserve the culture and customs of a particular community. Habit of imitating oterhs, lack of proper education, ignorance regarding cultural values and shyness to accept own custom has pushed the cultures of different Gorkha communities to the brink of extinction. Today most of Gorkha people are unable to associate themselves with their cultural heritage. As such the 'demostration effect' of tourism is easily affecting the society adversely. A section of hill people have totally lost their honesty which was an important quality of them. Among them those who are related with tourism try to expoit tourist economically as far as possible. The oppurtunity provided to the local young women by tourism for earning good amount of money easily by entertaining the tourists is leading to an unhealthy situation in the society.

Political Situation

Tourism of Darjeeling is controlled by Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) which is an autonomous body. DGHC was formed after Gorkha National Liberation Front's (GNLF) decision to drop the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland in the overall national interest and in response to Prime Minister's call.

GNLF issued a call for Gorkhaland agitation in March, 1986. The sudden emergence of this movement can be explained by the sharp deterioration of communal relation and growth of separatist and dividing forces all over the country. Whatever may be the cause of agitation, the movement was marked by violence and destruction of private and public property accompanied by intermittent bandhs.

Tourists' arrival to Darjeeling during the period of agitation dropped sharply. Whereas during 1985 (April to October) the toal number of tourists was 132,000 the corresponding figures for 1986 (April to October) was 49,000 only. This figure reflects partially the severe impact of agitation on this important economic activity since it includes a large number of tourists who went to Darjeeling during April and May, that is before the agitation was launched. During October puja season Darjeeling town was virtually deserted, the extensive network of hotels, shops and restaurants remained empty and the street traders, porters, transport works, taxi drivers, pony minders suffered a heavy loss of earnings.

Formation of DGHC could not settle down the political disturbance in Darjeeling hills. It is only for few years that Darjeeling hills remained more or less peaceful. The political development that sparked off in the year 2000 by the ruling Gorkha National Liberation Front's decision to demand for the inclusion of DGHC in the Sixth Schedule badly afected tourism. Frequent 'Bandh' called on this issue led to booking cancellation of the hotels. A number of tourists cut short their holiday in Darjeeling. The phase wise bandha called by GNLF demanding the arrests of the culprits discouraged tourists from coming to Darjeeling.

Political turmoil and frequent bandh gretly reduced Darjeeling's reputation as a tourist spot particularly to the tourists belonging to high socio-economic status. It is only during the last three years the frequency of occurrence of bandh has been reduced to some extent in Darjeeling. The general people of Darjeeling are now not in favour of bandh as a measure of protest because they have now realized that it causes great losses to them.

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DGHC though working for about 20 years has not made any integrated plan for development of tourism in Darjeeling. The work so far done for development of tourism include development of some tourist attractions, tourist lodges and trekker's huts and mking provision of tour packages including adventure sport packages.

Level of Tourism Development

About 4.5 lakhs tourists flock to Darjeeling every year. In the late '70s and early '80s the figure was approximately 2 lakhs. At present yearly 15 thousand foreign tourists come to visit Darjeeling town. Most of the tourists flock to Darjeeling during the months of April, May, June and October. During these four months Darjeeling gets 60 to 70 percent of its total tourist inflow. It is during these periods, Darjeeling has to bear enormous pressure of tourists.

In order to provide accommodation to this enormous number of tourists a number of hotels of different grades have sprung up in Darjeeling. Number of medium and low grade hotels is increasing day by day. At present number of registered hotel in Darjeeling town is 250 but there are nearly 150 more located within the town. Large number of hotels have come up in areas outside the zones earlier marked by municipality for hotels. The hotels have mushroomed in residential areas and several of them housed in buildings which served as residences before converting into hotel.s Most of the hotels fall short of required hygeine standard and not maintained properly. Apart from hotels there are various other types of accommodations available for the tourists. Many householders keep tourists in their houses as paying guests. There are large number of shops in Darjeeling town which mainly cater the needs of the tourists. Number of street hawker increases enormously during tourist season. There are about six travel agencies in Darjeeling who deal with overseas visitors.

In the Colonial days nly the wealthy and affluent used to visit Darjeeling during summer and autumn seasons. Even just after independence the number of visitors to Darjeeling was few. Replacing limited elite tourism unlimited mass tourism began to take place since 1970 and it is from this period tourist activity flourished quickly in Darjeeling. At present tourism reached such a level that it began to destroy itself.

Controlling Factors

Nature of Tourists

At present Darjeeling town is selected as a destination mainly by people belonging to low-middle and middle income group. This is reflected in Table 2 which shows visitors arrival to accommodation centres of different grade. Arrival of tourists to May Fair Hill Resort (the most luxurious accommodation of the town) has been decreased considerably in recent years. In fact, it has been observed that Darjeeling is gradually becoming less attractive to the tourists of high socio-economic status. Probable reasons for this are congestion, loss of greenery, lack of peace and existence of poor infrastructure. People of DGHC blame that Darjeeling has been missing affluent tourist ever since an airstrip came at Paro in Bhutan. Tourists preferring air travel simply skip Darjeeling for want of an international airport and fly directly to Bhutan and other destinations from there on.

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Most of the visitors of Darjeeling have poor cultural background and they cause more damage to destination because of their ignorance. They waste water, throw waste materials here and there and create noise. Annual report of Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park reveals that 25 per cent of the visitors tease the animals.

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Table 3 reflects that mainly young people come to visit Darjeeling. It may be mentioned in this regard that good number of students' group not only from big cities but also from small towns of India come to visit Darjeeling every year. A major portion of the youngh people are restless and they cause considerable damage to the tourist spot.

Duration of Stay

Duration of stay of the domestic tourists is short 2 to 3 days. Even few tourists come to Darjeeling only for one day. Despit their short stay in Darjeeling enormous pressure is exerted on the existing facilities by them during tourist season as the number of such visitors is large. Moreover these 'short visitors' generally have less to spend and more to damage the environment.

Type of tourist acitivity

Majority of the visitors, particularly the domestic tourists are organized sight seeing oriented visitors. They spend their mornings and afternoons in sightseeing in hired vehicles. Early evenings are spend in marketing and roaming around the Mall. Late evenings and nights are spent at the place of accommodation for rest after the days activities. These tourists generally try to cover all places of attraction within a short period of time. As such, the places of attraction become so crowded that sometimes, the distance between the groups of visitors exceeds comfortable level of tolerance. The museum of Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) and Padmaja Naidu Zoological Park receive maximum number of visitors. These places are visited either first or last by the tourists by the tourists during their journey for sightseeing. Vehicles hired by the tourists who come to visit HMI and Zoo are parked along more than 1 km of Hill Cart Road near Singamari Taxi stand reducing Darjeeling's main road to a single lane raod. Chowrasta (or Mall) is the only place in Darjeeling Town where the tourists can spend evening. High concentration of tourists at a particular site makes it difficult for the caretakers to keep eye carefully on the tourist behaviour and protect the site fully.

Experience of the tourists

The tourists enjoy the enormous natural beauty of Darjeeling. But it has been observed that the leel of satisfaction of the vistors are not at all satisfactory. Though the causes of dissatisfaction varies from tourist to tourist, most of the tourists are not satisfied with water supply, power supply and cleanliness of accommodation. Congestion and existence of dirty environment in various parts of the town are other reasons for dissatisfaction. Some domestic tourists feel that it is very costly to stay in Darjeeling. Complaints made by the tourists regarding their harassment by hotel touts when entering Darjeeling, the charging of fees - sometimes almost double - of the stipulated rates by the vehicles bringing up tourists to the hills from Siliguri and forcible sale of commodities to tourists inside hotels by local hawkers. Foreign tourists complain about unsatisfactory transport service, absence of any transport system to move up the steep hills, inadequate email facility and air pollution. In fact, level of tourist satisfaction is continuously deteriorating in Darjeeling Town.

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Conclusion

Enormous profit making within a short period of time from tourism without considering the consequence of tremendous inflow of tourists for a long time to an area with low carrying capacity has resulted in a precarious situation. Planning should immediately be made to alter this situation. Otherwise it will be difficult for the town to sustain tourism.

Measures to be taken in this respect are as follows:

Mushrooming of hotels and other tourists accommodations should be checked immediately to protect the environment. The existing unregistered low grade hotels with poor hygience standard should be closed down immediately in order to discourage undersirable tourists.

Emphasis should be given on attracting tourists of high socio-economic status who will spend more in destination and cause less damage to it. For this cleanliness and upkeep of the town and the facilities available to tourists should be improved.

Attention must be paid to change slowly the attitude of the tourists. In this regard Tourist Department may play an active role in providing more information to the tourist and making the tourist (particularly young) conscious of the way of using and enjoying mountain environment.

It is required to spread proper education and remvoe ignorance among local people. Side by side awareness regarding environmental and social costs of tourism should be made.

Emphasis should be given to reduce over dependence on tourism by the local people. For this improvement of other sectors of economy of the town is required.

Excessive development of tourism in Darjeeling town has begun to destroy those attributes which attract the visitors. In order to alter this situation it is required to divert a portion of tourist inflow to different other areas of Darjeeling Himalaya by promoting successufl tourism in those areas.

In fact, it is very difficult to make proper plan for tourist development and implement the same in the present political situation of Darjeeling which is characterized by political gambling.

References

Chakraborty K. C. (1986): The Tourists of Darjeeling: A Survey, Sarkar R. L. and Lama M. P. (Ed), Eastern Himalayas: Environment and Economy, Institute of Hill Economy, Darjeeling.

[THIS RESEARCH PAPER WAS ORGINALLY PUBLISHED IN GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW OF INDIA 68(4) 435 - 444 Dec 2006]


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