Tourist's paradise

Print edition : December 15, 2006

Sikkim's natural beauty and cultural, historical and religious centres make it an important tourist destination.

THE TSOMGO LAKE in East Sikkim.-

SIKKIM became a part of the Indian Union in 1975. Prior to that, this tiny Himalayan state, practically perched on the lap of Mount Kanchenjunga, was a protectorate under the Government of India and ruled by the Chogyal dynasty.

With its dense green forests - home to thousands of species of exotic plants, shrubs and flowers - mighty rivers, pretty streams and deep valleys, all under the benign gaze of the majestic Himalayas, Sikkim is a tourist's paradise. It is not just nature at its most breathtaking grandeur that one hopes to find there, but also a unique combination of different cultures and traditions, long grown in isolation and still untouched; holy shrines and monasteries; and most important, friendly, hospitable people.

Under the Pawan Chamling government, the tourism sector in the State has enjoyed an unprecedented boom, with the opening up of new destinations and places that were earlier never exposed to the outside world.

Initiative has been taken by the State government to ease the Inner Line Permit (ILP) issued to foreign tourists. The ILP, initially issued for 15 days, can be extended for a total period of 45 . The ILP is now readily available. A single window clearance system has been adopted for the easy flow of tourist traffic to prime destinations such as Tsomgo and Nathula in East Sikkim.

Stress is being laid on the creation of more basic infrastructure for tourists. Apart from the existing tourist lodges, one more is under construction in Chungthang, North Sikkim, which is a transit point for tourists visiting Yumthang, the Valley of Flowers. A lodge is being built in Tashiding village for visitors to the famous monastery there. The Department of Tourism has refurbished many of the heritage Dak Bungalows for accommodating tourists.

Recreational parks have been set up in various parts of the State. During the financial year 2001-02, the State government prioritised several schemes under the Centrally Sponsored Scheme, incorporating projects like the development of the Tsomgo lake, the Uttarey lake and the trekking trails of Menam and Tendong at a total cost of Rs.642.40 lakhs.

The Tsomgo lake in East Sikkim, situated at an altitude of 12,400 feet (3,720 metres), is on the route to the Nathula. The lake gets its waters from the melting snow of the surrounding mountains. Legend goes that lamas could forecast the future by studying the colour of the lake's water. This is a very popular tourist destination, and for that reason the Tourism Department has constructed a massive parking area and undertaken an ambitious project of beautifying the place, complete with a cafeteria and other facilities.

To involve the local people, the Tsomgo Lake Development Committee has been constituted for the upkeep and maintenance of the place. Above the 15th Mile Sikkim Police check-post lies the high-altitude Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary, home to the red panda and the blood pheasant - the State animal and the State bird respectively.

Around 12 km further up, at an altitude of 14,000 feet (4,200 m), is the Nathula, opened for the first time to domestic tourists in September 1999. Traders and porters crossed this gateway to Tibet in the days of the fabled Silk Route. The landscape is stark alpine with occasional blossoms of primulae and the Himalayan rhubarb. A tourist is treated to a hot cup of tea by the Indian Army and can walk up to the view point and look beyond into China, and even shake hands with the green-uniformed Chinese army personnel standing guard on the other side.

While North Sikkim is known for its natural beauty, and South Sikkim for some of the oldest monasteries in the region, the western part of the State is the preferred destination for the adventurous. From white water rafting down the Teesta to treks through beautiful, dense rhododendron forests, this district offers a rarely experienced encounter with nature. The State government has identified a number of trekking routes ranging from a height of 300 feet (90 m) to 16,500 feet (4,950 m) - all well-maintained and complete with camping spots. To protect the environment and the ecology, garbage bins have been provided along the routes and kerosene is made available to dissuade trekkers from cutting trees for firewood.

A helicopter service, connecting the State capital Gangtok to Bagdogra, from where regular flights to New Delhi and Kolkata are available, has greatly benefited the tourism industry in the State. This service also conducts chartered flights to all four districts of the State. Eleven more helipads are being constructed, which will link all the subdivisions of the State. An airport is being constructed at Pakyong, East Sikkim.

Further, mountain flights conducted from Gangtok have gained popularity among tourists. A ropeway at Gangtok linking Deorali with the Tashiling Secretariat is already commissioned and another linking Namchi, the headquarters of South Sikkim, with Samdruptse, where a 135-feet statue of Guru Padmasambhava is installed, is under execution.

The Department of Tourism has recently installed a number of touch-screen kiosks at many places, including government offices and guesthouses, both within the State and outside. The department has actively participated in tourism fairs in Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata and New Delhi to promote Sikkim as a viable eco-tourist destination. The State government's tourism policy is driven by the single aim of making Sikkim the "Number 1 Eco-tourism Destination in India". With this avowed objective in mind, the government has made special efforts to develop tourist villages, trekking routes, adventure activities, biodiversity parks and cultural centres.

The State Green Mission has been launched to convert Sikkim into a `Garden State' by 2009. This is a part of the government's efforts to sustain, maintain and enrich the State's environment and ecology and also to promote eco-tourism.

To promote `village tourism', 30 model villages having all basic modern facilities are being constructed in different parts of the State. All these will enable tourists to get a first-hand experience of the life of the people of Sikkim.

To make visits to old temples, monasteries, churches and other religious destinations in the State comfortable, the government is promoting pilgrim tourism in a big way. The Buddhist Circuit has been identified as one of the priority areas in the tourism development policy of the Government of India. Sikkim could well be the hub connecting all the major Buddhist destinations in India and neighbouring countries.

The Nathula trade route, if opened to tourist traffic, can integrate the tourism industry of the Himalayan States in northeastern India with regions having similar features in the neighbouring countries of China, Bhutan and Nepal.

The financial benefits accrued from the tourism sector is indirect. Nevertheless, the Tourism Department managed to collect a total revenue of Rs.70.69 lakhs for the year 2003-04 from its various assets; environmental fees collected from tourists visiting Nathula also mean revenue for the department.

Tourist arrivals have recorded an annual growth rate of almost 10 per cent in the past six years. This increase will be accelerated when some major ongoing projects and facilities are completed. The increase in tourist inflow is mainly on account of the State government's participation in tourism fairs and festival programmes in various parts of India. It is no wonder that the Union Ministry of Tourism has awarded Sikkim the Best Performing State in the northeastern region for four consecutive years.

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