February 20, 2009

GJM agitation hits Darjeeling tourism

KOLKATA:The ongoing agitation in the hills by the Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha (GJM) for a separate state has hit the North Bengal hospitality and tourism industry hard and is estimated to cause revenue losses of more than Rs 12 crore.

Although according to the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation (WBTDC) hotel bookings are down by atleast 10 per cent in the last two months in Darjeeling with the average occupancy hovering around 40 per cent, Business Standard spoke to a few of the leading hotels in the region, and found that almost all the premium and three star or the heritage properties were running on 50-60 per cent losses for the last three months.

Rupam Das of Fortune Resort Central said, “Although the political situation is better now, the damage is done, with maximum business loss in the month of June-July, the peak season. The occupancy at Fortune Resort slipped to as low as 10 per cent in the month of January compared to 35-40 percent witnessed in the year ago period at the premium four star property in Darjeeling.”

Although this was a slack season, the average occupancy in December to January period hovered around 39 per cent at practically all the premium properties with sometimes no guest for more than two weeks at a stretch, said Das who is also a member of the local Hotel Owners Association.

"In terms of revenue loss, it could be to the tune of Rs 35-40 lakhs for a premium property if the present occupancy situation continues," he said. Navin Suchanti, managing director and CEO of Sinclairs Hotels Limited, which runs three properties across North Bengal said, "We have been badly affected because of the political turmoil, as its business is down because of the recessionary trends.” However, he refused to give any figures about the hotel occupancies across Sinclair's properties.

“Domestic tourist inflow, which accounts for the bulk of the business, had been badly affected. Last month occupancy was less than 50 per cent compared to 70-80 per cent in the same period last fiscal, in terms of quantitative loss in business, it will run into some lakhs, ” informed a spokesperson from Windamere hotel, a heritage property located at the heart of the Darjeeling mall.

Many small budget hotels which cater to the mid-segment were also forced to shut down because of low tourist inflow and heavy business losses. Recession had affected the foreign tourist inflow, but in Darjeeling compared to Goa and Kerala, foreign tourist arrivals contribute only 18-25 per cent of the total tourism revenue, bulk of the comes from domestic tourists, which were affected after June last year.

According to Zahid Rafique, regional manager of makemytrip.com, one of the largest domestic online travel portal, domestic bookings for Darjeeling have been low compared to last year and in the last two months physical bookings for Darjeeling had been practically nil. Bookings started dropping since July last year, but in the last few months, starting December onwards physical bookings were completely nil, in online booking segment, more than two lakh revenue is estimated to have been been hit , said Rafique.

Rafique pointed out that compared to last year December-February period when makemytrip.com managed 280 odd transactions or travel bookings from all across India this year same period the travel portal could only manage 200 transactions or bookings, causing huge loss to domestic business and revenue collection. Due to government's leave travel concession, almost 90 per cent of the place is occupied during the peak season and thereafter by domestic travellers, but this year this too failed to churn good business.

When contacted, Manabendra Mukherjee, state minister of tourism admitted that North Bengal tourism industry had been badly hit by the ongoing turmoil but he failed to provide any concrete measures to be taken by the ministry. "We have been hit by this disturbance going on in the hills. We expect a negative growth this fiscal, however coming out with any specific detail about the quantum of loss and is difficult, that will be possible only after the end of this quarter. We are trying to help the authorities of those districts to bring back normalcy,” he said.

TVN Rao, managing director of West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation(WBTDC) claimed that the occupancy rate and revenue have been hit by 30 per cent in the 24 tourist lodges run by WBTDC in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong, which is WBTDC's main source of revenue of WBTDC To counter the fall in occupancy rate WBTDC is spending close to Rs 6 crore towards advertisements and promotional activity also, he informed.

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