How Tourism in Sikkim Has Taken A Hit Amidst Devastating Floods

Sikkim sees some of the highest tourist numbers in the months of October and November. Now, due to the recent incident of flooding, travellers are cancelling their plans
The tea estates of Dooars
The tea estates of DooarsRajib Nandi/WikiCommons

The festive season holidays around Durga Puja and Diwali see many folks make their way to Sikkim for a holiday. Visitors alike will likely attest to the fact that north Sikkim boasts of some of the most spellbinding views of the Himalayas. The villages of Lachung and Lachen, in particular, are prominent fixtures in tourist itineraries, especially because they are the gateways to the high-altitude Gurudongmar Lake and the spectacular Valley of Flowers or Yumthang Valley.

This year, however, everything has come to a halt. In early October, a glacial lake outburst in North Sikkim triggered disastrous flooding in the northeastern state. Several travel-related organisations are reporting cancellations by tourists, some making alternative travel arrangements to places in North Bengal.

"We have seen a few people shifting their plans to North Bengal," says Asit Biswas, one of the founders of HELP Tourism, a pioneer in Responsible Tourism in East and Northeast India. "By the time they heard of the floods, they had already booked flights to Bagdogra or trains to NJP. Some of them have asked for options in Dooars and Kalimpong regions."

Biswas says that the Sikkim government is repairing roads, hence, in a week or more, things should start getting back to normal in some places. "But, in North Sikkim, things will take time to be repaired. Highway number 10 is in bad shape, I hear. And cars are having to take long detours to get to any place."

He talks about the Teesta overflowing, the cloudburst, and the glacial lake burst that led to this situation. "Also, look at the number of hydroelectric projects in Sikkim. Despite warnings, they went ahead with them," he rues.

The Teesta is one of the most significant rivers in Sikkim, but it is severely dammed during its 175-kilometre journey through the state (read more about it here). "If we do not learn from this, and from what happened in places like Uttarakhand where overtourism has had a toll, we are in deep trouble," says Biswas. "It is unfortunate that those who will be most affected will be the tourism-dependent smaller outfits, like homestays, etc. These are the people who practice the tenets of responsible tourism."

Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim
Gurudongmar Lake in North SikkimAlv910/WikiCommons

Those who can are cancelling their travel plans, while others are looking for alternatives. "The Dooars region is not that affected, so some people are moving to that part, as well as parts of North Bengal," says Swarojit Roy of 100 Miles, an organisation that promotes alternative tourism in alternative modes of transport. They are government of India authorised travel agents based out of Kolkata and have received an award from The International Centre for Responsible Tourism (ICRT), a network of people supporting the Cape Town Declaration through their work.

"There have been recent cancellations from customers. Around 16 people who had booked itineraries for places in Sikkim have already cancelled," says a representative of Highland Tours and Travels, which specialises in providing travel and trekking services in Darjeeling, Sikkim, Gangtok, Nepal, and Bhutan. "Only those who have booked flights are making alternative plans to Dooars and Darjeeling."

Kalimpong in North Bengal
Kalimpong in North BengalAppra Singh/WikiCommons

"Durga Puja is around the corner," says Roy, "and many of our guests cannot postpone their plans. They are making alternative arrangements."

It is the offbeat travel routes and projects that have been the most affected, he explains. "The main roads are important. So they are being repaired faster than the other routes. Their primary focus will be on repairing the Darjeeling, and Kalimpong roads and the national highway. Also, you will see that other alternative roads can access Darjeeling and Kalimpong. The smaller and offbeat places, like Rishabh and Tinchuley, will bear the brunt. I do not see the situation improving for them for some time."

Roy says many people come to Sikkim at this time for holidays, primarily to north Sikkim. "They visit places like Gangtok and move to Yumthang. It is not just Durga Puja plans, but Diwali too. October-November is the prime holiday time when Sikkim gets maximum tourist crowds."

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