GANGTOK, November 22: Even as the news started to get around yesterday evening that the Darjeeling Hills would shut down for four days following the bandh called by the Opposition parties, the tourism industry here in Sikkim began to feel the pinch almost immediately.
The possibility of a four day shutdown created a panic situation amongst the tourists here, sending the travel agencies into a mad frenzy to get the news confirmed from the authorities and their counterparts in Darjeeling. Those tourists leaving Sikkim in the next three days were the ones who were affected the most. And when it was confirmed that the bandh would begin as scheduled, there was nothing but frustration and anxiety amongst the visitors.
Faced with the situation of being stranded in Sikkim for four days with rail or air tickets and just enough money to get back home, a large number of tourists gathered outside the Police Headquarters here today and pleaded the authority to make arrangement for them to reach Siliguri. “Our flight is scheduled today evening for Kolkata and we are hoping that Sikkim Police would cooperate with us in solving the problem,” said Sunil Thakkar, a tourist from Mumbai who was with his family in Sikkim for the past four days. The frustrations and agony were written all over their faces.
An emergency meeting summoned by DIG SD Negi to sort out the problem today during which the tourists pleaded for Army protection till Siliguri. Most of the tourists said that they were not informed of the strike either by the tour operators or by the hoteliers.
“Our permit for Sikkim will be over today and we need to catch a flight for Kolkata and then to France, we are hopeful that something concrete will come out after the meeting,” a couple from France said.
In an effort to control the situation and find some way out of this situation, the Tourism Minister RB Subba also called a press conference this evening at the chamber of the Tourism Secretary, attended by tourism officials and members of TAAS and SAATO.
During the meeting, Secretary GP Upadhaya said that all the tourists, numbering to 121 would be escorted safely to Siliguri in Army trucks. It was decided that the tourists would be taken to Libing Army Headquarters here in taxis, from where the Army trucks would take them to Siliguri.
The political uncertainty and turmoil in the Darjeeling Hills inevitably affects normal lives in Sikkim and it is always the tourism sector that takes the brunt.
Apart from tourism, regular business in Gangtok was also affected. There was a sudden rise in the rates of essential commodities, particularly the rates of vegetables, which come from Siliguri.
The General Secretary of the Private Bus Workers’ Association, Tenzing Bhutia said the Darjeeling bandh call also affected the Mainline taxi drivers financially.
However, the bandhs are also a time for making some extra buck. Hassled tourists, desperate to get to Siliguri before the bandh began, were made to cough up as much as Rs 3,000 for dropping them to Siliguri yesterday night, it is learnt.