Nov. 28: Mamata Banerjee has given the green light to the launch of helicopter rides between Bagdogra and Darjeeling for tourists, a project mooted by new tourism minister Krishnendu Chowdhury who took his cue from similar services offered in Sikkim.
Tour operators in north Bengal hailed the move and said the service would attract high-end tourists to Darjeeling.
Chowdhury's proposal to start the chopper service in association with private operators went down well with the Bengal chief minister and she asked the transport department to get down to the task of realising the idea.
"I had a detailed discussion on tourism development with the chief minister in Calcutta yesterday. I asked her if there could be a helicopter service for the public from Bagdogra to Gangtok, why there should not be one connecting Darjeeling. The chief minister reacted saying it was a wonderful idea and asked the transport department to start the process of putting in place such a service," Krishnendu said in Malda today.
The minister said as the state couldn't afford to buy helicopters on its own, private operators, like Pawan Hans that run the Bagdogra-Gangtok service, could be approached.
"A helicopter service is an integral part of tourism, especially for pilgrimage and heritage destinations. Darjeeling is a heritage destination and there is a helipad at Lebong racecourse, that is just a 10 minute drive from the hill station. So, I found the introduction of a helicopter service quite feasible for the hills," said Krishnendu.
It usually takes four hours to drive up to Darjeeling from Bagdogra.
Stakeholders of the tourism industry in north Bengal have appreciated the move.
"Starting helicopter services between Bagdogra and Lebong would help in developing Darjeeling as a luxury destination in the country," said Samrat Sanyal, a tour operator based in Siliguri. "It will facilitate the movement of high-end tourists, especially those from abroad, who want such services, and can act as an additional USP for Darjeeling. While flying to Darjeeling, there is also a chance that passengers will catch a glimpse of Mt Kanchenjungha and other Himalayan peaks."
Sadhan Roy, the general secretary of the Eastern Himalayan Travel and Tour Operators' Association, spoke in similar tone.
"It has been found that helicopter rides in the hilly places in north India like Amarnath, Vaishno Devi, Kedarnath and Badrinath have become a hit with hundreds availing themselves of the services during the tourism season. There is also a popular service between Bagdogra and Gangtok. The proposal for the chopper service to Darjeeling can boost tourism and cater for the elite class."
Pawan Hans runs the Bagdogra-Gangtok helicopter service in association with the Sikkim tourism department.
"Everyday, two sorties, or two return trips are made between Bagdogra and Gangtok. A five-seater chopper flies the route, taking around 35 minutes to reach the destinations," said a Pawan Hans official in Gangtok. The fare, he said, was Rs 2,200 per person for a trip.
According to Pawan Hans sources, it would take around half-an-hour to fly from Bagdogra to Lebong. They said the fare would be between Rs 1,800 and Rs 2,000 per person.
Krishnendu said he also wanted to hand over loss-making tourist lodges owned by his department to private operators as the government couldn't bear the expenses any longer. He said some of the tourist lodges of the tourism department had been handed over to private operators earlier.
"Eleven of our lodges in the state are being run by private parties. Most of the remaining 24 lodges are running at losses. The Mainak tourist lodge in Siliguri incurs a monthly loss of Rs 3 lakh. If a lodge in a busy tourist destination like Siliguri runs at a loss, what is the use of the government keeping such properties. I have spoken to the officials of my department and asked them to submit a report on how to run the loss-making lodges in partnership with private operators."
The minister also announced that a regional office of the tourism department would be set up in Malda. "It will start operating from Malda tourist lodge and will be headed by a deputy director."