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Durga Puja drawing tourists to West Bengal

Private operators and hoteliers are ecstatic over full bookings for the coming festive season, heralded in West Bengal by Durga Puja, an occasion that draws hundreds of expatriates back home.



"This puja we hope to do better business than in the last three years. All the hotels and tourist destinations are fully booked. It is a chock-a-block situation this year," said an elated Raj Basu, chairman, Eastern Himalayas Travel and Tour Operators' Association (Ehttoa).

The usual tourist destinations in north Bengal are the hill towns of Darjeeling, often referred to as the Queen of the Hills, Kalimpong and Kurseong, apart from forests in Jaldapara, Dooars and Gorumara.

Sunderbans, the world's largest mangrove forest, with its wild beauty, Royal Bengal Tigers and winding boat rides also attracts a large number of visitors.

"As per recent reports, all hotel rooms are fully booked in the northern part of the state. Tour operators are having a tough time in adjusting the flow of tourists. The numbers have gone up substantially," said Deepak Parekh, member, Travel Agents Federation of India, eastern zone.

The tour operators are expecting a 75 percent jump in tourist inflow to north Bengal compared to the last three years.
The signs are positive. North Bengal has escaped major damage in the quake, peace is back in Darjeeling and the government is formulating special packages for drawing tourists to the Sunderbans.

West Bengal becomes a popular tourist destination during October and November when around 100,000 foreigners and visitors from other parts of the country turn up in the state to drench themselves in the spirit of autumnal festivities that include the five-day Durga Puja festival followed by Diwali and Kali Puja.

This year, Durga Puja begins Oct 2.

Darjeeling with its varied landscape and spectacular beauty has been a favourite and affordable destination not only for Bengalis but also for people across the globe.

Tourism in Darjeeling, which accounts for substantial revenues for the state tourism industry, has been badly hit since 2008 when the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) revived a violent stir in support of forming a separate state of Gorkhaland.

Now the internationally famous hill resort is hoping to return to its good old days after the inking of a peace accord in July.

Parekh confessed that tour operators have been receiving hundreds of anxious calls about the conditions in Darjeeling from tourists who have done advance booking for the Durga Puja season after a 6.8-magnitude earthquake rocked large parts of northern and eastern India Sep 18.

"We are monitoring the whole situation but as of now there have been no major cancellations," Parekh told IANS.
Basu said the rush of tourists for Durga Puja is scheduled to start Thursday.

Parekh's concerns were echoed by Jeet Pradhan of Janmukti Hotel Owners Association, the largest hotel association in North Bengal.

"Though there have been no major cancellations, we are concerned," said Pradhan.

During the month-long festive season, north Bengal hoteliers expect 15 days of full occupancy and 15 days of partial occupancy.

State Tourism Minister Rachpal Singh said nothing much should be read into the calls being made by tourists.

"Actually this is due to the temporary problem. Most of the roads have opened there and we are working tirelessly to repair the damage," said Singh.

With all schools and most of the offices closed during the four days of Puja, people prefer short tours to various destinations.

The Sunderbans affairs ministry is also rolling out the red carpet.

"We have ensured that more motor boats and launches are run during this season as a lot of tourists come just after Puja. This tourist season extends till the end of November. We have taken all steps for the security of the tourists," Sunderbans Development Minister Shyamal Mondol said.

"We are getting a good number of bookings for the post-Durga Puja season. Most of the house boat-type launches which house tourists during this season are fully booked," said Debjit, a tour operator.

Going by the slogan of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of turning Kolkata into London, the state tourism industry is introducing roofless double-decker buses, a hot air balloon service and helicopter services to attract more tourists.

"We are planning to bring 10 Volvo buses, two roofless double-decker buses during this Puja as special attraction. We are also planning hot air balloon services and helicopter services for the tourists," said Singh.

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