Why Sikkim tops 2014 Lonely Planet list

Sikkim chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling didn’t jump with glee when an officer told him earlier this week that global travel guide Lonely Planet had named his state the “best region to visit in 2014”. He’d been working towards the goal for too long to feign surprise.

Sikkim was the first Indian state to frame an eco-tourism policy with the help of Japanese and American experts. It started popularising village tourism a few years ago and aggressively developed tourist destinations and circuits and a bunch of activities to attract tourists. This is precisely what Lonely Planet has recognized: the sustainable community-based tourism model that Sikkim has successfully developed in less-developed areas of the state.

Sikkim actually tweaked central projects like the Indira Awas Yojana (IAY) to develop village and eco-tourism. For instance, additional funds were provided to IAY beneficiaries to build an extra room and western-style toilet for tourists.

“We then sponsored family members to undergo training in housekeeping, cookery and other aspects of hospitality at hotel management institutes,” says Sikkim tourism minister Bhim Prasad Dhungel. These rural home stays are a big draw for foreign tourists as well as the nature-loving Indian tourist. There are trekking trails, bird and nature walks and camping sites being developed around these family resorts, says Dhungel.

A fair amount of adventure tourism is also being promoted — white water rafting, rock climbing, mountaineering , trekking , para-sailing , skiing among them . What also adds to the region’s charm is that it is a largely crime-free state and its people are hospitable and warm.

A bird sanctuary at Pelling in the west, butterfly parks in the north of the state, and a red panda circuit are the new projects being developed. High-altitude lakes like Gurudongmar and Tsangu are being redeveloped and will feature in high-mountain circuits. “Our forest cover has increased substantially, from 44.06 % in 1995 to 47.59% in 2009 and we will increase it to at least 50% in a few years,” says Dhungel.

Sikkim’s aim to become a totally organic state by 2015 is also pulling in the discerning traveller, a fact acknowledged by Lonely Planet. The state is already completely plastic-free and has been careful to promote only green industries.

Interestingly, Sikkim is also aggressively developing itself as a pilgrim destination, both for Hindus and Buddhists. Take the case of the char dham at Solophok near Namchi in the state’s South district where replicas of the temples at Badrinath, Puri, Dwarka and Rameshwaram have been erected on a seven-acre site. Last year, it attracted nearly one lakh tourists. A park at Ravang with a 137 .5 ft-high statue of Buddha, a 150 ft-high statue of the Padmasambhava, and a couple of other such structures are coming up in other parts of the state.

Sikkim’s tourism vision is unique because it is backed by the development of local infrastructure. “You cannot promote tourism when there’s poverty and discontent. That’s why, along with new tourist spots, we’re also striving to fast-track development in remote mountainous areas,” Chamling had said some time ago to STOI.

source: The Times of India, 03 NOV 2013

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