KOLKATA: In a leg-up to the COVID-battered tourism industry in West Bengal, bookings for the Durga Puja festive season have surged beyond expectations, tour operators said.
According to industry sources, bookings for trips during Durga Puja are in full swing amid fears of a possible third wave of the pandemic.
"Many people are mixing travel with family get-togethers at exotic locations, having missed out on meeting each other for a long time owing to the restrictions," Anil Punjabi, the eastern region chairman of the Travel Agents Federation of India, said.
"This time, the response and bookings are much more than our expectations. We are getting a very good response. If you compare it with pre-COVID times, for example, 2019, the revival is around 60 per cent. We hope it will grow further in days to come," he told PTI.
Raj Basu, convenor of the Association for Conservation of Tourism, said keeping in mind COVID safety norms, many travellers this time are more interested in quieter destinations.
"People are preferring to stay at one place for at least three to four days instead of hopping in and out of several tourist attractions," he said.
Basu said that the tourist response to four districts of north Bengal - Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri is "extraordinary" for the festival season.
"Most village tourism destinations like Sittong, Tagdah, Tinchuley, Pedong are totally booked for the Durga Puja, and bookings have also started for Diwali and Christmas holidays," he said.
Basu said that if the trend continues, the tourism industry would be assured of a turnaround from the lull it faced since March 2020, when the nationwide lockdown was announced.
As the village destinations are getting priority among the travellers for health safety reasons, there is now a crisis of homestays and resorts in these places, he said.
With Northeastern states such as Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim also opening up, tourists from far-off states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Karnataka are showing interest in travelling to these places, Basu said.
"This will benefit the north Bengal destinations also as tourists are interested in the Darjeeling and Kalimpong hills and the lush green forests and tea gardens of Terai and Dooars," he said.
Basu said that health safety awareness campaigns conducted in the villages earlier had worked immensely with owners of even the remotest homestays asking prospective tourists whether they have received double vaccination.
Punjabi said that during the festive season earlier, the ratio used to be 65 per cent international destinations and 35 per cent domestic, but at present, the domestic sector is attracting around 85 to 90 per cent of travellers.
"The drop in international travel is owing to limited destinations having opened up and apprehension that they may get stuck over there," he said.
The unexpected response to domestic tourism could also be attributed to many tourists opting for driving to destinations in cars or two-wheelers instead of availing public transport, he said.
Punjabi said that with a large percentage of people vaccinated and the travel industry sticking to safety protocol, tourist movement has started increasing rapidly.
He said that families are using this opportunity to use tourism as a means of a get together also.
"Like someone is in Mumbai, and another is in Kolkata, they are travelling to Dehradun or some other destination," he said.
This is mostly happening in Kashmir and Ladakh region, where such family get-togethers are being done along with enjoying in the exotic locales, he said.
Shaukat, a travel agent from Srinagar who recently attended a travel trade fair here, said that though the numbers are yet to reach the pre-COVID era, things are fast getting back to normal with tourists flocking back to the destinations in Kashmir.
Rakesh Dubey, another tour operator, based in Jammu, said that the Ladakh and Nubra valley destinations are a big draw and people are really excited to visit these places.
Punjabi said that everyone will benefit further after the international destinations open up and the economy gets better.
"I hope that if there is no more surge of COVID cases, things will get even better by the day. Once the international travel opens up fully, the industry will be back in business," he said.
According to businessman Soumik Chakraborty, after 2019, this will be the first time his family will be travelling to Darjeeling for a weeklong trip.
"Travelling to various destinations during Puja has been an old practice in our family, but we could not do so last year due to the COVID situation. But this year, our entire family is fully vaccinated, and we will be travelling in our car," he said.