Tea tourism plans to chug on toy prepare energy

KOLKATA: + = terrific . Take two of Darjeeling’s most iconic things, combine them and voila! you might just have the perfect formula to bring back tourists.

For the first time, there is a proposal to combine the two biggest T’s of the — both making headlines of late for not quite the right reasons — to boost a third: tourism, sluggish after a prolonged period of unrest last year.

If everything goes as planned, the Himalayan Railway (DHR), the Unesco World Heritage Site more familiarly known as the toy train, will tie up with the state government’s tourism department to provide tourists a sip and taste of Darjeeling tea.

The aim, said sources, is to give tourists an experience similar to that provided by luxury train Palace on Wheels in Rajasthan. Only, in place of rolling sand dunes, the toy train will chug through the verdant expanse of tea estates. The train will even have halts at some of the estates, and interested tourists can opt to stay there for a night or two to learn all about the ‘champagne of teas’: from harvesting to processing, the subtle differences between first and second flush, and even how to prepare the perfect brew.

The proposal, mooted by the railways, was approved last month by Ashwani Lohani, the chairman of the Railway Board. The railways will now forward its formal proposal to the state government, which is keen on the idea, according to sources.

Going by the initial proposal, there will be five halts at tea gardens. Each of the five stations could also be branded after the tea gardens. A number of local youths could be hired to guide tourists, who would have the option of tasting local food, know the local culture, and even buy the finest teas from the estates.

The railways has already appealed to the state government to repair National Highway-55, which often leaves the toy train dysfunctional.

Tourism minister Gautam Deb appeared excited at the proposal. “We are ready to extend all help to the railways so that both industries flourish,” he said. “Chief minister has stressed the importance of developing tea-tourism. So, the railways’ proposal would be a wonderful extension of our idea of Hills tourism. In fact, without the toy train, no tourism endeavour in Darjeeling would be complete.”

Both the toy train and the tea industry have had to deal with troubles of their own in recent times. Because of its truncated service, Unesco had threatened to strip the DHR of its World Heritage tag. In the tea industry, issues like adulteration posed serious problems, not to mention management- and labour-related issues.

A detailed project report is being prepared now. The railways has engaged conservation architects to restore and rebuild the century-old stations, especially the ones that were badly damaged during the peak of the statehood agitation. A preliminary survey has already been carried out, said a railways official.

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