Located at the heart of the Himalayas, surrounded by mountainous terrain and serene rivers, cutting across the landscape, tourism is one of the main sources of livelihood for Sikkim, with a large section of the populace being actively engaged in it. The growth of tourism in Sikkim is promising. The number of tourist arrivals in the region has grown to the extent of 10-15 percent, affecting other sectors of the economy as well.
In the last one year, on account of the pandemic, tourism came to a standstill. In the North-East, Sikkim was the first state to reopen its tourism sector from October 10, 2020.
We chat up with Tourism Secretary Kapil Meena to understand the nuances. Excerpts:
Kapil Meena is a 2010-batch IAS officer from the Sikkim cadre. He hails from Kota in Rajasthan. “I made up my mind to be an IAS officer in my final year. I gave my first attempt in 2008. Luckily, in my second attempt in 2009, I got selected. After completing my training I have been in Sikkim since 2010,” he said.
Battling the virus
The pandemic had brought life to a standstill in 2020. Covid cases were still thriving and people were sceptical. However, the Sikkim government took a firm stand and chose to restart in a phased manner. Meena said: “After extensive discussions and consultations with all stakeholders, we came up with a detailed SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) which was the best to be developed by any small state. We developed tight protocols based on Government of India guidelines pertaining to different sectors of tourism, including accommodation and transit. We drew up plans on how to deal with situations when someone tests positive for Covid or how to maintain precautions in restaurants as well.”
The Tourism Department then worked on building awareness and training as per the pandemic protocol in a decentralised manner. Staff from hotels, restaurants were trained digitally. “We trained the office bearers of different associations in our department and provided them with funds to train other members of their association. Thankfully, we did not report any Covid positive cases from the tourism sector that helped us garner trust from the public,” said Meena. Sikkim recorded more than 3 lakh tourists in January 2021.
Sikkim Tourism had developed a web portal and a travel card to track tourists efficiently. “While reopening, we had to ensure that we are able to trace the movement of every tourist. So, online travel cards were made compulsory for all. These cards can be issued by following a simple procedure. Photographs, addresses, identity cards had to be uploaded to it. Initially, tourists were also expected to upload their itinerary but now, we have relaxed it,” he said. Sikkim Tourism has now managed to generate scientific data for the entire sector through this process.
Interstate transport was opened that served as a boon for the tourism sector. Initially, tourists were asked to produce a Covid negative certificate but eventually, that condition was done away with.
Within November and December 2020, Sikkim had a significant number of tourist arrivals.
Promoting eco-friendly infrastructure
It is a known fact that the natural beauty of a place gets adversely impacted by breakneck commercialisation. However, preserving pristine nature and the environment has always been the priority of the Sikkim government. Meena states that the infrastructure that is being constructed in Sikkim now is stable, in accordance with the topography of the region and at the same time, environment friendly. People residing in Sikkim are aware of the importance of preserving nature and the government intends to promote more of it. Meena said: “With increasing tourism, preserving our environment has been a major concern but we are firm on balancing both.”
Some infrastructure projects have been constructed on the PPP (Public-Private Partnership) model. With increased connectivity on account of the newly inaugurated Pakyong Airport, tourism opportunities are growing for the private sector. However, when it comes to projects from abroad, the government has been cautious so that they are not detrimental to the environment.
Employment for youth
Until recent years, the government was the sole employment provider for the youth of Sikkim because private sector players usually shied away from investing in the hilly terrain. Since Sikkim has become a preferred destination for tourists, even from abroad; it helps generate revenue to various stakeholders due to its spillover effect on other sectors.
Adventure tourism in the East
Adventure tourism has not picked up in Sikkim yet as compared to Himachal Pradesh or Uttarakhand. However, Meena assures that Sikkim is on the right track. “We have set up a few paragliding spots over here. We are also trying to popularise small trekking expeditions,” he added.
Sikkim is a cent percent organic state and records almost no pollution. Promoting eco-friendly tourism promises economic growth and job opportunities for the region. A small-scale economy propelled primarily through tourism and cottage industries may seem risky but the sheer determination of the police, the administration, stakeholders and citizens of Sikkim, spearheaded by an energetic IAS officer like Kapil Meena has made it possible to reboot the sector despite the gravest of challenges. It will inspire other hilly states to develop along similar lines as well.