Its northern parts are home to emerald valleys, tea estates and fabulous colonial bungalows, but West Bengal has so far not been able to cash in on the rich potential of tea tourism. The huge tea plantation areas of the Darjeeling-Himalayan region, comprising about 165 tea gardens, are lying neglected in terms of their tourism prospects.
West Bengal Tourism Minister Manab Mukherjee told IANS: "Some private parties have already submitted their proposals to the state government. We are seriously considering all the proposals to kick-start tea tourism in West Bengal as early as possible."
He said the state government was encouraging private parties to invest in, and develop, tea tourism in north Bengal.
"Right now, I can't disclose the names of the private parties as nothing has been finalised. But we have received funds of about Rs.800 million from the union ministry which we will spend for the betterment of the tourism sector in our state," Mukherjee said.
Union Tourism Minister Ambika Soni had announced at the World Tourism Exposition-ITB Berlin 2007 last month that her ministry would help in promoting tea tourism across India.
"We have just started tea tourism and are receiving a very good number of foreign and domestic tourists," said Rajah Banerjee, manager of the Makaibari tea estate in Kurseong.
He said the Darjeeling-Himalayan region has three tea tourism units so far, including Makaibari. Visitors enjoy trips to these estates, soaking in the scenic beauty, the tea-growing process and the charms of old bungalows there.
Makaibari has plans to come up with a high-end tea tourism unit that will make use of a heritage house on the estate. It is looking for a partner in this project.
Tata Tea has also started a tea tourism unit in West Bengal. But some other big players are waiting.
"So far no one, neither from the state tourism department nor from the union ministry, has asked me to develop tea tourism in north Bengal. As of now no tea tourism projects are there in the region," Ranjit Barthakur, an entrepreneur who has converted several tea bungalows in Assam into luxurious hotels, told IANS.
"Unless the state government or anyone from the tourism department approaches us with a specific proposal we can't show interest in redecorating old colonial structures and turn them into luxurious hotels," Barthakur said.
He is the owner of River Journeys & Bungalows of India Private Limited, a company involved in redecorating old tea estates in Assam. He renovated Adabari Tea estate near Tezpur, changing the overall facade of the colonial structure. The century-old tea garden actually belonged to the British Assam Tea Company.
Now it has been re-christened as the British Assam Heritage Bungalow, with a 24-room tourist accommodation. Plans are afoot to expand this tea tourism unit to 100 rooms soon.
Several tea garden owners in West Bengal think the tea tourism model has not become popular in the state because of the high expenditure and lack of civic amenities in the area.
In fact many tea gardens have already closed down and the rest are sick.
West Bengal holds the seventh position in India in terms of tourism, receiving only four percent of the country's tourists.