Sikkim is pushing its tourism envelope with a combination of nature and spirituality to preserve the essence of its Himalayan heritage and make a statement of sustainable growth in this age of manic concretisation of the fragile hill environment.
Sample this: Laid out across 23 acres of lush slopes against a startling backdrop of the icy Kanchenjunga and the Maenam hills range in southern Sikkim's Rabongla district shines the state's newest tourism address - the Tathagata Tsal or the Buddha Park, nearly 65 km from Gangtok.
At the center of the park perches a shrine with a towering 140 ft statue of Lord Buddha with its face coated in 3.5 kg of pure gold in the Dharma Chakra Mantra tradition. The icon and the park built at a cost of almost Rs. 400 million ($7 million) over the last seven years is expected to boost the state's economic fortunes on the strength of the Buddha relics from nine countries. These were installed at the sanctum by Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling in a grand ceremony in Rabongla on Tuesday to commemorate Lord Buddha's 2,550th birth anniversary.
Hope for tourism, one of Sikkim's economic lifelines, piggy-backs on Buddhist trails, nature tourism and village tourism.
Major Buddhist centers like the old Rumtek Monastery, Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre, Pal Zurmang Kagyud monastery, the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, a giant statue of guru Padmasambhava and one of Tathagata, together with a handful of holy lakes, including Changu at 12,400 ft above sea level, keep the state's Buddhist circuit busy.
The countryside is dotted with smaller monasteries like the Phadong monastery, Phensang monastery, Tholung monastery and the Doling monastery that one stumbles along the way.
However, Sikkim's approach to spiritual tourism is secular, Chamling said. "Buddha may be of primary importance, but the government has built a replica of the Hindu Char Dham - four temples dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu - at Shri Siddhesvara Dhama at Namchi in southern Sikkim", Chamling said.
A gurudwara in Gangtok and churches across the state add to the holistic colour.
"We have been pushing tourism as a new profession and major economic activity. We want our children to work in the tourism service sector. We are training youngsters and building capacities," Chamling said, adding that the "state is exploring new frontiers in eco-tourism to add variety".
The focus on eco-tourism has become more creative and infrastructure-oriented since Sikkim was declared "an eco tourism destination in 2009", Tourism Minister Bhim Dhungel said. He said Sikkim was one of the pioneering states to promote nature tourism with "forest and flower trails" involving individual stakeholders and non-profit groups.
Citing examples, Dhungel said nature getaways like the Singlila trek, the Dzongri trek, the Rhododrendon Valley trek and the Jongu camp trail were popular for their diversity of natural splendour both among foreigners and domestic tourists.
"Sikkim became a tourist state after 1975. Before that, under the rule of the Chogyal (kings), Sikkim was not exposed to the world. Now tourism is virtually our bread and butter and contributes nearly 6 percent to the state's GDP," Tourism and IPR Secretary K.S. Topgay told IANS.
"One may wonder why six per cent... It is a small figure," the official added.
Tourism revenue in Sikkim is split - that from the hotels goes to the power department and that from the tourist taxi trade goes to the transport department. As a result, the base tourism revenue is almost a pittance.
"The economic determinants for tourism are skewed under the current government policy. Even as a couple of travel components do not benefit tourism directly, the nature of tourism is still centred around urban destinations like Lachen, Rabongla, Pelling and Namchi. The state government has realized that the economic benefits from tourism were not reaching the common man because of its urban drift," the tourism secretary said.
As a pro-people alternative, the government is encouraging home stay in villages, Topgay said. At least 720 new village homestays are going to open their doors to tourists this year. The homestay owners have been trained in hospitality and quality control at the Institute of Hotel Management and State Institute of Capacity building in Gangtok.