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Destination Tea Gardens

The high ranges of Munnar in Kerala

The high ranges of Munnar in Kerala

The Hindu
Kohinoor Mandal

If the project by McLeod Russel India Ltd takes off successfully, tea estates in India could be the next big attraction on the tourism map of India.

Herald the development of a new tourism destination... something that's remained unknown even to experienced travellers. If the project by McLeod Russel India Ltd takes off successfully, tea estates in India could be the most sought after tourist destinations in the future.

McLeod Russel, of the B M Khaitan Group of Kolkata, has developed a project at the Addabari Tea Estate in the Ballipara division of Assam. The tea garden is located in the eastern part of the State and the area is serene and beautiful. It is approximately 250 km from Guwahati, and about five hours by road. You feel refreshed even as you drive through the verdant tea gardens, set against a blue autumn sky along the undulating road in the lap of the Himalayas.

The Addabari Tea Estate, which originally belonged to the British Assam Tea Company, was built way back in 1900, complete with a manager's bungalow. Till 1962, the manager operated from the single-storied Burma teak house here. Subsequently, the office was shifted, and the sprawling bungalow left unoccupied.

However, recently, the Khaitans realised the tremendous tourism potential that these tea gardens offered. Nature-loving tourists interested in the history of colonial India would relish their stay at these gardens which offer the charms of the British legacy. For this project, McLeod Russel has joined hands with River Journeys & Bungalows of India Pvt Ltd, promoted by a local entrepreneur, Ranjit Barthakur.

Gearing up for tourists

River Journeys & Bungalows has redecorated the old place, and changed the furniture and furnishings; most importantly, a new kitchen has been added to cater to the taste buds of tired and famished tourists. Artefacts collected from across the world adorn the place.

The property has been renamed Wild Masheer (after a popular fish found only in the Brahmaputra river), and the bungalow re-christened The British Assam Heritage Bungalow. Currently, accommodation for 24 people has been created, but plans are afoot to expand it to 100 rooms soon. According to Barthakur, 1,000 rooms are to be developed in the region over the next ten years. An old barrack used by the Assam Tea Protection Force has now been converted into a conference room.

"To cater to the daily needs of the guests we have planned to procure everything from the local people. Moreover, we are creating our own poultry, dairy and fishery. We are planting vegetables around this bungalow. We have also planned to set up an orchard where we will grow all types of aromatic plants. The purpose of these activities is to give the guests a flavour of this region, and we will be holding programmes in the evening with the local Santhals. A research work on the cultural practices of the Santhals has just been concluded," he says.

Though everyone calls it a tea tourism project, Barthakur rejects such a categorisation. He prefers to call it nature tourism, a broader perspective, which encompasses `tea tourism'. He also plans to set up meditation centres for major religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.

"The purpose of the whole exercise is to provide a lifestyle product in the midst of nature. People will come here to unwind and enjoy the wilderness; they will also be provided modern amenities. Tea tourism, per se, may not be that attractive, but a guest will have the privilege to enjoy garden-fresh teas," says Barthakur.

What is more, there is an offering for tipplers too. "We will be serving newer preparations of tea. We can serve alcohol mixed in tea, a new combination, just like the Irish Coffee," he adds.

However, the project will not be restricted to just one garden. The plan is to create a chain of such properties across tea gardens stretching from the Terai and Dooars in West Bengal to Assam and further into Myanmar. River Journeys & Bungalows is negotiating with other tea companies, including Goodricke and Tata Tea. Properties have been identified in several areas like Shillong, Aizawl, Agartala, Darjeeling, Dibrugarh and Kohima.

Khaitan has identified five more properties for similar projects. An introductory price of Rs 7,500 is being offered to tourists now, which will be gradually increased to Rs 20,000 per couple per night. Though the property has already had a soft launch, it will be formally inaugurated on January 1, 2006.

More attractions on the list

Efforts are on to improve air connectivity to the place. McLeod Russel owns five Cessna aircrafts, and plans to utilise them for guests. Arrangements have been made to offer guests a leisurely flight over the surrounding tea growing region. Rides on country-made boats to the Dolphin Point on the Brahmaputra river would also be organised. "We can have picnics too in the small islands on this river. A khichdi lunch, cooked in earthen pots on the banks of the Brahmaputra river, is bound to be an attractive proposition," says Barthakur.

Proximity to other tourist spots is another advantage that this property enjoys. For example, a 10-hour drive will take one to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. One can also opt for a night halt at Bombdila. Remnants of the Chinese aggression in 1962 are a major attraction of this trip.

he Kaziranga National Park is just an hour from Addabari. For wildlife enthusiasts, there can be no better viewing spot for rhinos and wild elephants than this park, which is a World Heritage site. Even the Nameri Game Park is not far away. All these make Addabari an ideal tourist destination.

One can also stay at the Wild Grass resort of Kaziranga, developed by River Journeys & Bungalows. The resort, which enjoys heavy booking all through the year, is situated in the midst of a traditional rural Assamese landscape. It consists of village houses, bamboo groves, paddy fields and tea gardens.

The resort boasts more than 40 species of full-grown trees and over 200 species of tropical climbers, creepers and shrubs. Over 200 species of birds have been recorded in the vicinity of the lodge. For guests, Wild Grass staff arrange elephant rides to the Kaziranga forests (from November till March) and car rides after getting necessary clearances.

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