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Take Your Pick, Budding Tea Tourists

The Telegraph
26th October, 2006

BALIPADA (ASSAM), Oct. 25: Owners of plantations on the verdant tea slopes of Assam and north Bengal are savouring the first flush of garden tourism, a business they hope will bloom at a time when their mainstay is wilting.

The B M Khaitan-owned McLeod Russel India and the K K Birla group lead the line-up of estate-studded companies planning to develop properties suitable for tourism.

McLeod will turn six properties, spread over 28 acres in Assam, into a dream getaway in a tie-up with River Journeys & Bungalows of India (RJBIL). This is a company promoted by Ranjit Barthakur, the former chief executive of Hutch, along with two of his associates.

River Journeys will develop and manage the properties - anything from Raj-era managers' bungalows to new houses at a panoramic plantation site - under a revenue-sharing arrangement with the Khaitans.

It has already gone some way, having dolled up a McLeod property at Balipada, not far away from Tezpur. The makeover saw an Assam Tea Protection Security Force barrack turned into a plush conference room. That it will cost a couple Rs 20,000 a day is, of course, incidental.

"We want to create a lifestyle product for companies and individuals. The bungalows in tea estates will be converted into lifestyle units. The bungalow that we have already developed is close to tourist spots like Tawang, Bomdila, Kaziranga and Nameri Game Park," says Barthakur.

The company, which aims to add 1,000 rooms within 10 years, also owns The Wild Grass at Kaziranga. Barthakur says he is in talks with the Goodricke group for properties in Jorhat and with Tata Tea for spots in Terai and Assam.

River Journeys realises great holiday destinations must be wrapped in brands. So, it picks British Assam Heritage Bungalows. "This will be the brand name for all properties that we will be developing," Barthakur adds.

Luring tourists will give McLeod, which has only 15,000 of its 23,000 hectares in Assam estates under bushes, a gushing revenue stream for its tea business to ride on. Company officials, however, could not put a finger on the amount they expect from tourism. "The project has just kicked off and we can't say at this juncture what the possible revenue will be," one of them said.

So, is tea tourism ripe for rich pickings? Not quite. Not until Assam ensures that estates are well connected. ? Talks are on with the government for regular flights to Tezpur. We are also targeting tourists who visit Myanmar from Thailand. Bangkok Airways touches down at Guwahati now. We perceive a big opportunity to tap these visitors," says Barthakur.


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