The Economic Times,
8th October, 2006
Tea companies recreate the old-world charm of British Raj to woo tourists to their estate resorts
How about having that early morning cuppa in a tea garden bungalow? After that, why not tea off at the greens, close to the bungalow? Does it look like we are getting a little high on tea? Well, the tea companies certainly are on this novel theme - tea garden tourism - the latest entrant in the country's booming tourism industry.
Smell the aroma - the misty mountains, draped in tea bushes, are being repackaged and marketed by these companies as exotic destinations. In fact, tea planters in Assam, Bengal and Kerala are turning parts of their verdant estates into luxury resorts. Big tea companies like McLeod Russel, Tata Tea, Jayshree Tea, Club Mahindra - all have big plans to tap this potential segment after being inspired by vineyards and distillers in other parts of the world.
And why not? As most of bungalows and quarters cocooned inside the tea gardens were built during the British rule and are over 100 year's old, they provide an experience that's different from the runof-the-mill kinds. And individuals and corporates are lapping up these unique destinations.
Between them, these tea companies hope to create about 3,000 rooms and good money, though the industry isn't giving any exact figure as the segment is in the nascent stage.
Arguably, these are hard times for the tea industry, faced as they are with fluctuating international prices, stiff global competition and labour troubles which are taking a toll on their revenues. Which is why, perhaps, tea garden tourism is an alternate revenue stream that's being explored by the tea companies.
Indeed, the business is lucrative and is attracting more players across the country. The Assam Company, part of the UK-based Duncan MacNeill Group, is planning to convert its bungalows at Greenwood, Salonah and Maijan tea gardens into resorts. These gardens are strategically located near the Brahmaputra to allow visitors the luxuries of angling, river rafting and boat cruises.
There are a number of bungalows in and around Munnar in Kerala that are doing good business.
The West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation is working out a plan to convert the state-owned Hila tea estate into a lucrative tea tourism. The Central government has pledged Rs 8 crore for the project. The Bengal government will look into infrastructure and the Central fund will be spent on building cottages aimed attracting high-end tourists.
The tea companies in Darjeeling area, too, are exploring options. In fact, many tea gardens in Darjeeling, hit by the vagaries of fluctuating prices, are in doldrums. To make these gardens financially viable, even the Darjeeling Gorkha Autonomous Hill Council and the West Bengal government are aggressively promoting tea tourism.
Says Kamal Baheti, director, McLeod Russel: "We have decided to tap the tourism potential these tea gardens offer to nature-loving tourists and those interested in British relics".
Proximity to other tourist spots is another advantage that this property enjoys. In Assam, the Kaziranga National Park and the Nameri Game Park are not far away from the tea garden bungalows. Tawang and Bomdilla in Arunachal are also within driving distance.
Munnar is situated at the confluence of three mountain streams - Mudrapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundala. Some of the other destinations nearby include Kodaikanal, Chinnar wildlife sanctuary and sandalwood forests. So instead of promoting just one destination, these tea garden resorts are also being marketed as circuits.
WelcomHeritage president Rakesh Mathur, however, feels this is the best way to promote the whole of North-East as a destination. He hopes the government will take steps to improve air connectivity to the region. WelcomHeritage manages three tea garden estate properties in Jorhat - Thengal Manor, Burra Sahib's Bungalow and Gatoonga Bungalow.
For their project, McLeod Russel signed up River Journeys & Bungalows, which is promoting the project as British Assam Heritage Bungalows. The first property of the project is Wild Mahseer in Balipara. "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," says Ranjit Birthakur of River Journeys. The companies are further marketing their tea gardens as lifestyle product.
Plantations are targeting the premium segment with many charging about Rs 20,000 per night. "We believe most of our customers will be escape traveller, comprising the rich and upwardly mobile, Raj escape seekers, the corporates and nature adventurers," says Mr Birthakur.
"Proximity to cities and fairly good infrastructure make these properties an attractive product. These are ideal for small corporate meeting and conferences. We are getting a lot of corporate queries for our properties in Jorhat," says Mr Mathur.
Following the Tata management's handing over of the Tata Tea's sprawling tea plantations in Munnar, Kerala to the employees, the latter have initiated a foray into plantation tourism under the brand of the new entity, namely Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Company. For the employee-run company, the diversification into tea plantation tourism has come at the right time, considering that a new management team is in place and additional revenue is welcome at a time when tea prices are generally sluggish.
Says Chacko Thomas, who heads KDHP's nontea operations: "We have spruced up six of our plantation bungalows for tourism activity. In all there are 17 rooms and the response has been very encouraging". A holiday in Munnar also allows tourists to sight the famous Nilgiri tahrs. So the next time you feel like plucking tea leaves yourself, or break your morning with a nature walk, river rafting, trekking or golfing, pack your bags for the tea gardens. What's more, they also offer a completely organic experience as some of them are self-sufficient - with their own poultry, dairy, orchards and vegetable gardens.