India brews tea tourism

Your tea break was never so exotic, as Indian tea planters turn parts of their verdant Assam and Darjeeling estates in the east of the country into luxury resorts.

    Tourists will be able to join in the plucking of tea leaves

    Guests get to tour tea gardens and pluck tea leaves.

    Nature walks, trekking, rafting and golf are also on offer, punctuated, of course, by as much tea tasting as you like.

    "We are creating a lifestyle product for companies and individuals," said Ranjit Barthakur, whose tea tourism promoting firm is in joint venture talks with Tata Tea among others, and who plans to develop 1000 rooms in India's north east over the next 10 years.
     
    Times are hard in the tea industry. Falling international prices, stiff global competition and labour troubles dog India's major producers, so the new ventures need to be more than just a sideline.

    "Tea tourism ... is an alternative revenue stream being explored by planters. The potential is very good," said B Banerjee, chief of the state-run Tea Board.

    Positive response

    Leading growers such as McLeod Russel, Tata Tea and the Birla family's Jayashree Tea have high hopes for their schemes, after seeing successful parallels among champagne vineyards and distilleries elsewhere.

    "Countries have their own tourism industry around these products. We are developing tourism around our tea gardens," said Jhum Jhum Shirali, spokeswoman for McLeod Russel, which is developing six estates in the northeastern state of Assam.

    India's government has set aside
    $2 million to develop tea tourism

    "The response is good and we are already booked through January," Shirali said.
     
    Similar resorts are coming up in Assam, and in the eastern state of West Bengal, home to the famous Darjeeling tea gardens in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas.

    Plantation buildings are often well-preserved relics of the colonial era.

    Private investors

    Sprawling wooden bungalows, large courtyards filled with colourful flowers, century-old trees and green lawns capture an old-world charm.

    Nestled deep in the verdant tea gardens, staff living quarters and bungalows are being turned into luxury apartments with modern amenities.
     
    The resorts can be self-sufficient too, often with their own poultry, dairy, fishery, orchards and vegetable gardens.

    Authorities in Assam and West Bengal are also encouraging private investors to turn defunct tea estates into tourist spots.

    "We have found that there are tourists, both domestic and international, who are interested in visiting the tea gardens," West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee told reporters.

    India's government has set aside 100 million rupees ($2 million) to develop a tea-tourism infrastructure in West Bengal.

    Planters could do with a boost.

    Exports affected

     

    "Tea tourism ... is an alternative revenue stream being explored by planters. The potential is very good"

    B Banerjee,
    Chief of the state-run Tea Board

    India shares the world top spot for black tea production with China, but competition from producers like Sri Lanka and Kenya has taken its toll in exports.

    In the year to March, Indian tea production fell 2.3% to 830.9 million kg.

    Exports in the eight months to August fell to 103.5 million kg from 121.8 million kg in the same period in 2004, primarily due to weaker demand from traditional buyers like Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

    If the chance to play the colonial planter is your cup of tea, be warned it will cost a fair bit more than your corner-cafe cuppa.

    Plantations are targeting the wealthy end of the tourist market, charging about 20,000 rupees ($440) per night. 
    ($1 = 45.71 rupees)

    SOURCE: Reuters


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