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Wooing newly weds


COMEBACK SHOW: A huge number of events, from paragliding to skiing and cultural programmes, are being held all over the state.

Last year's earthquake saw tourist inflow drop dramatically in the hill state. Now, a new initiative is bringing back the newly weds.

As far as wooing goes, this would surely be counted as a unique. But then Sikkim, which got dropped from the itinerary of travelers after the September 18 earthquake last year, has been desperate to stage a comeback as a prime tourist destination. Hence the unusual means to woo tourists to its 'comeback show' - the Sikkim Snow & Cultural Fest. Largely the effort of the Travel Agents Association of Sikkim (TAAS), this fortnight-long, fun-packed event got off to a grand start on Valentine's Day (February 14) and has drawn people from all over the country.

But first, the wooing. TASS contacted matrimonial websites and obtained the email addresses of hundreds of newly wed couples from them. "We mailed all these people giving details of the festival and inviting them to experience Sikkim during winters. That paid rich dividends and we got good responses, " TASS general secretary Sonam Norgay Lachungpa told TOI-Crest. There was a clever reason for this: Sikkim, at this time of the year, experiences a lean tourist season because of the cold. And, explained Sonam, a trifle wickedly, the weather is ideal for newly wed couples to snuggle!

State tourism minister Bhim Pradas Dhungel said that after the earthquake tourist arrivals had dried to barely a trickle. "People in the rest of the country and the world gained the impression that Sikkim had become an unsafe place to visit. So we worked with other stakeholders like TASS and the Sikkim Hotels & Restaurants Association (SHRA) to send the message across that the earthquake caused minimal damage to tourism infrastructure and everything is back on track. The ongoing fest is part of that effort. We've already organised a roadshow in Kolkata and shall be holding more in other cities. Tourists will find a warmer welcome awaiting them in Sikkim now, " Dhungel said.

The combined efforts have paid off. Sumit and Nisha Bhargava from Pune, who tied the knot two weeks ago, landed in Gangtok on Tuesday. "We got an email, browsed the web and cancelled our honeymoon trip to Shillong to come here. We're glad we did that, " Sumit, a software consultant with Infosys, said. According to TASS, a couple of hundred young couples have already made it to this state. "Considering the fact that this is offseason for the tourism sector in Sikkim, the response has been very good. We plan to make this fest an annual event, " said Sonam.

It's not only honeymooners who responded to Sikkim's invitation. "We got hold of email address of thousands of corporate executives and sent them mails. We also sent out invitations to corporate houses requesting them to consider Sikkim as a destination for their meets, " said TASS president Lukendra Rasaily. This effort, too, evoked a good response. Suresh Patil, 54, a chartered accountant from Bangalore, told TOI-Crest he received TASS's mail about three weeks ago. "I was planning a trip to Shimla, but after I read the mail and went through the Snowfest's website, I decided on Sikkim. This is a lovely place and the festival is great, " said Suresh. "My wife Rekha was so happy after coming here that she not only extended our stay here by three days, but also recommended Sikkim to our family friends. Two more families are coming over by the end of this week from Bangalore, " he added. A couple of top corporate houses that TASS contacted are also planning to hold some events for their executives by the end of this month.

The festival started with a mountain bike rally, a Valentine's Day dance competition that the visitors, including many from abroad, joined in, and a cultural display at state capital Gangtok's signature MG Marg. A huge number of events are being held all over the state;they include adventure sports like rock climbing, paragliding, trekking, skiing, mountain bike rallies and snow golf;photography contests, musical evenings and a fascinating and colourful array of events showcasing the rich culture of the state.
Sikkim, which receives more than seven lakh tourists a year, saw this inflow drying up since September last year. As per preliminary figures, the state got less than 10, 000 tourists during the peak October to December season last year as against more than 1. 6 lakh during the same period in 2010. "That was when we decided we have to get our act together. And we also realised that as stakeholders we also have to do our bit instead of depending wholly on the government. We came up with the idea of organising this festival to show the world that Sikkim is ready once again to welcome tourists. And given the impression that people had gathered about Sikkim after the earthquake, it was important to reach out to potential tourists. So we got working with matrimonial websites and others, " explained Sonam.

Not surprising, then, that Sonam loves to hum Michael Bolton's When I'm back on my feet again these days. And every time he does that, Rasaily reminds him that another song by The Babys (a British pop group of the late 1970s) - I'm back on my feet again - would be more apt. It's not, after all, a question of 'when', because Sikkim is back on its feet again.

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