Sikkim has now transformed itself into a world class tourist destination. Be it in agriculture, cleanliness, health and education, it has set a benchmark for other states to follow and tourism is no exception. As a testimony to this, Sikkim has been receiving awards and recognition both at the national and international levels. Credit for this can be largely attributed to the dynamic leadership of Pawan Chamling, the Chief Minister of Sikkim. The state has nurtured an environment highly conducive for the tourism industry. The proactive approach and policies of the state government over the last two decades has led to unprecedented growth of the tourism industry. The huge investment in infrastructure and human resources has enabled the tourism industry to emerge as the largest service industry in the private sector. The government has made concerted efforts to promote varied tourism products such as village tourism, ecotourism, adventure tourism and pilgrimage tourism. Under the visionary leadership of the Chief Minister, Sikkim became the first fully organic farming state in the year 2016. The unrelenting determination with coherent conceptualisation of the Chief Minister balanced with a stable and insurgency free environment has been the prime reason for the growth of this state.
Tourism is perceived as the driver of economic growth and a sector capable of bringing about immense socio-economic transformation of a region. Sikkim has recorded impressive growth in tourism sector since 1994 to till now under the dynamic leadership of Pawan Chamling. No effort is being spared to make Sikkim the most premier tourist destination in the country. In the past two decades, Sikkim has bagged many tourism related awards which highlight it as a major tourist destination with potential for further growth. Tourist Information Centres have come up in all districts and towns in Sikkim. In fact, offices and information centres along with guest houses at metropolitan cities like New Delhi, Kolkata, and Siliguri have made imparting information and assisting tourists easy.
The number of tourist arrivals in both domestic and international airports has gone up by a huge margin mainly because of the development in infrastructure. With the increase in the massive number of tourists arriving in the state, the number of hotels, homestays, travel agencies, tourist taxis, tourist guides and others directly or indirectly engaged in the tourism industry has also increased thereby creating huge employment opportunity.
It is important to note that before 1994, all Sikkim had to offer was the raw landscape and mountains. Thus outdoor activities were restricted to trekking and river rafting. It was only with the much needed and timely realisation of the Chief Minister that these natural landscapes were converted to adventure zones which opened new doorways. Opening of the popular trekking routes and mountaineering peaks for Alpine Expeditions by the government have resulted in huge numbers of adventure enthusiasts visiting Sikkim from all over the world. Various trekking trails that have immense potential for adventure seekers are being surveyed and developed. A significant measure that the government kept in mind while promoting adventure tourism was to create livelihood options for the people who live in these areas.
For the mountaineers, some peaks below 7000 metres have been opened for expedition by the Sikkim Government. The department also helps in recce of new trekking or hiking trails. The Government has prescribed Basic Minimum Standard (BMS) and guidelines to regulate all adventure activities being conducted in the state of Sikkim and a Standard Operating Procedure for search and rescue in case of any mishap or accident.
Establishment of Indian Himalayan Centre for Adventure and Eco-Tourism (IHCAE) at Chemchey, South Sikkim is another huge milestone. Standing tall in the small but cheerful village of Chemchey, the IHCAE is a heaven for nature lovers seeking to get a taste of adventure sports. Its close proximity to one of the world's best trekking trail (Singilila) which meanders through the beautiful forest covered with rhododendrons and a variety of other alpine vegetation is undoubtedly a breathless moment for many. Also, the snow fed perennial rivers of Teesta and Rangeet offer great challenges to the white-water rafting enthusiast.
The institute is basically designed to educate young people and school children about the exciting, unexplored possibilities of nature. It also seeks to encourage the youth of the nation to take up adventure sports as a profession. The campus is extremely well laid out with good infrastructure. It offers its trainees a wide range of activities such as rock climbing, mountaineering, white-water rafting, skiing, mountain biking and paragliding. Its 14 stage obstacle course is one the most challenging events for trainees designed to develop physical endurance and mental alertness. This has also provided employment opportunities for the Sikkimese people who have undergone training at various adventure training institutions in the country as well as outside.
Besides trekking and mountaineering, the Government of Sikkim has also introduced the enthralling sport of paragliding, mountain biking, camping and many other forms of adventure activities to cater to the needs of adventure enthusiasts from all over the world.
Rural Tourism and Ecotourism
The state is also harnessing the vast untapped rural tourism potential by giving higher impetus on rural tourism so that its multiplier benefits reaches out directly to the rural masses. This has created a new concept that sensitises visiting the village settings and live in relaxed and healthy lifestyle. The rural tourism concept is fast growing in Sikkim as a responsible and sustainable tourism product with critical social objectives through people’s participation. Ecotourism is being aggressively propagated by planning of tourism related activities with optimum environmental care and keeping in view the principles of conservation and sustainability. While planning of tourism infrastructure, due care is also taken to ensure that the tourism products being created are self-sustained and they are in harmony with the nature, culture and heritage of Sikkim.
Sikkim’s rural hinterlands are endowed with fabulous natural beauty, serene environment, heritage sites and unique cultural flavour. For a tourist who wants to experience rural life, village homestays in Sikkim offer opportunities to know not only about Sikkimese culture but also to engage oneself in the day to day activities of rural life. Rural tourism offers the visitors glimpse of rural Sikkim, familiarise them with unique village culture and heritage so that they are mentally rejuvenated, culturally enriched and spiritually elevated.
The most important component of village tourism is operation of homestays which was developed to let tourists enjoy and experience the rich culture, heritage and bio-diversity. The basic concept of homestays is to develop one or more additional rooms in the existing rural houses for comfortable stay for the tourist along with the host family. This ensures low cost tourism which is affordable and also acts in decongesting the urban towns apart from creating a source of livelihood in the villages. In Sikkim, this initiative was jointly funded by the Thirteenth Finance Commission (TFC) and the state government and under the village tourism grant, a total of 736 homestays have been constructed. In order to ensure smooth operation of newly set up homestays, training and exposure trips were undertaken.
Sikkim Organic Mission-Its Impact on State’s Tourism Sector
Sikkim Organic Mission conceptualised by the Chief Minister way back in 2003 is now well-known in India. Millions of Indian viewers were introduced to this ingenious flagship project of the Government of Sikkim through ‘Satyamev Jayate’, a popular talk show hosted by Aamir Khan in 2012. Sikkim was declared the first Organic State in India during the visit of the Narendra Modi in 2016. The Organic Mission of Sikkim remains a talking point in the world increasingly concerned about use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers in agricultural products.
Sikkim voluntarily adopted to go organic under the guidance of its Chief Minister. The state, thus, remains a foremost democratic model in the world on organic farming. The process for bringing the total cultivatable land of 58,168 hectares under organic farming commenced at ground levels from 2010. Agencies accredited by Agriculture and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority are certifying the organic process in Sikkim in three phases. Organic produce of Sikkim, mostly vegetables, would not only fetch more value for the Sikkimese farmers but also offers multiple benefits for the state. The organic status is going to supplement the ecotourism of Sikkim, another visionary initiative of the Chief Minister. Tourism stakeholders of Sikkim are convinced that Organic Mission when connected with ecotourism would be a double attraction for tourists. Visitors can enjoy the natural beauty of Sikkim but also gain health benefits by consuming organic products. With the success of village tourism and homestays, this branch of tourism has already become a vital component of the sector. With many more projects in the pipeline, the tourism department will expand and continue to grow into a viable sector.
Sikkim has been the holy land and the blessed land since time immemorial. The rich history of Sikkim boasts of Guru Padmasambhava, Lord Shiva and many holy monks and priests who passed the mountains here and made this land holy. How-ever, pilgrimage tourism was largely popularised under the visionary the Chief Minister, who came up with the concept of pilgrimage tourism for the state. Monasteries, temples, churches lie in abundance in Sikkim, which goes to show the religious tolerance and the example of secularism in the state. Yet, the Honourable Chief Minister went an extra mile and brought in pilgrimage tourism by investing and building larger than life projects like the Guru Padmasambhava Statue at Samdruptse, Tathagata Tsal or Buddha Park at Rabong and Siddheswara Dham or Char Dham at Namchi. The year 2015 was marked with the re-opening of historic Silk Route between Sikkim and erstwhile Tibet for pilgrimage tour to Kailash Manasarovar via Nathula Pass in Sikkim which became possible due to tireless efforts of the state government and the central government. The historic bilateral agreement was signed between the two countries - India and China on the September 18, 2014. The Kailash Manasarovar holds a significant place for Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains and hundreds of pilgrims undergo this spiritual yatra via Nathula in search of inner peace as well as to experience the pristine beauty of the mountains.
Tourism Promotional Fairs and Festivals
Over the years, another aspect that the department has been focusing on is organisation of tourism promotional fairs and festivals. The attendance of Sikkim in the various international tourism marts and fairs has contributed to Sikkim climbing up the list in global tourist destination. Though many tourism promotional fairs and events are held annually in different parts of the state, the one major festival that has captured the heart of all the tourists and locals alike is the Red Panda Winter Carnival. The carnival, which has now become a popular annual event, showcases the various traditions and culture of the Sikkimese people. The renowned international music maestro A.R. Rahman was declared as the brand ambassador of Sikkim during the Red Panda Winter Carnival (2017-18).
Sikkim tourism participates regularly in national and inter-national tourism marts, events and festivals such as Travel Trade Fair (TTF), North East Festival, SAATE, International Tourism Mart, World Tourism Mart – London, ITB Berlin for promotion of tourism within and outside the country.
One of the significant steps taken by the present government in its mission to meet the tourism infra-structure demand was to create an ‘Engineering Cell’ in the Tourism Department in 2001-02 to bring better technical inputs and higher professionalism in the tourism infrastructure building process. In view of the better performance of the state government in overall tourism development, it has set an excellent track record with the Ministry of Tourism and the other sponsoring ministries of the Government of India. The state’s performance has also been highly acknowledged by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India as it has received various awards for best tourism performing state in the Regional and National levels consecutively for eight to nine years.
Now, in terms of tourism infrastructure, the state takes pride in ranking among the top most tourism states and certainly at the forefront of all the hill states in the country. There has been a relentless effort to document Sikkim as all season and multiple option tourism venue to offer opportunities under diverse fields of tourism such as nature tourism, trekking tourism, adventure tourism, pilgrimage tourism, ecotourism, snow tourism, rural tourism, wellness tourism, flori-tourism, heli-tourism, festival tourism, culture and heritage tourism, indigenous tourism, green tourism and other specific interest tourism like rhododendron trek, bird and butterfly watch, mountain expedition and mountaineering etc. Above all, the state has been propagating ‘morally responsible tourism’ as the ethical code of tourism prospects for Sikkim in order to prohibit entry of the evil elements that are detrimental to the society and the moral values.
E-governance or electronic governance means using Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to transform functioning of the government to bring about speedy delivery of services, cost reduction, transparency and accountability to the people. Walking in a path paved by the Chief Minister of Sikkim to bring about transparency and accountability in governmental functioning, the Tourism and Civil Aviation department has developed and operationalised following people friendly systems or websites:
l Online Inner Line Permit Tracking System
l Tourist Information system
l Project Monitoring System
l Asset Management System
l Statistical information System
l Land Registration management
Another thrust area for overall development of the state is training of its men force in various fields for their economic upliftment and self-empowerment. It has become a means to end dependency on government and private enterprises as well as to bring about equity.