Spent a lovely week in Coonoor last month. It’s without a doubt our favourite hill station. The weather is just right - never too cold - and it has little attraction for tourists other than the Sim’s Park for it to get over-crowded. We love the Wellington Gymkhana. Though the food , over the years, has become slightly indifferent and the service a bit variable – the view from the sit-out of the cottages , of the tea gardens and the golf course, makes up for everything. For us it’s usually five days of doing nothing - not even Golf - except for long walks and the mandatory visits to Bakers’ Junction in the evenings to pick up bread, locally made cheese (Gray’s Hill and Acres Wild) and Pomelo Marmalade.
The problem with Calcutta is the lack of getaways. It’s one more reason to miss Mumbai – with Goa just a handshake away or even Khandala, Pune and Mahabaleshwar at striking distance Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai all have more than their fair share of places for short breaks. It’s a pity though because very few states are blessed with such range of vista as West Bengal. Mamata Banerjee points out, for once got it correct (given her fantastic sense of Geography. Remember her classic “Bengal is the gateway to the countries of the North East” and “Bangladesh, which is the border of Pakistan”? ). West Bengal is endowed with natural bounty – from the Himalayas at one end to the Bay of Bengal on the other, traversing through forests, rivers and many heritage sites. But, the woeful infrastructure doesn’t offer many options for a decent holiday. Especially after Darjeeling has gone out of bounds., a Bengali traveling to the Nilgiris to enjoy the tea gardens may not be as New Castlenian (if one were to coin a term) as it may sound. Today, Bangkok, Phuket and Langkawi (and even Kunming in China) have emerged as popular holiday destinations for Bengalis and Calcuttans thanks to ‘low-cost’ airlines and budget hotels.
On returning from Coonoor what hit me hard is not the steam-bath weather of Calcutta – but the cruel credit card bills. Though, we had the luxury of staying at the Club (which was a saving grace) – what dealt the killer blows are the air-fares and taxi bills. Which begs the question – why can’t we holiday in India without having to go broke? Or is it that we have become too snooty and spoilt for our own good?
That’s probably being a little unfair. Basically, I don’t think we have got our act right as far as cost equations go in the tourism and hospitality business or for that matter even in airlines ( perhaps, Indigo is the only exception). So, what’s ‘affordable’ is really lousy quality and what is passed off as ‘budget’ is sometimes as steep as a good 4 or 5 star in Thailand or Malaysia. Even neighbourly Nepal offers far greater value for money for an ordinary tourist. So, no wonder more and more Indians are opting to holiday abroad than at home.
There are exceptions, of course. Home-stays in Kerala have caught on. And, the latest Kerala Tourism ads promote it as a destination for all seasons and to suit all pocket sizes. Goa has something to offer at every price-point from the shoe string to the ultra luxury. Rajasthan too operates across a range – from the bag-packers to the super rich. But, that’s about it. In the rest of the country the infrastructure, particularly at the lower end of the spectrum, is worse than pathetic.
Yet, as the poet wrote, we travel the world but overlook the beauty at our own back-yard. As a Bengali, I am ashamed to admit that I have never been to the Sunderbans – partly because till recently no infrastructure worth its name existed there. I am told now a few Eco Resorts have come up – which aren’t too bad. Monsoons are certainly not the time to go there. But, I hope to make amends this winter and wade through a few pages of Amitav Ghosh’ The Hungry Tide.