Gangtok: After being in limbo for over two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sikkim’s tourism-based economy is seeing much relief, having kicked off this year’s tourist season in March itself.

The two popular lakes in Sikkim – Gurudongmar in North and Changu Lake in East – are both currently frozen, with the surrounding snow-capped mountains and peaks wooing the tourists flocking to Sikkim this season. Over 30,000 tourists have already visited the picturesque North Sikkim in March.

There has been a continuous flow of tourists into Sikkim ever since the lockdown restrictions were relaxed. The vibrant tourism sector, however, has not been able to cater to the tourists’ demand to visit North Sikkim until mid-March because of snow.

“There was trouble with black ice, which curtailed movement to higher reaches even in March. It was trouble even about a week ago. But judging by the number of tourists already thronging to Sikkim, it is evident that people are fed up of COVID-19 restrictions,” Chairman of Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation (STDC) Lukendra Rasaily told EastMojo.

Ideally, Sikkim receives snow till late March, curtailing movement to the Gurudongmar Lake at 18,000 feet in North Sikkim, usually until after April. Access to this cold desert region, however, was opened for tourists this week.

Once the access routes opened to Lachen and Lachung, the two very popular tourist destinations on the way to Gurudongmar, Sikkim started witnessing a steep growth in tourist footfall.

“The record number of tourists that have already reached Sikkim this month proves that Sikkim will see substantial growth in tourism this year,” Rasaily added.

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“This has been one of the finest seasons for tourism, especially in March, since the pandemic began two years ago. At present, we are getting close to 300 vehicles of tourists every day,” Thupden Lachungpa, a hotelier from Lachung, told EastMojo.

According to the latest figures shared by the Sikkim Police, which mans the various checkpoints to North Sikkim, 29,045 domestic tourists and 2,579 vehicles recorded entry through the Toong check post between March 1-22.

“There have been 78 foreign tourists in the same course of time,” Sub Divisional Police Officer (SDPO) LB Chettri, posted at Chungthang, told EastMojo.

The tourist footfall peaked during the long Holi weekend when more than 1,000 vehicles reached Changu and Nathula each day.

“Now it has come down to 700-800 vehicles for tourists coming to Sikkim from within its 500-km radius area,” the STDC official said.

According to Sonam Norgay Lachungpa, president of the Travel Agents’ Association of Sikkim, the Himalayan hamlet is witnessing its best tourism flow since the pandemic started.

“The situation is normalising, the tourist flow is increasing and all stakeholders are very encouraged. This is the best season we have had in the past two years and it has just started. We have already started tours to Gurudongmar Lake and Yumthang valley in North Sikkim after the ice was cleared. All the authorities are also cooperating up North,” Sonam told EastMojo.

One pain point, however, is the expected chaos related to the scheduled shutting down of the Bagdogra Airport in North Bengal for maintenance works. The airport, which is the main entry point for domestic and international tourists visiting Sikkim, is set to close for 15 days for repair work on the runway along with other ancillary development works.

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“The April closing of Bagdogra Airport, from where most of our tourists come, is a major concern as all our bookings are getting cancelled. But we still have the advantage with domestic tourists who travel by road or train. They are more in number than foreign tourists. In fact, Sikkim started seeing a good tourist footfall immediately after lockdown restrictions were lifted,” Sonam said.

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