- More than 2,00,000 tourist visas to China issued last year
- It’s estimated that the number of tourists from India to China will reach 50 million overall by 2020, up from 21.87 million in 2016
- China Eastern Airlines wants a direct CalcuttaKunming flight
From afar they’d look like a patchwork quilt—a moving mass of coats, jackets, caps, scarves, sarees where every shade of the colour palette gets a fair representation. When within range, the group reveals, amidst an inevitably unruly din, an animated bunch of men and women of all ages, with a gaggle of gurgling children in tow: the unmistakable sight of Bengali travellers. After having scoured and ploughed through the sub-continent for generations (resulting in, among other things, an admirable body of travel literature that goes back 150 years), the inveterate Bengali tourist, middle class in origin, behaviour and purchasing power, has been looking further afield—to Bangkok, Singapore and Malaysia. Now, they have dared to peer round the corner and look farther east. It is China that has swum into their ken.
From posing for a family selfie with the Terracotta soldiers in their underground mausoleum in Xi’an, a day spent ogling glitzy Shanghai, or tucking into a succulently tender Peking Duck in Beijing, even a Chinese New Year’s feast in Kunming—the Middle Kingdom is the new siren enticing a group forever stricken with wanderlust.
For decades, when the summer heat got unbearable in the plains, Darjeeling was the cool mountain eyrie closest home (of course, the northern Himalayas and Sikkim remain perennial favourites) that Bengalis would repair to. Now, vromon premis—travel lovers—with more disposable income have the land of dragons in their sight.
The past three years have seen a big surge in traffic from Bengal and the Northeast to neighbouring China, with the tourist demographic ranging from honeymooners to senior citizens, says Anil Punjabi, chairman, Travel Agents Federation of India (TAFI), eastern region.
A new rush of tourism connects Calcutta’s Howrah bridge with the Kunming Lake bridge
“When options fit their budgets, an increasing number of tourists are inclined to retrace the step of ancient adventurers who traversed the Silk Route that once connected the two countries, over the romance of a trip to Europe,” Punjabi tells Outlook. As a result, there has been a tremendous increase in travellers to China, both in the numbers of tourists and business travellers, Punjabi says. In fact, China has become one of the most popular destinations for Indian tourists, with over seven lakh people visiting popular tourist destinations in China in the last couple of years, says an official at the Chinese Consulate in Calcutta. As many as 2,00,000 tourists visas were issued in the last financial year. “Though we haven’t counted numbers of tourist visas issued region-wise, the highest count has been issued from Calcutta,” the official tells Outlook.
This sudden surge from Bengal and the Northeast is due to the easing of tourist visa norms, says Punjabi. Besides, the start of a direct flight between Calcutta and Kunming, in Yunnan, Southeast China, has helped too. “Kunming is only a two-hour hop from Calcutta—less time than it takes to reach Delhi by air—and the competitive air fare offered by China Eastern Airlines for a Calcutta-Kunming direct flight has attracted more tourists and business travellers from this part,” he says. Indeed, the four flights every week from Calcutta to Kunming are fully packed and people have to book tickets well in advance. Consequently, the most popular Chinese itinerary for Calcuttans is the four-city tour of Kunming-Xi’an–Beijing-Shanghai.
“People from east India, a majority of them Bengalis, love to travel and look for a good bargain. Chinese tourism authorities have monetised Indians’ love for travel,” says senior journalist Subir Bhaumik, a frequent traveller to Kunming. “Besides being pocket-friendly, people from Calcutta and the Northeast prefer to take the Kunming route as it is China’s modern communication hub. Xi’an is a little more than an hour-and-a-half by air from Kunming. This apart, Yunnan is home to 27 of the 55 minorities groups of China and the Chinese have done well to showcase its ancient cultural history, besides the ‘Stone Forest’, a submerged forest of stones that has been reclaimed from the sea,” says Bhaumik, a part of the Kunming to Kolkata Forum or the K2K forum—a bilateral diplomacy forum designed to bring people from the two provinces closer. The typical tour itinerary has half a day earmarked for shopping in each city. The China tour-packages are attracting Bengalis more as they find it safe; besides, Calcutta has India’s largest and oldest Chinese diaspora in Chinatown, who have delighted Bengalis with their cuisine and festivals for generations, cementing an age-old connect between the city and China.
Actually, the other Southeast Asian tourism hot-spots, including Thailand and Singapore, have benefited from this surge. Punjabi says, “Both Thai Airlines and Singapore Airlines have started offering competitive fares to cash in on the increasing flow of tourist and business travellers to the Chinese mainland. They are offering competitive fares on connecting flight to China via Bangkok and Singapore.”
Kishore Choithramani travelled with his family to Kunming and Canton
However, the Kunming effect has travelled beyond Calcutta. Neeraj Bhalla from Navi Mumbai, a frequent business traveller to China who used to take the more expensive and circuitous route to China on the Mumbai-Bangkok-X’ian route, now takes the Calcutta-Kunming flight. “The connecting flight from Calcutta to Kunming not only saves travel time, it works out cheaper too. Over the last couple of years that I have taken the flight, I have noted a steady increase in the number of tourists from Calcutta,” says Bhalla, who travels to China once every two months and who is planning a family holiday there.
As China is too big and diverse for tourists to visit in ‘one-size-fits all’ trip, there is an increase in numbers of repeat visitors among Bengalis for further exploration, says Punjabi. “In the last year, tourist traffic from Calcutta to China has gone up by 12 to 15 per cent. Passenger volumes increase during the Easter weekend, summer holidays and the Durga Puja vacation. We get a lot of enquiries from people who had earlier planned to travel to Sri Lanka, but now want to visit China,” he says. Besides Kunming being the gateway to China, people who want to visit Hong Kong and Macau also want to include mainland China into their itinerary.
“Bengalis prefer a structured holiday—a seven- or five-day trip with all activity and routes clearly chalked out, in contrast to more developed markets where people directly search points-of-interests. Indians also have to deal with with cultural and language barriers, so they want a well-prepared itinerary,” says a travel agent. Some enterprising Bengalis use the trips to explore business opportunities too, says Bhaumik.
Then there’s the spiritual connect. A millennia back, Bengal was a major centre of Buddhism, and sent scores of scholar-emissaries to Tibet and China, most notably Atisa Dipankar Srigyan (982-1054 AD), the venerated philosopher. “There has been an increasing consciousness about Buddhism in China and an inclination to revive links with Buddhist circuits in India and Nepal. China, therefore, is showcasing its ancient history by including ancient towns and pilgrimage centres in structured tour itineraries. It is also monetising old European heritage sites in Shanghai (the French Concession, for example), which Bengalis love as part of the centuries-old Calcutta-Shanghai connect,” says Punjabi.
The three most popular Chinese circuits for Bengalis include the 11-day Beijing-Xi’an-Guilin/Yangzhou-Shanghai trip, the eight-day ‘Golden Triangle’ Beijing-Xi’an-Shanghai trip and the 13-day Giant Pandas trip (Beijing-Xi’an-Chengdu-Chongqing-Yichang-Shanghai). All tours start and end at Kunming.
The past two decades were full of debates about the immense trade opportunities of India’s Northeast by unlocking their passage north to China and to Southeast Asia. Leisure-loving Bengalis seem to have taken a determined lunge in that direction.
By Probir Pramanik in Calcutta