WITH Kashmir militancy-ridden and Himachal Pradesh saturated as a tourist destination, Kumaon in Uttar Pradesh is emerging as the latest meal ticket for travel entrepreneurs forever in search of new Shangrilas to sell. "Kumaon has everything—proximity, beauty, tranquility," exults Veer Rawley, general manager of the Delhi-based Rath Travels that has aggressively sold Kumaon destinations to Delhiites for the last two years."
A five-hour Shatabdi train journey takes the mountain air seeking summer traveller to Kathgodam, from where taxis whiz him away to assorted hilltop destinations—some like Bhimtaal and Sattaal within 45 minutes driving distance; others like Almora, Mukteshwar, Pithoragarh three to 12 hours by road. Each destination on virgin pine, oak, teak plantation terrain, each offering reasonably priced hotel accommodation. Deliciously pristine, non touristy.
But not for long. Over the last three years canny travel operators have rushed in to cash in on this untapped hill haven. Like the owners of Country Inn who invested over Rs 1 crore in 1994 to build 14 cottages at Bhimtaal. Tariffs: Rs 900 to Rs 1,800. Meals extra. Occupancy in 1995: 80 per cent, and growing. M.S. Neelkanthan, CI marketing manager, is upbeat: "We're a popular conferencing venue. Our clients love the proximity to Delhi, the outdoor activity options." Plans for 1997: a Rs 5-crore investment in a business and recreation centre, a health centre with a pool and jacuzzi, adding 12 rooms and converting the 14 cottages into 28 saleable units.
It wasn't so easy for the plucky trio of Nainital-based Manoj Choudhary and Delhi-based Sunil Mehndiratta and Anurag Gupta, who decided to start their Wildrift campsite at Sattaal in 1994. Advantage: site in the middle of seven lakes. Drawback: no money. Investment in the first year: Rs 1 lakh. Turnover: Rs 1.25 lakh. In 1995 they stepped up investment to Rs 3 lakh, bought deluxe tents and mounted an aggressive marketing blitz. Turnover during September-October '95 alone: Rs 4.5 lakh. Turnover 1996: Rs 12 lakh. Future plans: open three more camps and triple their turnover.
Other entrepreneurs too are trying to cap-italise on their location advantage. Like Kilachand Estate owner Suresh Kilachand, who has thrown open his deluxe summer retreat at picturesque Papparsali, 85 km from Kathgodam, to tourists this year. Rooms: 15. Tariffs: Rs 2,500 to 5,000 per suite, all inclusive. Occupancy: 100 per cent. "We're planning to add more rooms in time for next year," reveals manager Afroz.
Delhi-based engineer Dilip Gupta, 50, of Country Resorts, who bought a 2.5 acre plot and built four cottages comprising a total of 10 rooms at the 2,400 m high orchard hamlet of Mukteshwar in 1994, did not have such high occupancy when he opened. Yet he's planning to step up his initial investment of Rs 30 lakh to Rs 60 lakh, add a conferencing centre convertible to become club or discotheque and eight more rooms. He explains: "Occupancy today is 65 per cent. April-July revenue: Rs 5 lakh. Room demand will outstrip supply in the next two years here."
The same logic prompts the duo of Pawan Yadav, 25, and Syed Mehdi, 26, to plod on despite a low 60 per cent occupancy at their 10-bed, Rs 650 a night resort at Pithoragarh. "We started two years ago, were the first to venture here. Once regular flights start, business has to pick up," says a gritty Yadav.
The grittiest entrepreneurs and travellers, though, complain about the lack of infrastructural facilities in the region. Says Anurag Gupta: "Transport facilities are dismal, water and electricity supply is erratic, Kumaon tourism authorities are inexplicably absent in most areas. This region is under-exploited, low on infrastructure."
Lack of that, however, is not stopping hoteliers, travellers or tour operators from rushing to Kumaon. Rawley explains the Kumaon charisma: "It's unspoilt, easily accessible from Delhi. Kumaon is the future playground of leisure tourism." If the enthusiasm of tourists and travel agents is any indication, that future is already here.