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The Connoisseur’s Book of Indian Coffee
 

Planting times
 

Elite Clubs of India
Tourism: Alternate revenue stream for tea and coffee plantations in India

By Aparna Datta

The largest tracts of privately held land in India may well be in tea and coffee plantations. With costs of production sky-rocketing, and earnings fluctuating according to international commodity prices, estate owners are now looking to diversify their lines of business and optimize their assets. Along with other cultivation options such as horticulture, floriculture, etc., tourism is rapidly becoming a popular additional revenue stream.

A key factor is the geographical location of these estates – tea estates in north-east and in south India and coffee estates in south India have picturesque settings amidst gentle rolling hills, wooded landscapes often sharing a border with reserve forests and wildlife sanctuaries. The tea estates in the north east, particularly in Darjeeling district, have the awe-inspiring Himalayas as the backdrop, while the southern estates are all in the Western Ghats, with spectacular bio-diversity.

The other critical element are the historic planters bungalows set up by the European planters, some easily a hundred years old, yet still gracious and evocative of bygone days. Remarkably, all plantation bungalows, especially the main manager’s bungalow, are located at a vantage point, often on the crest of hills, overlooking an expanse of tea and coffee fields. Now too sprawling, and perhaps with kitchens not equipped with mod cons suitable for the current generation of plantation managers and their families, these bungalows are now being put to good use as the central attraction in a travel package.

Refurbishing these bungalows and adapting them for tourists requires funds, so plantation tourism is primarily handled directly by companies, or tour agents who lease the bungalows from tea and coffee companies.

One of the first to explore this form of destination tourism was Orange County Resort in Coorg, Karnataka state set up in 1995 by the Ramapuram Group based in Bangalore, which set aside some 30 acres of a coffee estate for their tourism project. Another early mover was V K Rajaram who created Tranquil – A Plantation Hideaway out of the bungalow on the Kuppamudi coffee estate in Wynad, Kerala state.

More recently, the Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Company, with extensive tea holdings in the High Range, and with its base in Munnar in Kerala state has actively pursued plantation tourism, and Tata Coffee Limited based in Polibetta in Coorg district has launched a division to develop tourism at some of its estates in Karnataka.

Other projects include Glenburn Tea Estate in Darjeeling, West Bengal state. Makaibari estate owned by Rajah Banerjee, also in Darjeeling has an exclusive property available for guests.

Purvi Discovery based in Dibrugarh, Assam state offers tour packages in which tourists can experience hospitality in 19th century Chang bungalows. These bungalows built on stilts are unique to the north east region.

McLeod Russel of the B M Khaitan Group of Kolkata has joined hands with River Journeys and Bungalows of India Pvt. Ltd., promoted by Ranjit Barthakur to develop a project at Addabari Tea Estate in Assam, renaming it as Wild Mahseer, a British Assam Heritage Property.

The Assam Company Ltd. is also in the process of developing a tourism project to utilize their bungalows at Greenwood, Salonah and Maijan tea estates that are strategically located near the Brahmaputra river.

Apart from the corporate endeavours, there are several private initiatives in both the north east of India and in Southern India. Many are simple homestays, when one or two of the rooms in a bungalow are rented out, with resident family members providing meals and service.

As more and more projects are developed, it remains to be seen if all will be economically viable in the long run, especially as the north east estates are often involve long journeys by road and air connectivity is weak. For the moment however, it’s great to see conservation taking place and heritage bungalows being restored to their former glory. Another benefit is the attention being given to the environment, with forests and wildlife being preserved for eco-tourism and local villagers becoming more conscious of the need to sustain their habitat. Also, local inhabitants are getting employment at the resorts as well as in other tourism-related activities such as transportation and sight-seeing. Plantation tourism not only improves the asset values for the companies and entrepreneurs involved, but improves the livelihoods of the local people as well. For the 150-year old plantation industry in India, it’s a whole new chapter in sustainable development.

PENSCAPE – August 2006

 
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