Its gorgeous natural setting in the Eastern Himalayas… its history and heritage and its great appeal as a summer retreat will always remain Darjeeling’s greatest draws as a holiday destination. Lost under the noise of all these trumpeted charms are the small but important voices which need to be heard by visitors. How many travellers are out there who are aware of this beautiful hill station’s pluralistic ethnic diversity? If Darjeeling is acclaimed the world over for its champagne teas, does the gourmet adventurer know about the amazing range of its culinary arts? Or, for that matter, its heritage of folk music?
To unravel theses mysteries and present them as special gifts, renowned film maker Anirban Dutta has conjured up Darjeeling Walks, an initiative which was aimed at bringing together local residents and tourists through minimally invasive travel initiatives in the Darjeeling Hills and their communities.
Anirban shares how, unlike most Bengalis, his first trip to Darjeeling happened a little late, despite the fact that he had travelled to many new destinations. He recalls the agony of his first visit to Darjeeling as a tourist, when this quaint, charming town, was still trying to gain a new lease of life for herself, while recovering from a prolonged political agitation, strikes and the like al. The scars, he remembers, were still so fresh he could feel them in the silence of the hills. Little did he know then that someday, beyond the frequent patrols of armed guards, he would experience the real Darjeeling of its people.
His second visit to the hill town found him travelling with his mentor-cum-guide Martin to shoot a film together based on his perspectives of Darjeeling and the miniature artworks of the DHR (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway). The duo looked for locals to take them on walks and to narrate the stories that matter to the people of Darjeeling. Sadly, they were unable to find a professional storyteller to share such stories about the hill town.
Through his research and studies, Anirban discovered an extended gap between travellers and locals. No one seemed to have known things about the town in great detail, despite hosting them or touring with them. That upset him a lot. In the course of all this, he also discovered immense possibilities for bridging the gap between the two entities using ethical tourism activities and curating community experiences.
Darjeeling, he found, was still carrying on its age-old mainstream methods of tourism offerings, which were neither experiential nor responsive to any of the rising concerns of neither its communities nor the travellers visiting it. Anirban understood the very fact that even if Darjeeling would always remain on the mainstream tourism radar, the massive and bustling crowd visiting the town would not responsibly analyse and review the real issues of the place. Tourism, clearly, only benefited from the sharks of the already established and popular market.
Feeling the sheer lack of community integration in travelling experiences, Anirban conceptualised Darjeeling Walks as a Community Travel Organisation, which specialises on making travellers aware of the indigenous and original stories of Darjeeling minus its popular commentary and opulence of just being known as the Queen of the Hills.
The Darjeeling hills suffer from various issues, including political turmoil, unemployment, lack of adequate infrastructure and lack of proper administration. Overdevelopment has made it difficult and suffocating for responsible tour and hospitality operators. The suppression of the youth movement and its identity has slowed down the possibilities of benevolence. Thus, integrating the youth as the ambassadors of the place has taken a longer time than expected. An inadequate transport system also affects daily operations. The ever-growing and staggering number of vehicles to the hill town made the new initiative’s works even more challenging.
But over and above all this, Anirban and his team always remained hopeful and believed in the importance of responsible tourism.
Darjeeling Walks runs as a constructive society as a result of cumulative efforts made by Anirban and his team, its beneficiaries and stakeholders. It is created and established with a hope of making a self-sustainable and improved life in the hills through local employment, rejuvenation of indigenously grown art practices, cultural and historical places, re-development and maintenance of heritage and tourist attractions; underpinning these efforts is the utmost care of the great resources of natural surroundings and its inhabitants.
Anirban believes that keen and sensitive observations of even a single incident can change human perspectives. It can shape us into more sensible and responsible individuals. Darjeeling Walks for him and his team is a path to transformational experiences. As much as he has personally always been eager to create a new and exciting experience for travellers, he also always wanted to learn in the process. When he travels, he is always on the lookout for exciting add-ons, so that he can learn and gain something from every experience.
Though Darjeeling Walks was initially conceived by Anirban, he shares it is equally significant that theirs is an open opportunity platform, where everyone, including its beneficiaries and stakeholders are asked to review and speak to a constantly evolving process of learning and making a traveller’s experience the best it can be.
Even when they started the journey in between paradigm shifts of complete and partial lockdowns, Darjeeling Walks received many more clients than was expected. Some of their experiences were idealised to meet the needs of a regular and domestic traveller in India to break the monopoly over several elitist experiences.
Tea Pluckers’ Day, Darjeeling Forests on Foot, Himalayan Star Gazing, Darjeeling Farming Experience are some of the experiences that cover itineraries that were considered amongst the most unaffordable activities on various grounds. On the other hand, tours like Culture Shock, Baithak in the Hills have been designed to create a sound impact on social policies and evolution.
One of the signature tours, Summer Capital Walk, has successfully impressed every traveller and inspired the locals, vendors, and associates to cultivate the significant history and heritage of Darjeeling town. The treasure hunt map of the significant heritage sites in Darjeeling town has brought a robust promotion through ethical travelling and education.
Experiences like Fireflies Nights, Himalayan Bird Watching, and Himalayan Ecological Tour have gotten rave reviews from travellers across all genres and have been proudly integrated into the indigenous communities with the responsible tourists, educationists, etc.
Programs such as Darjeeling and Kalimpong for Kids have included the educational institutions to practical learning exercises and have helped them understand the real Darjeeling through ecotourism initiatives.