From the serene green valleys in the lap of the mighty Himalayas, dotted with famed hill stations in the north, to exotic wildlife in the Sundarbans mangroves, West Bengal offers several unique destinations and experiences to tourists.
With the changing perception of tourism around the world, West Bengal too, has introduced a palette of tourism offerings and unique destinations to give to tourists – global or domestic — an unforgettable experiential holiday.
With consistent growth in inbound tourism, West Bengal now figures amongst the top 10 states in India. The state ranked sixth in 2017 with a contribution of 1.6 million foreign tourist arrivals (FTA), which is 5.9 pc of total FTAs to India, surprisingly ahead of globally famous tourism hotspots like Kerala and Goa. Festivals, river cruises, ecotourism, wildlife, leisure, business and heritage are part of the diverse variety of themes and products that West Bengal offers to tourists.
To reach out to the potential travellers from around the world, the state tourism board has ramped up its communication and marketing efforts. It has also produced several new collaterals such as a captivating video on the tourism products that West Bengal has to offer. In addition, the state is also actively using the digital media and social media networks to connect with tourists and the travel trade all over the world, especially the untapped markets.
Be a part of the greatest street-art festival on planet
Durga Puja in West Bengal is not just a festival, but also an emotion, a celebration of life and art. It isa festival that is celebrated around the world, the preparation for which begins months ahead. Thousands of artisans and craftsmen every year work round the clock to put together around 2,000 big and small pandals (tents) in Kolkata and over 28,000 across the entire state. These pandals are the nerve centre of the Durga Puja, the greatest street-art festival on the planet.
The grand Pujas organised by Kolkata’s ‘bonedi’ families, the erstwhile landlords, in their private residences offer a glimpse of the Bengal’s rich heritage. Two of the most famous events that have been organised each year for centuries are held in Shobhabazar’s Rajbari and Rani Rashmoni’s residence in north Kolkata.
You will only understand the grandeur of the event once you are part it. From pandal hopping to food hogging, from adda sessions to witnessing Dhunuchinaach (traditional Durga Puja dance), this festival is a cauldron of a great many things. With over 50 million people visiting the pandals over the 10-day festival, the Durga Puja is line to get a world heritage status from UNESCO.
Explore the largest protected wetland in the country
West Bengal also has unique eco tourism opportunities manifested by the mangroves in the Sundarbans, with their wide-ranging diversity in vegetation, flora and fauna, landscape, culture and ethnicity. The wetland is an impressive maze of colours and textures, where you can see the clear blues of the Bay of Bengal run into the muddy brown waters of the wetlands. The Indian part of Sundarbans has received the ‘Wetlands of International Importance’ tag under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, making it the largest protected wetland in the country.
Recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987, the wetland is home to not only the Royal Bengal Tiger but also to other endangered species like the Irrawaddy dolphin, northern river terrapin, fishing cat and several species of kingfisher. The wetland also hosts several species of migratory birds every year.
One can take a boat safari to complete a round tour of the Sundarbans including a night safari and a tour of the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. Shutterbugs can get a perfect shot of the wilderness from atop the Sajnekhali Watch Tower or the Burirdabri Watch Tower. Lucky are those who can spot the Royal Bengal Tiger coming for a drink at one of the nearby water bodies, a very rare sight, indeed.
Delve into the beauty of the hills
Spread over a steep mountain ridge, nestled amidst acres of lush green tea plantations, with the Himalayan range in the backdrop, the hills and valleys of West Bengal are home to some truly beautiful hill stations like Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Lepchajagat, Kurseong, Dooars, Siliguri and Mirik.
Among them Darjeeling is the most famous hill station among tourists with its jaw-dropping sites, mesmerising sunrise, panoramic valley views, the old-world charm of the past, Buddhist monasteries and churches, Tibetan handicrafts and the heart warming locals. Tiger Hill in Darjeeling is one of the best places to watch sunrise, and on a clear day it offers unmatched views of the majestic Mount Kanchenjunga and Mount Everest.
The hill stations of West Bengal are the biggest draw for most foreign tourists due to the pleasant weather, scenic beauty and the toy train that has been accorded status of a UNESCO World Heritage site. The hill also offers one with luxurious stays like the Elgin Darjeeling that was once the summer residence of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar, and is now a luxury heritage hotel. One can find abundant adventure activities such as trekking, paragliding, rafting and canoeing in the area.
Stay at the tea gardens
The second largest tea growing state in the country, Bengal has verdant teagardens in the districts of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, and Uttar Dinajpur. North Bengal has close to 450 tea gardens spread out in the region. Tea tourism offers a wonderful experience to be a part of the mystic process of tea plucking, tasting the finest aromatic Darjeeling tea, experiencing the cultural festivals of the tea tribes, staying at the tea bungalows, as well as trekking in the natural beauty of a tea garden.
The tea producers in Darjeeling are now turning their heritage bungalows into tourist retreats – replete with facilities like spa, wellness, yoga and tea tasting. The tea estates not only offers a luxurious stay amidst the picturesque tea gardens with a view of the surrounding snow peaks, but also give an excellent view of the surrounding countryside.
Explore the offbeat heritage destinations
With rich reserves of folklore, art, music, myriad monuments and heritage sites, the state is also very rich in culture and heritage. Shantiniketan, a small university town located in Birbhum district, combines culture, music, art, handicrafts and a cosmopolitan crowd of students from different parts of the world to study. Considered to be Rabindranath Tagore’s eternal abode, Shanitniketan reflects the heritage of India due to its strong historical roots; where events like Pous Mela (annual fair and festival in Shantiniketan) and Basanta Utsav (Holi) attract lots of tourists. It makes for an ideal off-beat destination for those who like to explore the unknown, and love to immerse in history and heritage.
Another offbeat destination is the former French colony, Chandannagar, earlier known as Chandernagore, located 55 km from Kolkata. It represents a curious melange of French and Bengali cultural heritage, notably in architecture, preservation and upgradation that has been taken up in recent years. The Registry building on the picturesque strand by the Ganga river in the town, is one of the 99 heritage structures blending the unique Indo-French architectural patterns. Marked most prominently by its strand, a seven metre wide and a kilometre long paved French promenade along the Hooghly river bank, this French town is replete with monuments and buildings of historical and cultural significance that one can explore.