The eastern district of Ilam has a lot going for it. With one of the highest literacy rates in the country and exceptional local leadership, it is a model of development for its poorer cousins like Taplejung.
Tea and cardamom farming have sustained families for generations and the trade is still going strong with farmers looking to go organic to boost their incomes. The Green City initiative has made plastic bags a thing of the past and locals are working together with the municipality to manage solid waste.
However, it takes a quick three hour drive into Darjeeling to realise how much of Ilam's potential is going to waste especially in tourism. On the other side of the border, throngs of tourists from Kolkata, Sikkim, and an equal number of foreign travellers jostle for space in the city's famous Chowrasta square.
From early morning, visitors line up at road side stalls for a breakfast of omelette sandwiches and momos and the hustle and bustle continues till late at night. While some of the Western crowd come here to relax, enjoy the panoramic views, and visit tea estates, others use Darjeeling as a stopover before or after their Kangchenjunga trek or to climb Sandakpu, the highest peak in the region.
On the Nepali side, except for devotees who come to Mai Pokhari and NGO workers on field visit, you hardly see any tourists around Ilam. Scruffy guesthouses litter the main street. Ilam bajar shuts down promptly after sunset, although a few restaurants remain open till 7pm.
"The government only cares about the Kathmandu, Chitwan, and Pokhara golden triangle. Outside of those three cities, it hasn't made much effort to promote tourism or build infrastructure," explains Dharma Gautam, a civil society activist.
There are no records of the number of people who visit every year and neither are there any information centres. Visitors either have to scour the internet for info or find their way around through word of mouth.
Darjeeling and Ilam are not much different in terms of geography: beautiful tea gardens, panoramic views of the Kanchenjunga range. In fact Ilam is cleaner and more peaceful than the Indian town. Migration over the years from western Nepal has led to a fusion of Tamang, Gurung, Lepcha, and Brahmin cultures and lifestyles. And the landscape stretching from the Tarai to the hills is home to many species of birds and animals including the red panda.
The entire district is connected by well-built roads and buses run regularly, although they tend to be overcrowded. The Sandakpu trek can be done from the Nepali side as well from Deurali.
The point is not to turn Ilam into another Pokhara. But there is money to be earned even through small-scale tourism. Home-stay programs offering local Ilami flavours can be an option. Agritourism can be another alternative where students and interested visitors can live on farms and experience the production process first-hand.
Mingma Sherpa who runs the well-known Hotel Chyangba along with her family (pic above) gets a steady stream of local customers during lunch. When we ask her what Ilam can do to attract more tourists, she replies matter-of-factly, "What tourists?"
The backbone of the district's economy and the bread earner for generations of Ilamis, the tea industry pales in comparison to Darjeeling. While the Darjeeling Tea brand is recognised around the globe, tea from Ilam only sells in the domestic market. People even travel all the way to India to see tea being processed in the estates. The tea industry in Ilam, on the other hand, has very little state support and is thriving mainly through the efforts of individual farmers and cooperatives.
Surya Khadka, manager of Suryodaya Organic Tea Industry Cooperative in Fikkal, says the farmers are trying to use more organic fertilisers to attract international buyers. But he adds that the lack of technical know-how is a problem. When a major bug infects the tea gardens, they have no experts to turn to and have to control the disease through trial and error. "The National Tea and Coffee Development Board has been of no help to us. The board does not even have a tea expert, it's ridiculous" he admits.
While Ilam excels at most development indicators, it has fallen behind on tourism which could inject more money into the local economy and lift living standards.
Green Ilam gets greener, BHRIKUTI RAI
Eastern Nepal's model township is on its way to becoming the country's first Green City