For the last few years, conversations with my friend Elizeth, a Brazilian tea importer, have been entirely about India and her great desire to visit it. Last year, Elizeth and her husband, Gerard, finally set out on the long journey from Guarujá in Brazil to Kolkata, and onward to Darjeeling in West Bengal to see first-hand the hills whose teas have earned it such a reputation and a loyal following.
Darjeeling is a tea-lovers’ mecca, despite producing less than 1% of our total tea (about 1,300 million kilograms a year). Clearly, something lasting and memorable is less about volume than about quality.
This March, Elizeth returned to India in time for the first flush, or the very first plucking of the tea harvest season, in Darjeeling. Making Kolkata her base, she set out on several trips to tea towns and gardens. Throughout her trip, we exchanged messages, discussing places she should visit, people she should meet and teas she should try. On a tea stop at Margaret’s Deck in Kurseong, West Bengal, she called me. “It’s beautiful," she said. “I love your country."
It’s astounding what India offers a tea lover in terms of the sheer variety of tea, landscape and culture. It’s the world’s second-largest producer of tea, with each region offering a unique tea and an equally unique narrative. It’s the biggest market for its teas, with nearly 90% consumed within the country. But our mass market tea is not about the origin or the terroir, or the people who have toiled for it. Unlike China, the world’s largest producer, or Japan, which has a refined tea culture, it’s not about craft either. Much of the tea made and sold in India is driven by price. This has left the industry vulnerable to inflation and unviable prices.
If our tea gardens could showcase the sheer variety of tea we have access to—like wine—it could trigger change, setting the stage for domestic demand for better tea at fair prices. Done right, tea tourism could not only educate tea drinkers but boost the local economy, giving producers an opportunity to show customers the work that goes into growing and making tea, generate jobs and added income for their communities.
Countries such as China, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia have shown how tea tourism can transform village economies. China’s domestic market is an active participant in its tourism. In Japan, tours can include a tea butler to take care of guests’ tea. Taiwan has Slow Tea Tours. In Europe, Friesland tea is designated Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage, though tea is not grown there—an acknowledgement of its tea-drinking culture.
Tea planters, no matter the size and legacy of their gardens, unanimously agree that they urgently need tourism to enhance the appreciation for tea and get better prices. For, while the cost of production is rising, the price of tea is not.
A 28 April report in The Statesman quoted Indian Tea Association secretary general Arijit Raha as saying that in West Bengal, tea prices have grown at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of around 4% since 2014, while the cost of inputs (coal, gas, etc.) has grown at a CAGR of 9-12%. Auction prices have recorded a CAGR of only 1.86%. Wages increased from ₹95 on 1 April 2014 to ₹232 a day; workers also get in-kind benefits that are inflation-indexed. This, at a time when a centre like Darjeeling is actually seeing a big dip in production.
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So, the case for tea tourism cannot be denied. Yet, while some estates have been opening up their gardens and bungalows for luxury stays to supplement income, and home-stay programmes have begun in a small way, the forms and formats tea tourism can take is still a work in progress. Should the experience be about tea, the estate, the landscape, the people, or a bit of everything? So far, tea has largely been part of the overall hill experience, nothing more.
This could be the right time to push tea tourism, with more domestic travellers seeking new experiences within the country. India’s advantage is that tea fits into several itineraries, leisure and luxury, rural tourism, eco-tourism, adventure, culinary, even a meditative retreat.
A chai trail through India, then, could be a form of tea tourism. My own tea encounters in Bengaluru and Puducherry have been eclectic—from drinking kehwa with a homesick Kashmiri to listening to a young woman recall the year she spent in Morocco as she guided me through a Moroccan Mint tea, from a formal Japanese tea ceremony at the Buddha Maitreya temple in Bengaluru to sipping Chinese tea with a Dutch meditation practitioner on the Puducherry promenade.
THE BUNGALOW LIFE
Shobha Mohan of RARE India, a conscious travel company, points to how different our tea tours are from wine tours. “Tea is wedged into a holiday place," she says. “With most tea regions being in the hills, the weather and the views are the hooks, rarely the tea. Tea is a participant in the tourism that’s billed to the hills."
Over the last two decades, more estates have begun adding hospitality to the business by converting their colonial-era bungalows into the bungalow experience—also a way to preserve a piece of colonial-era history. Prices run across a wide spectrum (from ₹10,000-80,000 a night), depending on the place, the brand and the quality of hospitality. Most include all meals, tours and guides in this cost. Most are working estates, which add a tea tour and tasting to the package. Some offer a truly elevated tea experience but it’s also on us, as tourists, to seek out more. If nothing else, ask to try the various teas made.
One success story comes from Glenburn in Darjeeling, where tourism supported the creation of a tea brand. When the Prakash family acquired the estate in the late 1980s, hospitality was already on their mind. The younger Prakash couple, Anshuman and Husna-Tara, had spent a year in Kerala, running the family tea estate there. At Glenburn, they set out to explore tented accommodation by the river that flowed through the estate. When they shared the plans with Delhi-based designer Bronwyn Baillieu-Latif, whom they knew, she suggested that they start small, with the Burra Bungalow.
In late 2002, they restored four rooms, introducing Glenburn to travel agents in the UK. Guests began to arrive. Within four years, they had made it to the Tatler 101 Best Hotels of the World list. In 2008, they added another bungalow.
Tea greets guests right at the airport on arrival and stays centre stage to the estate and its story, in the walks and conversations with resident workers, in the meals (tea leaf pakora, anyone?) and even in the spa, as a Green Tea Oil massage followed by a Green Tea Bath Soak.
The hospitality experience at Glenburn has helped promote its tea brand; guests enjoy the tea, buy some to take home, and come back for more. Today, they host 2,000-3,000 guests a year, at ₹45,000 a night for two persons on twin-sharing basis or ₹28,000 for single occupancy. “If we didn’t have the hotel, we wouldn’t survive," says Husna-Tara.
BEYOND THE COLONIAL EXPERIENCE
Tea’s story is not only about its colonial past. Assam, for instance, has far older stories of tribes who have been drinking tea and newer ones of small farmers creating new kinds of tea. Textile artist Julie Kagti grew up on a tea estate in Assam and now offers bespoke tours to the North-East via her company, Curtain Call Adventures (curtaincalladventures.com). Kagti says tea can draw in tourists, enabling them to get to know the locals and go beyond “spectator tourism".
She focuses on rural tourism, keen that her guests spend the day with local communities and see how they live. She speaks of the Tai Singpho and Tai Phake tribes, who were drinking tea long before the British came, of weaving communities, of monasteries, of wildlife, of afternoon teas with cake as well as the Assamese jolpan (a spread that includes pounded rice, buffalo curd, palm jaggery, mutton curry and tea), which she includes in her tours. Tourists need to get involved, she says, and tea estate owners need to understand that they need to offer the right experience—and that’s not just about having a hotel on the property.
“The rose-tinted view of colonialism needs to be revisited, not rejected," says Rudra Chatterjee of Luxmi Estates, which includes the Makaibari Tea Estate in Darjeeling. Makaibari not only has luxury accommodation at the Taj Chia Kutir Resort & Spa and the Makaibari Bungalow but also a home-stay programme offered by those who live and work there.
Started by the estate’s former owner, Rajah Banerjee, in 1998, this illustrates how revenue generation can be inclusive. The estate has 25 home-stays, run by plantation workers on the estate, that are popular with volunteers, trekkers and those seeking a local experience. The programme is managed by a self-help group on the estate. Priced at ₹1,500 a night, with breakfast, lunch and dinner included, it is about another side of estate life.
Banerjee, who now works with the small tea growers in the region, continues to promote rural tourism, offering a seven-day Darjeeling tour with “tea being the icing on the cake". His company, Rimpocha Tea, works with around 50 home-stays in the villages in Darjeeling; the cost of stay works out to ₹3,000 a night, meals included.
In Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, Wah Tea Estate’s fourth-generation planter, Surya Prakash, says the estate wouldn’t survive without tourism. “We need people to come here and see what Kangra has to offer, spend time in the gardens and be introduced to Kangra’s tea." Guests here are largely from within the country, giving them an opportunity to introduce Indian tea drinkers to Kangra’s tea.
Kangra tea shares a legacy as old as Darjeeling and at one point was as famous. The gardens boast of the original chinary variety of tea, which makes a light flavourful cup, with its green tea being truly famous. But while the revival of Kangra tea has gained momentum with a new generation of planters, tea tourism in Himachal Pradesh is hobbled by the state government’s Land Ceiling Act of the 1970s. For, though tea estates managed to get an exemption, it was on condition that they would not build further on the estates.
It was in 2019 that Surya Prakash and his wife, Upasana, chose to leave Kolkata for Palampur, in Kangra district, to become resident, not remote, planters—unusual in that most estate owners still don’t live on the estates, relying on teams to manage them. They renovated a house that came with the estate but was across the road from it. They also decided to open it to guests as a home-stay. The Lodge at Wah, upgraded to its current state with local materials and by local craftsmen, has six rooms. It’s different from the colonial bungalow experience and tells a uniquely Kangra tea story. “Bungalow culture is not there but we have our own culture, our food… Kangri dham (traditional Kangra meal), the greenery, the mountains…," says Surya Prakash.
While the Kangra valley has about 2,000 hectares under tea, Kangra’s misfortune was a devastating earthquake in 1905 that nearly ended tea cultivation. The British left. A new generation of planters are now seeking ways to promote the region, its culture and its community via tea, beginning with petitioning the state government for a tea tourism policy. They are looking to promote Kangra estates to urban travellers as relaxing destinations set against the magnificent Dhauladhar mountains, with a deeply spiritual vibe emphasised by the presence of the Dalai Lama in nearby McLeod Ganj, and with adventure tourism as an added attraction in Bir.
In Assam, the Jokai Fearless Tea company is experimenting with a new format of tea tours, partnering with chef Thomas Zacharias’ Chef On The Road tour. In April, he took a group of 12 to the Jokai estate to show guests that there is, one, more than just languid beauty to a tea estate and two, to champion local food. About 150 people applied for the tour. The packed three-and-a-half days included visits to multiple tea gardens and the local market, learning about tea, eating traditional food and drinking local beers. Tea was the focus but there was so much more, including a cocktail hour. Zacharias describes it as “a lived experience".
On the last day, the group was split into two and given a challenge: to create a tea blend that would be judged on creativity, taste and balance. “The teas they put out were cleverly thought of, nuanced, balanced and restrained," says Zacharias, adding that this would not have been the result on Day 1. Within three days, perceptions and understanding had begun to shift.
Zacharias reads out messages he has received since from the guests, about how their taste in tea has changed. The hook for the tour wasn’t tea but it managed to match tea drinkers with tea producers.
“This experience really opened my eyes to the potential for tea tourism in tea estates if done with a specific vision," says Aditya Shah of Jokai. “Our intent has always been to shine a spotlight on the grower community, which is why we jumped at the opportunity to do chef Thomas’ first-ever travel experience. As tea growers, our first responsibility is to our growing community in our tea gardens and we want to share the stories, processes and industry that goes behind making the daily cup of tea possible."
West Bengal and Assam, major tea producers, now include tea tourism in their tourism plans. The West Bengal government allows estates to earmark up to 15% for tourism (up to a maximum of 150 acres). Early this year, the state government received 12 tourism-related proposals from estates in Darjeeling, Terai and the Dooars. Assam’s draft tourism policy sets aside ₹100 crore for tourist infrastructure in 50 estates with bungalows, located near the tourist circuit.
Like Assam, the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu have a large population of small tea growers who farm on holdings under 25 acres. Prabhu Nanjan, a small tea farmer from Pororai Hutty, near Coonoor, talks about the need to develop farm stays that will help distribute tourists while offering a more memorable experience.
“We welcome people," emphasises Chatterjee, reiterating the position of most estates. “The lifestyle of workers will improve when people know about it. It will help (promote) tea. Estates are inaccessible and having a place to stay brings people. It will create a brand for individual tea estates."
THINGS TO DO AND SEE ON YOUR TEA TRAVELS
A bit of history
Darjeeling’s tea history is over 170 years old. It has a little bit of everything—beautiful views, a vibrant local community, and some of the world’s finest tea. Head to the Dooars in the sub-Himalayan foothills in West Bengal, the doorway to Bhutan, which is not on the tea traveller’s map. Darjeeling Walks (darjeelingwalks. in) has a few itineraries set here, including a Sadri Bhasha trail, based on the tribal language in these parts. For a tea-focused experience, head to the Nuxalbari Tea Estate run by Sonia Jabbar. Check if you can sign up for their three-day tea course before you go.
Shop for tea: Stop at Nathmulls in Darjeeling town for the season’s latest. Also, shop for tea made by small growers at Rimpocha.
Chase cherry blossoms
Sikkim’s Temi Tea Estate, located in Ravangla, Namchi district, has spectacular views of the Himalaya. It hosts an annual carnival in autumn to mark the end of the year’s tea harvest, which coincides with the onset of the cherry blossom season. The carnival was planned to offset revenue losses from closing the tea garden in winter. Take walks, sip tea, enjoy the cherry blossoms and the views.
Shop for tea: Try from their selection of black, white, green and oolong teas.
Go to the source
Assam is the world’s largest tea-producing region, with a 200-year tea industry. Dibrugarh is tea heartland but be sure to visit Margherita in Tinsukia, home to the Singpho tribe, who played an important role in India’s tea history. The Singpho introduced the British East India Company to tea species native to these parts, setting off the chain of events that led to the creation of “Assam tea". Rajesh Singpho, a member of the community, says they are now setting up home-stays, like the Asomi Singpho Homestay, to balance tea and community.
Shop for tea: Single-estate CTC, green teas, and traditional teas like ‘dheki’ and ‘falap’.
Golfing in the estates
The first golf course outside England came up in Assam in 1876, in Jorhat. Today, Assam has 21 golf courses, most of them inside or near tea estates. Sidheswar Kumar Mishra of Assam Tours & Travels (assamtours.in) offers a variety of tea itineraries, including one that combines a game of golf with a tea tour. Not only are the views phenomenal, he says, but green fees and caddy fees are lower than anywhere else in India.
Plan your own trail
A stay at a tea estate like Mango Range (sinnadorai.com/mangorange) or Tranquilitea (tranquilitea.in) in the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu will make a tea tour more accessible since your hosts will plan it. You can take long walks within the estate, visit a tea factory or have a tea tasting. Tranquilitea hosts two tea-tasting sessions daily that introduce guests to speciality teas. Their hospitality properties are all tea-related, their Clubhouse being a converted tea warehouse. Mango Range also arranges trips to the Mudumalai forest, with a picnic hamper. While in these hills, include a visit to the Jail Museum in Naduvattom, near Gudalur, where Chinese prisoners of war were once imprisoned.
Shop for tea: Single-estate CTC and whole-leaf tea.
Aravinda Anantharaman is a Bengaluru-based tea blogger and writer who reports on the tea industry. @AravindaAnanth1 on Twitter.
- FIRST PUBLISHED26.05.2023 | 06:04 PM IST