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Tea Tourism: much more than the beautiful tea gardens of Darjeeling

Today’s Traveller is in conversation with Bala Sarda, Founder, Vahdam Teas, Darjeeling, who speaks about the scope of Tea Tourism in India and about the various initiatives that ensure tea tourism gets a boost and provide better returns for the tea planters.

Bala Sarda - Promoting Tea Tourism
Bala Sarda – Promoting Tea Tourism

Darjeeling has always been known to travellers for its beautiful old-world charm, the historic toy train and its British heritage. However, what remains under-explored are the town’s vast stretches of tea gardens, meandering through Darjeeling like colours splattered on a canvas.

It’s something of a unique experience, and an enlivening one, to wake up in the beautiful plantation bungalows amidst the constant fold of Nature in its full glory.

Q. What are your earliest memories of travelling and exploring the world?

Bala Sarda: My earliest memories of holidays are travelling to tea estates in Darjeeling and staying at the Manager’s bungalow, waking up to the fresh aroma of tea leaves around and mist in the air.

Q. How do you see Tea Tourism evolve over the years in Darjeeling and what steps do you suggest so that more visitors come to the area for this purpose?

Bala Sarda: In the British era, Darjeeling was one of the favourite summer retreats for the officers. With a quaint colonial charm and endless green stretches of lush tea plantations, Darjeeling has a great reputation of being a fantastic tourist destination.
In the last few decades, an increasing number of tea estates have opened their palatial manager bungalows as homestays. It is undoubtedly a prized experience waking up in a picturesque, sprawling tea plantation.

You can start your day with the finest and freshest cup of tea, take a walk through the garden and learn more about the art of plucking tea leaves and how it is processed further. Nowadays, estates have also started to add varied experiences like nature trails, horse riding, a local visit, a cultural evening, amongst other things. India is blessed with some fascinating tea gardens and the only suggestion I can offer is that the Tea Board and our Tourism Department at the Centre can put in more efforts to promote and speak of Tea Tourism in a new light.

Let’s promote and advertise Tea Tourism the way we promote our monuments, our history, our food! The state governments can also invest in more subsidised accommodation for tourists as not everyone can afford a luxury stay in the tea estates. In addition to this, we need more options for connectivity with dedicated buses, advanced open deck cable cars for fascinating aerial views, dedicated rail tours to plantations etc.

 Promoting Tea Tourism  - tea estates/plantations
Promoting Tea Tourism

Today’s Traveller: Which are the top 5 tea estates in Darjeeling that are known for Tea Tourism?

Bala Sarda :

Glenburn Tea Estate: This is a personal favourite with the elevation ranging from 800 ft. to 32,000 ft. The plantation is blessed with two lively rivers and a forest as well. The views are breathtaking and the bungalow offers a luxury stay! Will and Faye, the hosts, are well-known for their warm hospitality.

Makaibari Tea Estate & Homestay: Run and managed by the genius of a man, Rajah Banerjee, Makaibari Tea Estate has a prized reputation in heritage teas and also offers a very comfortable, mid-range accommodation in stone cottages with a friendly staff at your service.

These are two absolute favourites, but you can also enjoy a great stay at Goomtee Tea Estate & Retreat, Selim Hill Tea Estate & Retreat, and Ging Tea House in Darjeeling.

Today’s Traveller: What prompted you to start this venture? Tell us a bit about the legacy you have inherited.

Bala Sarda : I am the 4th generation Tea entrepreneur in my family and have a legacy of more than 80 years in the Indian Tea Industry. With my forefathers being pioneers in the Indian Tea Industry, my family has been in the business of bulk tea export. Whilst being in college, I had established two successful ventures.

But after graduation, I wanted to give some serious thought to what I wanted to do in my life. This led me to spend a few months in solitude at my family’s residence in Darjeeling. Having been surrounded by the fascinating ‘World of Tea’ since a young age, I spent some time in my family’s bulk export business.

This gave me the prized opportunity to learn more about our Tea Industry, the art of cultivating tea, and the nitty-gritty of the supply chain. While doing so, I found some major loopholes in our traditional supply chain of tea.

One of the major loopholes that I came across was – the absence of a home-grown brand, resulting in no real value
addition back here in India. Since the Indian Tea Industry is forced to depend on major exports to foreign brands, they do not hesitate to shift to inferior quality teas from elsewhere as and when farmers back here demand a deserving price.

This is done to earn price points and hefty profits, leaving meagre wages and an uncertain future for the tea planters here in India. This is where Vahdam Teas brings the difference to the lives of the tea planters. In Vahdam’s supply chain, there is no
involvement of unnecessary middlemen and it makes garden fresh tea available to the customers in the least possible time.

Not only does this help in retaining profits in the region where these divine teas are grown and nurtured by the planters, but also strengthens the industry itself.

Today’s Traveller: Tell us about the TEAch Me initiative and the idea behind this endeavour.

Bala Sarda: At a micro-level, we wanted to work on two core areas – ‘Education’ and ‘Health’. Under our first social initiative, TEAch Me, 1 per cent of our revenue is directed towards funding the education of our tea planters’ children.

Under the first chapter of this initiative, we have covered 64 children at a small tea estate in Darjeeling. TEAch Me is designed with a proper structure of monitoring the impact of the programme and to empower the children with allied vocational courses on reproductive health, hygiene, family planning, banking etc. We are in the midst of replicating the initiative across a few other tea estates in India too.

Today’s Traveller: To promote tea tourism, how do you create a difference with your tea facilities?

Bala Sarda: Vahdam Teas are shipped to over 90+ countries across the globe and have shipped over 100 million+ cups. The key markets for us are India, the USA and Europe. All our teas are procured directly from plantations and tea planters within hours of harvest, they are packaged garden fresh at our state-of-the-art tea facility in Delhi, and then shipped directly to our own fulfilment centres in various parts of the world.

Also, along with a ‘Date of Packaging’, most of our teas come with a ‘Date of Picking/Harvest’ which is a true indicator of a tea’s origin and freshness.

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