A rush of adrenaline: Despite COVID-19's adverse effects, paragliding in Sikkim to take off soon

A rush of adrenaline: Despite COVID-19's adverse effects, paragliding in Sikkim to take off soon
Photo Credit: Sikkim Paragliding Association, Facebook

After seven long months, Sikkim lifted its ban on the movement of tourists with stringent Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) by the state government to ensure the safety of tourists and locals. In the wake of the pandemic, the hardest hit was taken by the tourism sector. Atleast 15% of Sikkim’s population is directly or indirectly dependent tourism.

In a state like Sikkim where many from the general public rely on tourism activities as a primary source of income, the effect of the lockdown was severe. While concessions in loan repayment were provided by the central government as well as financial aid being provided by the state government, many heaved a sigh of relief as the ban was lifted at the beginning of October. 

Adventure tourism in Sikkim is well known and famous among locals and tourists alike. Paragliding and mountain biking is one of the most sought after activities after trekking and mountaineering. The last seven months, however, effectively rendered almost 400 households crippled, just in the paragliding department.

Currently, Sikkim has three main take-off arenas: Baliman Dara and Bulbulay Dara in East Sikkim and Chakung Durpinay Dara in the West. There are 38 trained pilots and has an established association called the Sikkim Paragliding Association (SPA). It was established to maintain the free functionality and flexibility of all paragliding companies.

Gangtok has a total of five independent paragliding companies and one in Pelling. The last flight undertaken was in the beginning of March and the earnings of these companies rapidly dwindled to zero as the year progressed. Despite reopening the state for tourism, commercial paragliding is not yet functional. 

Gopal Gautam, Joint-Secretary SPA speaks on the matter. "The coronavirus is still a threat to every individual. It’s the duty of the SPA to ensure the safety of the members and the tourists. In context to it, SPA has decided that first, all the pilots have to sit for a workshop in which they will learn about what measures is to be taken then only the commercial flights will begin.” He assures that all the rules under the SOPs will be followed strictly

The SPA has also come up with several decisions like:

  1. The pilot who takes off with the tourist, immediately after landing has to go back and self-isolate themselves.
  2. Wearing a proper mask and sanitizing at certain intervals of time is mandatory
  3. In case either party feels the onset of the symptoms for COVID-19, the affected has to run a test and isolate until the results are declared
  4. All tourists must carry an updated Travel Card and a COVID-19 Negative certificate

Commercial flights are likely to open for tourists from November 4, 2020, at the latest, Gautam informs. However, if one wishes to take a flight then they have to book it online 24 hours before and wait for their turn. The SPA has decided that all the companies of paragliding will work together, and only one flight area, Baliman Dara, will remain active and tentatively, only one flight a day will be permitted. Similar rules have been set for the West.

Raju Rai, the owner of Adventure Zone located near Banjgri falls, explains how the eight pilots employed by his company and other employees were saved by a provident fund wherein from every flight Rs 100 from the pilot and Rs 50 from the company was kept. According to him, this policy was implemented three years ago and proved itself to be a great help to sustain the employees during the lockdown. "The state government has given Rs 3 lakhs as a relief fund which is of great help but instead of giving the money individually, there was a unanimous decision to use this money to buy new equipment, so that the pilots and passengers have a safe flight." 

Sandeep*, General Secretary SPA added that in the past seven months, SPA ensured that every employee under their specific company gets paid at least a minimum amount of salary.

With the slow but steady stream of tourists returning to the state, there is now a glimmer of hope to all those affected in the adventure tourism sector that they may begin to row far and glide high, regarding the future with the same rush of adrenaline as these activities create.  

By Sherab Palden Bhutia. The author is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at paldenborges015@gmail.com.

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