KOLKATA, INDIA, February 1, 2006 (MALAYA) Your tea break was never so exotic.

Inspired by the success of whiskey and wine makers, Indian tea planters are turning parts of their verdant Assam and Darjeeling estates in the East of the country into luxury resorts.

Guests get to tour tea gardens and pluck tea leaves. Nature walks, trekking, rafting and golf are also on offer, punctuated, of course, by as much tea tasting as you like.

"We are creating a lifestyle product for companies and individuals," said Ranjit Barthakur, whose tea tourism promoting firm is in joint venture talks with Tata Tea among others, and who plans to develop 1,000 rooms in India’s northeast over the next 10 years.

Times are hard in the tea industry. Falling international prices, stiff global competition and labor troubles dog India’s major producers, so the new ventures need to be more than just a sideline.

"Tea tourism ... is an alternative revenue stream being explored by planters. The potential is very good," said B. Banerjee, chief of the state-run Tea Board.

Leading growers such as McLeod Russel, Tata Tea and the Birla family’s Jayashree Tea have high hopes for their efforts, after seeing successful parallels among champagne vineyards and distilleries elsewhere.

"Countries have their own tourism industry around these products. We are developing tourism around our tea gardens," said Jhum Jhum Shirali, spokeswoman for McLeod Russel, which is developing six estates in the northeastern state of Assam.

"The response is good and we are already booked through January," Shirali said.

Similar resorts are coming up in Assam, and in the eastern state of West Bengal, home to the famous Darjeeling tea gardens in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas.

Plantation buildings are often well-preserved relics of the colonial era. Sprawling wooden bungalows, large courtyards filled with colorful flowers, century-old trees and green lawns capture an old-world charm. Nestled deep in the verdant tea gardens, staff living quarters and bungalows are being turned into luxury apartments with modern amenities.

The resorts can be self-sufficient too, often with their own poultry, dairy, fishery, orchards and vegetable gardens.

Authorities in Assam and West Bengal are also encouraging private investors to turn defunct tea estates into tourist spots.

"We have found that there are tourists, both domestic and international, who are interested in visiting the tea gardens," West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee told reporters.

India’s government has set aside 100 million rupees to develop a tea-tourism infrastructure in West Bengal.

Planters could do with a boost.

India shares the world top spot for black tea production with China, but competition from producers like Sri Lanka and Kenya has taken its toll in exports.

In the year to March, Indian tea production fell 2.3 percent to 1.8 billion pounds. Exports fell too primarily due to weaker demand from traditional buyers like Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

If the chance to play the colonial planter is your cup of tea, be warned it will cost a fair bit more than your corner-cafe cuppa.

Plantations are targeting the wealthy end of the tourist market, charging about 20,000 rupees per night. – Reuters

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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