AAfter completing her Adventure Tourism course at Queenstown Resort College, New Zealand, Manisha Sharma was seized with the travel bug. She returned to Gangtok, Sikkimand founded Tag Along, a travel advice platform, in 2014. This job took her to new places and she remembers telling her adventures to her sister Bhavana Sharma, who was then working as a financial analyst.
During the same period, Manisha has also been part of government projects to make Sikkim a top tourist destination in India. She traveled from one village to another to help villagers set up homestays, which would attract more tourists to the state.
“During the trip, I saw Sikkim’s potential as a location for adventure tourism,” says Manisha, co-founder of Tag Along, who oversees the company’s operations. “Each village has its own specialties and we needed a way to show tourists these specialties.”
Bhavana listened to her sister’s many stories and decided to quit her company job and join her at Tag Along in 2018, although she was previously involved in the main activities. “In the last 5-6 years there has been a huge increase in the number of adventurous solo travelers in Sikkim. Before that, only families visited, mostly for honeymoons or package tours. Our idea was to cater to solo travelers,” adds Bhavana, co-founder and admin of Tag Along.
In 2016, considering their new goal of promoting sustainable tourism in the state, they launched a cycling expedition. They started in the village of Aritar in eastern Sikkim and ended in Gangtok, covering 32 hairpin bends in four days and providing food and lodging in the villages, giving travelers a chance to interact with local people. That cycles and gears were also provided by the team.
“We are not just a group of hotel/restaurant owners or travel planners. We combine the best of culture, nature, adventure, hospitality and leisure in the Himalayas in Sikkim,” says Manisha.
A backpacker hostel
Their cycling expeditions allowed the sisters to connect with the travelers on a deeper level. Recognizing the need for affordable accommodation, the duo founded Tag Along Backpackers, a hostel that allows travelers to stay at minimum rates of 700 to 800 rupees per night.
“There was a gap in Gangtok hostel tourism market. When we started there was only one hostel in the capital. Although it didn’t offer enough facilities. Since most solo travelers and adventure seekers rarely prefer luxury hotel rooms, we came up with a hostel under the parent company,” says Manisha.
Today there are two hostels and one restaurant under Tag Along operating in Gangtok.
Here they rely on sustainable measures, including the avoidance of single-use plastics. “We always buy large quantities, which are needed for both the hostel and the café, in order to reduce the huge amounts of plastic waste. Alternatively, the resulting plastic waste is sent for recycling. Guests are advised to abide by it sustainable practices‘ says Manisha.
In the high season, an average of 70 travelers per month come to the hostels. “As ‘work’ is a common phenomenon after lockdown, we have travelers all year round. Most of them stay in their rooms on weekdays and go exploring on weekends and evenings,” says Manisha.
Rely on sustainability
“While the surge in tourist numbers to Sikkim was a boon to enthusiasts like us, we knew the state’s pristine nature would be at risk. So we started promoting sustainable actions,” explains Bhavana.
Tag Along also preaches these sustainability hacks to the villagers who have now started their own successful host families. Malati Sudda and Govind Gurum are a couple running such a homestay called Mahimalaya Homestay in Kaluk Village. Govind says: “A team of young people, including Manisha, visited us in 2014 to discuss the possibility of setting up homestays. We are farmers and found the idea of generating an additional income through this company interesting.”
He adds: “We took their three-month course on ecotourism and sustainability and set up the homestay the same year. Now we get at least 50 tour groups as guests per year. This helps us to survive even if we suffer losses in agriculture.”
“The whole idea of starting an adventure tourism business in my home country has always been my dream. I am happy that we can also help the villagers with our business. We want Sikkim to become the most popular adventure tourism spot for travelers, mainly for cycling, just like Manali and Ladakh,” Manisha adds.
In 2019 Saran Rai, her childhood friend who worked in the food industry, joined as a partner. He takes care of the travel logistics and the company’s social media accounts. He also takes part in the bicycle expeditions, which have now been suspended due to the pandemic. “We’re all ready to relaunch it from November,” says Saran. “For cycling, we have fixed departure times and recommend travelers to cycle two to three months before their arrival so that the journey to altitude can be managed. But even those who feel fit and experienced can take part.”
He adds: “Our new hostel opened just before lockdown and is fully equipped to welcome travellers.”
“Unlike other travel companies, we don’t offer package deals to travelers. But guests need at least eight days to experience our setup. We are open to personalized travel experiences based on travelers’ needs and interests. We believe in getting to know the culture of a place better through travel than just visiting the crowded tourist spots,” says Manisha.
The trio say October to January and March to mid-June are the best times to visit Sikkim, although they’re open year-round.
Contact the Tag Along team for your next adventure here.
Edited by Yoshita Rao