Kokila Dhakal Ilam, Dec. 3: The tourism sector in the district, which had come to a grinding halt following the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, is finally beginning to gather some pace much to the relief of the local hoteliers, and a slew of businesses relying on visitors. Regardless of the growing contagion of COVID-19, domestic tourists are now flocking to Ilam's major tourist destinations. While the district’s quintessential attractions such as Kanyam, Sandakpur, Maipokhari, and Antu are already famous among tourists, lesser-known Panitar is also gradually etching its name as one of Ilam’s prominent highlights. Despite having pani, or water in its name, Panitar’s allure is its several tea gardens perched on the gentle hill slopes that stretch endlessly along the tea estate. Just west of the Ilam headquarter, Panitar is located at Deumai Municipality, a few kilometres east of Mangalbare Bazaar. Diverging off the blacktopped Ilam-Mangalbare road, and descending about one kilometer along the unpaved road from Gagre Bhanjyang, will land visitors at Panitar. With lifting of the lockdown measures, there has been a surge in the number of people flocking to Panitar, said chairman of the Panitar Tourism Development Committee, Pasang Sherpa. Apart from attracting local visitors, the destination has also become a shooting spot for music videos and feature films. After shooting his film, Krishna Leela, at Panitar, president of Nepal Filmmakers Association, Province No.1 Kewal Tamang likes to call Panitar a natural studio. “The Province 1 government is preparing a plan for a film hub, and is now eyeing to recognise Panitar as a natural studio under the plan,” said Tamang. Despite lending majestic views of the Kanchenjunga and Kumbhakarna mountain ranges, the beautiful sceneries stretching from Ilam to Jhapa and Panchthar, as well as stunning views of sun rises, Panitar, until now, remained under the radar of visitors, explained Netra Prasad Pokhrel, who has come to explore the tea estate. Even the local level government has failed to appreciate its true potential. While the Deumai Municipality has a handful of excursionist sights, such as Ajambare hill, Ratna Gufa, Gajurmukhi Dham, and Siddhithumka, majority of its places are remote and inaccessible. As a result, the priority so far has been accorded to road construction, informed spokesperson of the municipality Dawa Tamang. “Hidden treasures like Panitar have gone unnoticed for so long because of a lack of proper infrastructure and promotion campaigns,” admitted Tamang. Spread across almost 1500 ropanis of land, including the government, institutional and private spaces, Panitar’s highlight is undoubtedly its tea plantations. Apart from that, however, there are only a few shops and stalls selling tea and snacks for weary travellers and a homestay with a capacity of housing up to 30 to 35 guests, as per chairperson Sherpa. Moreover, construction of a blacktopped road has started along the 62-km unpaved path connecting Mangalbare to Panitar, which would make Panitar much more accessible. With the location finally attracting attention and infrastructures slowly falling into place, Panitar will be a commercial tourist hub with equal efforts at the local, state and federal governments, shared Sherpa. “The state and federal governments should also show interest in putting the underrated Panitar on the map,” concluded Sherpa.