Hill station

Hill stations are a form of colonial and tropical adaptation of the climatic holiday resorts popular in Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. Hill stations are tourist resorts at higher elevation, originally built from the ground up in the highlands of the British Indian Empire (Ooty, 1818; Mussoorie, 1820; Shimla, 1825; Darjeeling, 1834). They served as a model for other European colonial settlements primarily in Asia (Spencer and Thomas, 1948; Robinson, 1972; Jennings, 2009; Villemagne, 2009; Demay, 2011; Peyvel, 2016) and secondarily in Africa and Brazil. They embody a particular time in the history of the development of tourist locations around the world and a novel type of resort due to their location, spatial establishment and colonial history. The tourism dimension of these places for treatment and rest for colonists and their families further developed during the 19th century to become, after independence and especially after the 1980s, privileged places for domestic tourism in the countries concerned, while remaining largely unknown in international tourism.

The earliest hill stations were built between 1820 and 1840 by British colonial administrators, military officials and doctors in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas and in the highlands of the Western Ghats. Founded on a quest in the tropics for healthier climatic conditions than in the plains, such summer resorts at higher elevation revived an ancient tradition of the Muslim rulers of Kashmir (Landy, 1993).

From a health and military function to tourism

They also came about as a colonial innovation. A few decades before the first sanatoriums opened in the Alps to treat tuberculosis (Reichler, 2004; Vaj, 2005), they were built from the ground up to accommodate wounded soldiers and patients with malaria and cholera.

In addition to this focus on health were more strategic aims, such as monitoring the borders of the emerging Empire and controlling the tribal regions. This is evidenced by their location on ridgelines at an elevation of around 2,000 metres, and by systematically linking military stations with sanatoriums.

Once their security was assured following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, hill stations gradually became places for recreation  rather than health; the cooler temperatures drew people from the colonies looking to escape the heat of the plains and enjoy themselves in society. At higher elevation, Europeans found a temperate environment, which they redesigned to make ‘a home away from home’ (Kennedy, 1996).

Their villas, amidst tea plantations and fruit tree orchards, introduced by the colonists, were built as chalets, cottages and small manors reminiscent of Switzerland or England. Their facilities (clubs, theatres, golf courses and racecourses) and leisure activities (balls, games, performances, hunting parties, picnics, canoeing on the lakes and excursions to nearby natural sites or to ethnic minority villages) were on par with European seaside resorts. Mussoorie was referred to as the Ramsgate of the Himalayas and Shimla was often compared to Brighton (ibid).

In the second half of the 19th century, they grew in popularity with the opening of hotels and boarding houses for less affluent colonists and tourists from France, who took advantage of the opening of the Suez Canal and the extension of the railway network to visit the colonies in large numbers.

Another special feature of hill stations was the early addition of administrative and educational functions to the tourism function. A number of boarding schools to train future colonial elites were opened (Kanwar 1984, Kennedy 1996). The economic and political elites of independent India continue to send their children there today. Many administrative services were also relocated there around that time. Provincial government officials based in the cities stayed there in the summer during the monsoon season, resulting in a seasonal and spatial duplication of colonial power. Shimla was even declared the summer capital of the British empire in 1903 (Kanwar, 1984). A similar kind of political centrality can be observed in Java for Bogor, the summer capital of the Dutch East Indies government.

Finally, hill stations were places of agronomic experimentation (e.g., tea, quinine), fruit and vegetable acclimation (strawberries and artichokes from Dalat) and horticulture development, which is today one of the major tourist attractions in Dalat (e.g., greenhouse tours, an annual flower festival).

A tropical and colonial variation of the mountain resort

Hill stations are defined as real stations, i.e. places built from the ground up by and for tourists with recreation in mind. They have every feature — landscaped promenades, hotels, leisure facilities, parks and gardens.

However, there are morphological specificities linked to the colonial context and mountainous location in sparsely populated forest regions, which guides their spatial organisation; sanatoriums and observatories were built on the highest hills. These high points are connected by ridgelines, the slopes of which were the location of the first villas and hotels built. They offer a wide panorama on both sides, further enhanced by the construction of a promenade. A road with a utilitarian function serves the lower part of the station, allowing visitors and goods to be transported (Ill. 1).

Ill. 1. The hill station model (design and production: Isabelle Sacareau, 2017)

Finally, when the topography permits, a playing field and military parade grounds complete the layout. Villas are scattered amongst vast wooded properties on both sides of the ridges and slopes (Ill. 2).

Ill. 2. Mussoorie station (Uttarakhand State, India; photo by Isabelle Sacareau, 2003)

The hill station model, initially conceived in India, spread throughout the British Empire (Nuwara Eliya, Ceylan; Penang Hill and Cameron Hill, Malaysia) and later to other colonial empires. The French created Dalat in 1900 on the Lâm Viên Plateau at an elevation of 1,500 metres, as well as Sa Pa and Tam Dao in the ‘Tonkinese Alps’. In Africa, the French founded Labbé in Fouta Djalon and Antsirabé, nicknamed Vichy malgache (the Malagasy Vichy) in Madagascar, followed by the Germans in the late 19th century in Dschang on the Bamiléké Plateau and in Buéa at 1,000 metres on the slopes of Mount Cameroon. Americans founded the prestigious Baguio resort in the Philippines in 1903 at 1,500-metre elevation, just north of the island of Luzon.

In Japan, the presence of British and American residents promoted the development of Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture from the late 1880s. The same was true for Moganshan, north of Hangzhou, in China. In Latin America, a similar movement was observed early on in Brazil after independence, with the creation in 1834 by imperial decree of Petrópolis, a station located at an elevation of around 1,000 metres, 60 kilometres from Rio de Janeiro, which was to be the summer residence of Emperor Dom Pedro II. Starting in 1944, the station was home to one of the largest and most luxurious hotel and casinos in America, Palàcio Quitandinha, which was later sold as flats and served as the last place of residence of the writer Stefan Zweig.

The highlights of contemporary domestic tourism

While some of these stations declined through the wars for independence and the subsequent conflict and economic hardship, most eventually became hubs for domestic tourism, particularly in India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. The political and economic elites of the newly independent states never stopped going, making the former colonial villas their second homes and continuing to send their children to boarding schools.

But it was after the 1980s that their popularity really took off with the rise of domestic tourism driven by the emergence of the middle classes, eager for leisure activities (Sacareau, 2011). The middle class made hill stations their favourite destinations, visited usually in summer during the rainy season (Ill. 3). For domestic tourists, they constitute a major difference by comparison, due to the cooler weather, vegetation and exotic architecture. Domestic tourists — who number in the hundreds of thousands and even millions — largely overtake international tourists, who are much fewer and most often limited to nostalgia tourism among descendants of former colonists (six million Vietnamese tourists visited Dalat in 2018 compared to 485,000 international tourists; approximately six million Indian tourists visited Darjeeling compared to only 30,000 international tourists!).

Ill.3. Indian tourists in Mussoorie (photo by Isabelle Sacareau, 2003)

For Indian tourists who cannot afford to travel to Europe, Himalayan hill stations are a kind of substitute Switzerland, frequently used as a backdrop for many highly popular films produced by Bollywood. These films have put such landscapes into the popular imagination of tourism and play a definite role in popularising Himalayan destinations among young honeymooners.

This type of travel is one of the main reasons for tourist travel to hill stations. ‘Unafraid of driving two days for a single holiday, one sets off piled into a car or coach, for walks through green meadows, tea plantations and forests, for canoeing on a lake, picnics (very popular in India) or a romantic honeymoon, without fearing the bustling crowds in peak season, and without being overly concerned about the serious degradation of the location (water pollution) linked to infrastructure that is no longer suited to its use. These are the filming locations for sentimental musicals produced in “Bollywood” (Bombay) or Madras. And what better advertisement for a resort than to see it on the big screen, as the backdrop to a musical scene of a lover’s game of hide and seek?’ (Landy, 1993: p. 99). The same can be said of Dalat, the ‘honeymoon paradise’, ‘city of flowers’ and destination of choice for honeymooners in Vietnam.

The growth of tourism has been a powerful factor in the transformation of hill stations, contributing to their population growth and making them increasingly urban. Some have had their administrative functions reinforced by becoming state or regional capitals and academic centres (Shimla, Dalat). They are capable of polarising peripheral areas and spreading tourism and its urbanity. They therefore illustrate one of the potential evolutions of tourist locations, namely the shift from resort to tourist city and the role of tourism in the early establishment of these mountain territories in globalisation.

Isabelle Sacareau


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