The infinite potential of tourism
The world of tourism is very different from that of the Agriculture Department. There is so much more zest, enthusiasm, and cheer in the deliberations. Everyone looks prosperous and discussions take place in charmed atmospheres. Of course, there’s reference to ‘ethnic’ food and organic food production and traditional cooking. However, this world is perhaps as real as the world of agriculture. There’s a lot of money in this sector with serious potential for further growth. We were told, for example, that tourist arrivals in India are rising by over 7% per year, which is higher than the global average of approximately 4%.
Yours truly was attending the Great India Tourism Bazar (GITB) at Jaipur between April 17 and 19, where West Bengal was one of the partner states. The essential focus was on Rajasthan, which, of course, has done very well in this sector. Its proximity to Delhi, the presence of historical/heritage palaces, forts and Havelis, an excellent transport network to all major tourism destinations and the priority given to this sector have allowed Rajasthan to do very well. In fact, the Chief Minister often holds the tourism portfolio.
One of the important points made by the Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje was that while heritage was fine, there had to be matching facilities to suit every temperament and pocket. One needed rooms, tents and dorms for backpackers, cyclists and adventure types as also Maharaja suites and personal valets for those who could afford the luxury, plus of course, hundreds, if not thousands of rooms for young professionals and senior citizens. Moreover, whatever the PR brochures and ad films may say, if the product is not ‘extremely satisfying’, the tourist will make his/her feelings heard on social media, which today has far greater credibility than paid announcements in newspapers.
Again, every city and state which is competing for the attention of tourists--both in terms of the visit and the duration of the stay--needs to showcase something more than buildings and architectural marvels. There has to be a ‘live component’- ranging from innovative activities like a heritage walk, pub crawl, a gourmet experience, lit fest or a musical soiree, which gets identified with the place. I believe that Kolkata has it all. But we have to leverage this better! From lit fests to the Dover Lane Music Conference, the Film Festival, the theatre festivals, the Jatras and of course the iconic Pujas –except, perhaps for the sultry monsoon period–there is the great potential that needs to be showcased to one and all.
In fact, in the first instance, we need to share what’s already happening on the ground in West Bengal, and which has not been reported as it is still ‘work in progress’ in some of the lesser-known, but equally fascinating destinations of the state. Take, for example, the conservation and upgrading of the ‘historic core’ of Serampore, which in the late eighteenth century was a thriving Danish settlement. It is now being restored in association with the National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet) together with The Heritage Commission of West Bengal, district Administration of Hooghly, the INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), and of course the Tourism Department. In the first instance, this involves the restoration of the St Olav’s church by the Nationalmuseet in co-operation with the Bishop of Kolkata and the Diocese of Kolkata and the famous Serampore (Theological) College with funding from the Danish Ministry of Culture and the Realdania Foundation. The structure will be used for local church congregations, as well as social work among the underprivileged groups in the local area. In addition, a museum is coming up in the historic Government House under the auspices of the West Bengal Heritage Commission. The permanent exhibition shall tell Serampore’s history in a research-based, as well as visually appealing manner. Housed in the office of the sub-divisional information and cultural affairs officer, it will also have a public reading room, seminar hall, and a small library.
Together with INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) the Tourism Department and the district administration propose to renovate and run ‘Denmark Tavern’, an affordable coffee shop with local and Danish cuisine. This building is located at Serampore’s riverfront and was established in the 1780s. It went into disuse after the Danes lost their ‘control’ over Serampore. For the last few decades, it has been used as a ‘barrack’ by the local cops. The change will be quite transformational. No wonder, it is said that tourism has infinite potential, not just for livelihoods, but even for injecting vigour and life to neglected monuments.
(Sanjeev Chopra is a senior civil servant in West Bengal, who is holding additional charge of the Tourism Department, apart from his regular posting as the Additional Chief Secretary of Agriculture, West Bengal. Views expressed are strictly personal)