West Bengal wants to position itself as a tourist destination the way Rajasthan, Kerala, and Goa have. The Left-ruled state has earmarked Rs3.5 crore for advertising and public relations expenditure over 2007-08 towards achieving that goal.
The state’s new tourism policy is being drafted by audit firm Ernst & Young Global Ltd. G.D. Gautama, West Bengal’s principal secretary, said the report from the firm is due in June. That report, he added, would be used to completely overhaul the state’s tourism policy. Gautama said the overhaul and publicity campaign would propel West Bengal into the big league as far as tourist destinations are concerned. Executives at Ernst & Young could not be reached for comment.
The Rs3.5 crore that West Bengal plans to spend is quite small as compared to Rs10-15 crore that Kerala spends every year, but the amount is almost three times of what the state spent last year. Gautama claimed that although West Bengal attracted 17.37 million tourists from other parts of the country and one million foreign tourists in 2006, it hasn’t been able to capitalize on its potential. In number terms, the visitors to the state account for 3.8% of all domestic tourists in the country and 25% of foreign tourists visiting India. But it is unclear how the state has arrived at these numbers. Airports and railway stations do not keep track of the number of Indians disembarking and the purpose of their visit.
Gautama said West Bengal would restructure its tourism department. He explained that this would involve restructuring its website to offer online booking (he claimed none of the other state tourism departments did this), and build and offer holiday packages around themes such as handicraft and fairs, heritage, environment, tea gardens, villages and medical retreats. He added that around 12 tea gardens in North Bengal have come forward to convert a part of their property to enable tea tourism.
The state also plans to exploit the tourist potential of its riverine system. The Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority is in the process of cleaning up the Hoogly river, which flows through the eastern metropolis, under the Ganga Action Plan, a scheme to clean up the Ganges and its tributaries.
The tourism department is waiting for this to end to launch long-haul river cruises. Tourism in the active delta of Sunderbans, which West Bengal shares with Bangladesh, has remained a contentious issue, given its fragile ecological balance. Now, the Centre is likely to float a global tender to invite a professional consultant for studying possibilities for tourism in the delta.
“West Bengal desperately needs to be marketed better and have to focus on one of two aspects,” said Ranvir Bhandari, general manager, ITC Sonar Bangla, a five-star hotel. (Bhandari headed the sub-committee on tourism of industry lobby Confederation of Indian Industry’s eastern region in 2005-06.)
He added that the state could learn from Kerala’s publicity drive, which focused on Ayurveda and backwaters. Besides the backwaters and the tagline ‘God’s own country’, what worked for Kerala was its aggressive presence in international travel fairs, the synergy between the government and private sector (with the government adhering strictly to the role of a facilitator in the industry), and professionalism, said Sanjay Kaul, director, Kerala government’s department for tourism.