The ministry of the tourism of government of West Bengal is very proactive in developing tourism in the state. The ministry is trying to increase the number of tourist spots by 2 to 3 times in a few years. At the same time it has been enhancing the capacity to accommodate more tourists in its lodges. The ministry's target is to upgrade most of the tourist lodges to 3 star levels. In an exclusive interview with BE's Kishore Kumar Biswas, Goutam Deb, Minister in-Charge, Department of Tourism, West Bengal, touches upon various issues and development plans of his department.
Q. In what way is your tourism policy different from that of the previous government in establishing ‘Destination Bengal’?
A. The tourism industry is an employment intensive industry. This industry can be used for branding a state, to showcase it to other states and countries. Previously, it was not thought that way. The last budget allocation of the Left Front government in this sector was only Rs. 40 crore. But now Rs. 375 crore has been allocated. Additionally, tourism is being developed in an integrated way with some other departments, like the Public Works Department, Forest Development Corporation, etc. in developing infrastructure. Actually, it has been a priority area of the present government and the Chief Minister led us and monitors the progress. As a result, the number of tourist, domestic and foreign, has increased a lot. This has also been reflected in the central government's statistics.
Q. A section of tourists prefers to stay in government tourist lodges. But it is claimed that your accommodation capacity is inadequate. What is your expansion plan for more accommodation, particularly in some very attractive areas?
A. The government is working as a facilitator. We cannot accommodate all the tourists. Private players will have to take part in a bigger way. We are enhancing capacity, developing several new lodges in very attractive places. For example, the Darjeeling tourist lodge is going to be developed thoroughly, eco-friendly cottages will be constructed in Tiger Hill, a trekkers' hut will be made in Tonlong, Sandhaphu, Falu and other places. A new destination point in Kurseong and three spots in Kalimpong will be made shortly and at Delo there will be a very big project in a few years. Other projects in this area that will be developed in future. We have requested GTA (Gorkha Territorial Authority) to hand over nine places for tourism development. We hope some of them will be handed over to us. So there will be huge increase in capacity in the coming days. A lot of capacity addition has already been completed.
Among other places we are developing Murshidabad, Baharampur, Bishnupur, and Mukutmanipur. There is a proposal for making a ropeway in some places. There will be a very big tourist hub in Gajoldoba, 20 km from Siligudi. That will be in PPP mode.
Q. The general perception is that tourist bungalows are maintained very poorly. Any plan to address this grievance?
A. It is a common perception of a section of people as earlier the situation was not good. But now it has changed and is being changed. At present, we run 34 centres and 11 have been outsourced. We are gradually taking over many of the outsourced centres. We are thoroughly changing Gadiara, Malanchya, and Diamond Harbor tourist lodges.
Q. Trained manpower in tourist lodges including government tourist lodges is lacking in this state. What
can be done to address the problem?
A. This is why we have planned to start Tourism and Hotel Management as an academic course in colleges. In 10 to 15 colleges like in Siliguri, Moinaguri or deemed universities like Midnapur College where a curriculum on photography and hospitality has already been prepared. We, for the first time, have started a State Institute of Hotel Management in Durgapur. There is another short course of six months for 100 students per batch in this institute. Here students will come from different states through an all India joint entrance examination. We have also a plan for a second institute in Gajoldoba. We have plans for setting up centres for short courses on this subject in due course.
Actually, there have been a lot of untrained persons in this sector. They are the legacy of the previous regime. We like to replace them by offering VRS (voluntary retirement scheme) to them. But this is yet to be finalised. We are thinking of that. On the other hand the reemployment of experienced persons has been going on. But we promise to employ freshly trained per- sons in the government tourist lodges or centres in a big way.
Q. Package tour is attractive to many. But government initiatives are said to be low in this sector. Your comment?
A. Package tour system has already been started. In Sundarbans and Bishnupur, we have systems of package tours. We have package tour in Shantiniketan and Duars in north Bengal . In the coming Puja season, we are thinking of starting short package tours programmes. Additionally, we are going to have six houseboats shortly. The boats are like houseboats of Kerala. Tourists can stay on boats in Kolkata, Chandannagar and many other places of interest on the banks of the Bhagirathi River. Those boats are suitable for family ceremony and observing other similar ceremonies.
Q. The homestay system is increasingly being preferred. What are your plans here?
A. There have been about 100 private homestay centres. They are registered. There are six home stay centres of our own department. A new organisation, Tourism Boards with District Magistrate as the Chairman, in every district has been established. This has been approved by Chief Minister. This will monitor and control the homestay system in respective districts. But most of the homestays are in Darjeeling and Duars areas. We are trying to give a proper shape bringing all under a platform.
Q. What is your initiative to attract tourists from outside states and foreign countries?
A. We perform road shows in different places on a regular basis. This year we have planned to go to Berlin for the purpose. Last year I went Bangladesh as a part of our team to project Bengal there. In Delhi, Pune and Ahmedabad and many other places we participate in a tourism fare and in each of them the Bengal pavilion attracts the visitors a lot. We also participate in those tourism fares in Bengal, organised by the outside states. The government is regularly collaborating with those trade bodies who are opinion makers about tourism in foreign countries and other states.
Q. What is your way forward?
A. We are trying to build up the confidence of the people about destination Bengal. We have provided all time electricity connection in tourist spots with back up green electricity generators, safe drinking water. We will be able to provide Wi-Fi system even in the tourist centres in remote areas. Actually to provide all the necessary things one needs some time to make that happen.
Q. The government tourist lodges are considered to be expensive. What is your reply?
A. Considering the services we like to provide we are unable to give accommodation at low cost. One can stay in the second category, Yuba Awas where cost is low. One can choose Benfish also at a comparatively low cost. In our lodges, we have dormitories in many centres. These are comparatively low cost with similar facilities. Our target is to provide 3-star facility in all the lodges. So to provide low cost service to all is not possible.
Q. Your plan seems to be ambitious. How do you get the required funds to complete it?
A. The source of fund is not a problem. Surprisingly, our department is unable to spend all the allocated fund. This is because we perform our jobs by integrating many departments.