The Tourism Department of West Bengal has taken up the mega task of renovating many of its tourist accommodations and is also looking to implement new programmes. It has been trying to attract national and international tourists.
In an exclusive interview with BE’s Kishore Kumar Biswas, Goutam Deb, Minister-In-Charge, Department of Tourism, Government of West Bengal, points out how his department is pushing the boundaries for tourism in the state and emerging as a financially self-sufficient department.
Q. You are going to start the Bengal Tourism Festival – North Bengal 2019. It is the first-of-its-kind in the state. Please tell us what it is about.
A. This festival will start from November 17 and end on December 22 this year. It is a weekend tour programme. In this one and a half month, the programme will start every Friday and end at noon of the corresponding Sunday.
For each weekend, we will be covering a tourist location. Six places have been selected in north Bengal. It will start from Sittong in Darjeeling. In the next weekend, Mansong in Kalimpong district will be covered. Next it will be organised at Rajabhatkhwa in Alipurduar district. It will then be organised at Gajoldoba and then at Matiyali, both in the Jalpaiguri district. The last programme will be at Kaldighi in South Dinajpur district.
Q. Why did you go for such an initiative?
A. The purpose was to introduce interested people to important places in north Bengal and to expose them to the special cultural aspects of those places like dance, music and food. Tourists can enjoy trekking, visits to bird sanctuaries, go for jungle safaris, elephant rides and enjoy cycling and fishing.
A tourist can choose any place from the earlier mentioned venues in our programme according to his/her convenience. Our department will arrange for pick-ups and transport them to the venue. Visitors will be lodged at well-made camps or in nearby homestays. We will arrange for everything including fooding for the three days of this tour. After the programme, visitors will be dropped at convenient locations that will enable them travel back.
Q. What will be the individual cost of this visit? Will the middle class be able to afford it?
A. We are working on the pricing for this project. It is yet to be decided. But it will not be very high and we are keeping the middle class in mind.
Q. Development of a heritage tourism circuit and a historical tourism circuit are also being planned by your department. What are you going to do?
A. This programme is related to those monuments in our state which are not undertaken by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Historical monuments like the Cooch Behar Palace, Hazarduari and the terracotta temples of Bishnupur among others are maintained by the ASI.
We are developing physical infrastructure around those monuments. But there are many historical monuments which have not been undertaken by ASI. Our plan is to develop these monuments and make them more attractive to tourists. We will talk to the owners of those properties and develop them in a Public Private Partnership (PPP) model. In this case, the owners of the property may also come and share a portion for development of these monuments. In Rajasthan, this model has become highly successful. Many cities have been built around palaces and other monuments. We will follow that in a smaller scale.
Q. You are planning to upgrade a lot of government tourist lodges to three star levels. But won’t these be too costly for middle class tourists?
A. We have already started the renovation process. The innovation projects are delayed for the Darjeeling and Kurseong tourist lodges. For the Raiganj lodge renovation, tendering is being done. In many other tourist lodges, renovation work is on. After renovation of the lodges, room rents for lodging may increase. But that will not be very high. The increase may be around 5-10%.
Q. It is known that your department has been developing a digital platform. How far has this progressed?
A. We are in the process of digitisation. The rooms of the lodges are also being booked digitally. We have our own website and the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation has its own website. We are going for advertisements through online platforms. We have already started talks with CNN for our tourism development. Talks are going on with organisations National Geography as well. All will be done through online media.
Q. Please tell me about the revenue generation of your department. Is the tourism department still dependent on state finances or you have reached self-sufficiency?
A. The tourism department has been able to earn a good amount of revenue every year. But the department is yet to attain self-sufficiency. Our target is to be self-sufficient as soon as possible. As I told you, we are going to renovate our tourist lodges. We are also going for worldwide advertisements. After implementation of these programmes, the situation will be better.
Q. The tourism department has been promoting homestays around the state. What is the present status?
A. This year, we already had a three day training programme for those who are interested in homestays. In that programme, 297 candidates participated. Already 300 homestay units have been registered. Another 300 are waiting for registration. We will financially support each registered homestay unit by giving Rs. 1,50,000 per unit. Each unit will spend that money for renovation of their homes. Each unit will have TV sets, decorated rooms and clean toilets. Each entrepreneur will use two or three rooms for hosting guests. Actually, this is the plan of our Chief Minister to promote homestays. Each party will get money in three equal phases. The district magistrate of the respective districts will distribute the money to each registered homestay party. Our target is to register 5,000 home stays in three years in West Bengal.
Q. The Puja Parikrama project is also a new venture of your department. People are yet to know about this. Please elaborate.
A. The Puja Parikrama programme has been taken in both north and south Bengal. In south Bengal, devotees will be taken to Ganga ghats on Mahalaya. They can observe tarpan there. Then they will visit Belur Math and the Dakshineswar Kali temple. Later in the evening, they will be taken to Kumartuli to see idol making. Similar projects have been taken at Siliguri, Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri in north Bengal. But the tarpan programme has been done in Kolkata only.
Q. The West Bengal tourism department has good lodges. Some are with best quality infrastructure. It is known that in some cases, services in the lodges are not up to the mark. How will you address it?
A. We have also got a few cases that support this view. But the number is very less. I think we have to go for more training programmes for our employees engaged in these lodges. It will be done in due course of time.